NeoCon Herman Miller Wins Big

June 19, 2006
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Zeeland manufacturer Herman Miller was the belle of the ball, bringing home four Best of NeoCon awards including the coveted Best of Competition Award for the My Studio Environments office system. It is the first time the company has won the award since 1999.

My Studio is the bolder of a pair of office systems designed for Herman Miller by Canadian designer Doug Ball. Ball was an early advocate of systems furniture: the cubicles long since immortalized as a cultural evil in Dilbert cartoons and an endless supply of sitcoms and films.

Like many of the systems launches this year, My Studio is an attempt to fix some of the missteps office design has taken since Herman Miller launched the Action Office in 1968.

CEO Brian Walker made it clear that it was the market that created the cubicle culture, not Herman Miller. The Action Office was designed to increase production by allowing workers to spread projects across their work area, rather than pile them in an inbox.

“The way the Action Office and systems furniture became defined was not the way it was originally designed,” Walker said. “Like a lot of great innovations, they find their way to a spot where the user uses them in a different way.”

The original concept was free-flowing, with lots of variation and more user control, Walker said. But the state of technology and the thought-process of American business at the time dictated a different style. As generations passed, other manufacturers saw what the market wanted. Over time, the workstation came to be characterized by cramped, stifling enclosures.

“One of the things you’re finding more and more of is trying to get an office that doesn’t have so much of an institutional feel to it,” Walker said, adding that today’s offices strive to have “a more residential quality — because we’re spending so much time there, and people are no longer willing to accept one level of quality in the home and another in the office.”

At first glance, My Studio looks as though it would be just as natural installed in a bathroom or poolside, with its translucent glass shutters, neutral colors and curved corners. It has a sliding door and windows that allow for communication with neighboring workers, or privacy, depending on the task.

While the standard model is a relatively small 6-by-8-foot workstation, Ball manages to make the area appear larger through clever design and some historical workstation basics. It also attempts to alleviate the “trapped” feeling cubicles give workers by placing the user in the center of the station, facing outward.

“It has brought back a level of control, privacy and user comfort that we haven’t seen in a number of years at the system level,” Walker said.

Another Ball creation, Vivo Interiors, is a versatile and affordable frame-and-tile system that also hopes to bring a lighter atmosphere to the office. It is designed for adaptability and interchangeability, with a variety of tile options including tack-able, acoustic, painted, marker, rail, glass and others.

Herman Miller also won a Gold Best of NeoCon Award for Leaf, an LED table-top light designed by Yves Behar and suitable for both home and office use. The $525 lamp is cool to the touch, 40 percent more efficient than ordinary lights and has a bulb life of roughly seven years.

The company’s Geiger International subsidiary won a Silver Award for the Foray chair.

“We’ve found a number of companies that might have purchased an Aeron, but its look and style didn’t fit into a more conservative culture,” said company spokesman Mark Schurman of Herman Miller’s blockbuster-selling chair. “And sometimes we hear executives say something like, ‘I’ve got all my workers sitting on Aerons out there; I want something a little nicer.”

The Foray is essentially that, a chair that incorporates all the ergonomic performance of the Aeron but trades hip for prestige. The list price of the chair is roughly 40 percent more than the Aeron, at $1,400.

Herman Miller was also recognized as Manufacturer of the Year by the Office Furniture Dealer Alliance for the first time at NeoCon.

“That’s a vote of confidence from our dealers,” Walker said. “They’re telling us they think we’re the right people to partner with.”    

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