Steelcase marks 100th year by looking to the future

June 8, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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People who attend NeoCon every year are used to its party atmosphere, but there really is a party of sorts going on at the Steelcase showroom — a birthday party. And if there is a cake on hand, it will be decorated with 100 candles.

Steelcase began in Grand Rapids in 1912 as the Metal Office Furniture Co., and in 1914 the company got its first patent on a steel wastebasket. Steelcase was off and running in the office furniture industry, because steel doesn’t burn.

As new office buildings kept increasing in height, the threat of fire became worse because firefighters weren’t equipped to reach the highest floors. Virtually all furniture was wood in the early 1900s, and wastebaskets were typically made of woven straw or wicker, because it was lightweight. Compounding the situation was the fact that male office workers smoked on the job — cigars and pipes as well as cigarettes. Smoldering butts and ashes in the trash started some major fires.

In 1915, the new Customs House in Boston was the largest office building in Beantown. The government insisted it would be furnished with fireproof steel desks, and MOFC submitted a bid — even though the upstart company in Grand Rapids had never sold a desk. The firm got the order, filled it, and the rest is history.

Steelcase CEO Jim Hackett said the company decided not to look back as it celebrates its 100th birthday — that’s what it did at 75. This time, it’s a “look toward the future, with great optimism about what the potential for this business might be,” said Hackett.

Steelcase has created a special anniversary website, 100.steelcase.com, and commissioned a 17-minute film called “One Day,” interviews with children in six countries around the world, talking optimistically about what they think the world will be like in the future. Another segment of the website, “100 Minds,” was organized by acclaimed writer and journalist John Hockenberry and features some of the world’s most accomplished individuals sharing their views of what the future can be.

The selection of Hockenberry to curate “100 Minds” was no random move on the part of Steelcase. He graduated from East Grand Rapids High School in 1974 and, as noted by Hackett, the writer’s father was the head of R&D and design at Steelcase in the early 1970s.

Hockenberry was paralyzed from the chest down as the result of a car crash in 1976. Despite that disability, he soon began a career as a newscaster for National Public Radio and eventually made a name for himself as a journalist, covering the Persian Gulf War and later, as an ABC news reporter, the civil war in Somalia. He also has worked for Dateline NBC and written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Wired, the Columbia Journalism Review and others. As an activist working on behalf of physically disabled people, he produced a controversial documentary called “Million Dollar Bigot.” He lives on the East Coast and is married with a family.

The “100 Years” segment on 100.steelcase.com contains the latest information about Steelcase activities and events in its 100th year.

“In addition to these media-based ideas, we also had celebrations all over the world with our employees,” said Hackett, an idea that resulted in an “extraordinary” series of birthday parties that were “really a great tribute to the company.”

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