Office furniture exhibit emphasizes design

MUSKEGON, Mich. — It is a museum show about office furniture as art — but with designs on being more.

So the ways in which furniture maker Herman Miller Inc. has used design to improve people's lives at work is the focus of the new exhibit at the Muskegon Museum of Art.

"This is not just about cool furniture," says the museum's executive director, Judy Hayner — although examples such as the Marshmallow sofa and the Aeron desk chair will be on prominent display.

"Good Design: Stories from Herman Miller," which opens Friday, showcases the development and evolution of many of the company's significant designs of the past 80 years.

Visitors will see sketches, production notes, photographs, models, prototypes and original examples of standout products. Hanging from the walls will be examples of the colorful posters printed by Herman Miller to tout its annual summer picnic for employees.

The show examines the design process the company has used since the 1930s as a "kind of problem-solving research-based approach," said Mark Schurman, who oversees Herman Miller's archive, rather than simply "a retrospective of a particular designer or an homage to a particular body of work. It's really more about the process."

Herman Miller, which is based in Zeeland, about 30 miles southeast of Muskegon, helped underwrite the exhibit. But most of the items in the show come from the massive Herman Miller collection of The Henry Ford in Dearborn, much of which has never been publicly exhibited.

After Hayner read the book, "Herman Miller: The Purpose of Design," the museum tapped author John R. Berry, a former company employee who now works as an independent design consultant, to serve as "guest curator." Another furniture historian, Tim Chester, who retired in 2005 as director of the Public Museum of Grand Rapids, helped coordinate it.

"We're allowing people to explore in depth the specific stories of designers, of how they tackled those problems, the failures that they had, the successes that they had and ultimately what came out of their research of the testing," Chester says.

The aim of the exhibit, Berry says, is to "help others see how design can be very much about economic gains, how it can be about developing your market, how understanding the need and researching the problem" comes before creating a solution.

Part of the exhibit is a hands-on "design lab" where children can use their imaginations to create new furniture.

Schurman says he hopes the exhibit will help people "recognize and understand what design means beyond this issue of style and fashion and hopefully help serve as an inspiration for that next generation of designers and business leaders."

Organizers also hope visitors who have a particular image of Michigan learn that there is more to the state's economy than a struggling automotive industry.

"I guess my message is that innovation is made in Michigan," Hayner says. "World-class, timeless design is made in Michigan."

The show runs through Nov. 8. Part of Berry's responsibility was to formulate a traveling version of the exhibit, something the small museum, which is part of Muskegon Public Schools, has done little of during its 97-year history. So far, seven other art and design museums have committed to hosting the show through August 2012, including The Henry Ford.

The rest are:

— Goldstein Museum of Design, Saint Paul, Minn.

— Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, N.Y.

— Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, Wausau, Wis.

— Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga, Tenn.

— San Francisco Museum of Craft + Design

— San Angelo (Texas) Museum of Fine Arts

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