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Why furniture from this 100-year-old design firm is still a good investment

There’s hardly an office or a home that has not been touched by the Herman Miller design legacy

By Robyn Willis
Mon, May 22, 2023 10:57amGrey Clock 5 min

If there’s a lesson to be learnt from working from home, it’s that the benefits of the ergonomic chair are real. And we have a man called Bill Stumpf to thank. A key designer with iconic American furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, he joined in the early 1970s tasked with designing furniture for the modern office. 

The chairs Stumpf designed, including the Aeron – the office chair by which all others are now judged – join a long line of exemplar designs from Herman Miller, which celebrates its centenary this year.

Founded in 1923 when DJ De Pree bought the Star Furniture company and renamed it in honour of his father in law, Herman Miller started to hit its stride as a business in the 1940s when De Pree found himself in need of a new design lead. 

The Herman Miller design team, including George Nelson (centre) and Ray and Charles Eames (far right)

In 1945, he hired the up-and-coming designer George Nelson who released the platform bench in 1946. A year later Nelson helped De Pree recruit Charles and Ray Eames following the exhibition of their groundbreaking moulded plywood furniture. 

The Platform Bench, designed by George Nelson for Herman Miller

By the early 1950s, the Eames’ research into new materials like fibreglass culminated in the release of the world’s first moulded fibreglass chairs, the popular shell chair still in demand today.

After the success of his platform bench, Nelson went on to design the Marshmallow lounge, as well as his perennially popular range of lights, including the Bubble, Cigar and Saucer pendants.

George Nelson’s Marshmallow Sofa, released in 1956

Subsequent designs to hit the market included the Eames Hang it All, with its distinctive ball-shaped hooks, and, perhaps the best known of Herman Miller’s chairs, the Eames lounge chair and ottoman, which took its inspiration from a baseball catcher’s mitt. An instant classic, the chair is now in the permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. 

Frank Di Giorgio, director at Living Edge, which is the main distributor of Herman Miller furniture in Australia, is the proud owner of an Eames lounge and ottoman, which is on display in the Sydney showroom.

“I bought it in the 70s and it’s one of the most comfortable chairs, although no one’s really allowed to sit in it now because it’s on show,” Di Giorgio says. “It’s a design that gets better with time.”

The Eames lounge and ottoman has an enduring appeal. It is teamed here with George Nelson lights from the Herman Miller range, available from Living Edge


As with all their designs, the lounge chair and ottoman was the result of years of research and design by Ray and Charles Eames. This approach to design is part of the company’s DNA. It is perhaps most evident in the ongoing development of their office furniture systems, initially developed by Nelson and Robert Propst, who joined in 1956. The pair worked together to create the Action Office system of freestanding units. Stumpf joined later, initially working under Propst.

Before the advent of Stumpf’s Ergon chair, released in 1976, there was little to no understanding of the idea of comfort in the quickly evolving world of the modern office.

Based on detailed research into the human body, the Ergon (short for ergonomic) became the blueprint by which all other office chairs were measured in terms of comfort as well as efficiency.

Stumpf later went on to design the hugely popular Aeron chair for Herman Miller in 1994, which has been copied or modified so often that its skeletal frame and stretched mesh body have become synonymous with office furniture and fitouts. 

Di Giorgio says the Aeron caused quite a stir when it was released.

“I remember when the Aeron came out and everyone wanted to know where the fabric was because the seat was made only of mesh,” he said. “Now every office chair has a mesh seat. It changed the perception of office chairs.” 

Given the sustained popularity of the Herman Miller range now, it’s hard to fathom that several designs, including the Hang It All, the Marshmallow sofa and Nelson platform bench were discontinued in the 1960s. However, they were among a slew of designs reissued in the 1990s as new audiences fell in love with their minimalist, mid century lines. Sadly, with the surge in popularity have come a tsunami of imposters. Di Giorgio says the replica pieces have little in common with the genuine article.

“It’s easy to create a silhouette without understanding what has gone into the product,” he says. “If people want authentic design, they need to understand the product and the trials and tribulations that go into that piece. 

“The pieces are not right if the materials are not right.” 

He says government legislation in Australia that allows copied designs to be sold as long as they are referred to as ‘replica’ still has a way to go to catch up with other areas of design.

“They don’t let people sell fake Gucci bags but they let (something similar) happen in furniture,” he says. “Even being able to call products by their name with ‘replica’ in front of it is problematic.”

However, he says as the appeal of the Herman Miller range endures, customers are becoming more educated about the design legacy. Indeed, thanks to the growing ‘work from home’ model, demand for a reliable, comfortable office chair is stronger than ever.

“Those new hybrid systems (of working) are not going away and people need to be supported at work and at home,” he says. “Ergonomics is just as important at home, and as we are allowing people to work from home, we need to make sure we support and set them up correctly at home and at work with desk chairs.”

While the upfront cost often puts pieces into the ‘investment’ category, it’s a ‘buy once, buy well’ model that Herman Miller and Living Edge extoll.

“Those chairs have a 12-year warranty because (Herman Miller) stand by their product,” Di Giorgio says. “The sustainability is taken into account as well – they recycle components at Herman Miller. 

“You’re still finding a lot of those chairs around.”

That kind of result speaks for itself. 


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China’s EV Juggernaut Is a Warning for the West

Competitive pressure and creativity have made Chinese-designed and -built electric cars formidable competitors

Thu, Jun 8, 2023 4 min

China rocked the auto world twice this year. First, its electric vehicles stunned Western rivals at the Shanghai auto show with their quality, features and price. Then came reports that in the first quarter of 2023 it dethroned Japan as the world’s largest auto exporter.

How is China in contention to lead the world’s most lucrative and prestigious consumer goods market, one long dominated by American, European, Japanese and South Korean nameplates? The answer is a unique combination of industrial policy, protectionism and homegrown competitive dynamism. Western policy makers and business leaders are better prepared for the first two than the third.

Start with industrial policy—the use of government resources to help favoured sectors. China has practiced industrial policy for decades. While it’s finding increased favour even in the U.S., the concept remains controversial. Governments have a poor record of identifying winning technologies and often end up subsidising inferior and wasteful capacity, including in China.

But in the case of EVs, Chinese industrial policy had a couple of things going for it. First, governments around the world saw climate change as an enduring threat that would require decade-long interventions to transition away from fossil fuels. China bet correctly that in transportation, the transition would favour electric vehicles.

In 2009, China started handing out generous subsidies to buyers of EVs. Public procurement of taxis and buses was targeted to electric vehicles, rechargers were subsidised, and provincial governments stumped up capital for lithium mining and refining for EV batteries. In 2020 NIO, at the time an aspiring challenger to Tesla, avoided bankruptcy thanks to a government-led bailout.

While industrial policy guaranteed a demand for EVs, protectionism ensured those EVs would be made in China, by Chinese companies. To qualify for subsidies, cars had to be domestically made, although foreign brands did qualify. They also had to have batteries made by Chinese companies, giving Chinese national champions like Contemporary Amperex Technology and BYD an advantage over then-market leaders from Japan and South Korea.

To sell in China, foreign automakers had to abide by conditions intended to upgrade the local industry’s skills. State-owned Guangzhou Automobile Group developed the manufacturing know-how necessary to become a player in EVs thanks to joint ventures with Toyota and Honda, said Gregor Sebastian, an analyst at Germany’s Mercator Institute for China Studies.

Despite all that government support, sales of EVs remained weak until 2019, when China let Tesla open a wholly owned factory in Shanghai. “It took this catalyst…to boost interest and increase the level of competitiveness of the local Chinese makers,” said Tu Le, managing director of Sino Auto Insights, a research service specialising in the Chinese auto industry.

Back in 2011 Pony Ma, the founder of Tencent, explained what set Chinese capitalism apart from its American counterpart. “In America, when you bring an idea to market you usually have several months before competition pops up, allowing you to capture significant market share,” he said, according to Fast Company, a technology magazine. “In China, you can have hundreds of competitors within the first hours of going live. Ideas are not important in China—execution is.”

Thanks to that competition and focus on execution, the EV industry went from a niche industrial-policy project to a sprawling ecosystem of predominantly private companies. Much of this happened below the Western radar while China was cut off from the world because of Covid-19 restrictions.

When Western auto executives flew in for April’s Shanghai auto show, “they saw a sea of green plates, a sea of Chinese brands,” said Le, referring to the green license plates assigned to clean-energy vehicles in China. “They hear the sounds of the door closing, sit inside and look at the quality of the materials, the fabric or the plastic on the console, that’s the other holy s— moment—they’ve caught up to us.”

Manufacturers of gasoline cars are product-oriented, whereas EV manufacturers, like tech companies, are user-oriented, Le said. Chinese EVs feature at least two, often three, display screens, one suitable for watching movies from the back seat, multiple lidars (laser-based sensors) for driver assistance, and even a microphone for karaoke (quickly copied by Tesla). Meanwhile, Chinese suppliers such as CATL have gone from laggard to leader.

Chinese dominance of EVs isn’t preordained. The low barriers to entry exploited by Chinese brands also open the door to future non-Chinese competitors. Nor does China’s success in EVs necessarily translate to other sectors where industrial policy matters less and creativity, privacy and deeply woven technological capability—such as software, cloud computing and semiconductors—matter more.

Still, the threat to Western auto market share posed by Chinese EVs is one for which Western policy makers have no obvious answer. “You can shut off your own market and to a certain extent that will shield production for your domestic needs,” said Sebastian. “The question really is, what are you going to do for the global south, countries that are still very happily trading with China?”

Western companies themselves are likely to respond by deepening their presence in China—not to sell cars, but for proximity to the most sophisticated customers and suppliers. Jörg Wuttke, the past president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, calls China a “fitness centre.” Even as conditions there become steadily more difficult, Western multinationals “have to be there. It keeps you fit.”


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