YOUR ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO VINTAGE HERMAN MILLER FURNITURE
If you’re among those who thinks vintage Herman Miller furniture is only for the boardroom, let us propose that you take a second look at this design connoisseur. Yes, ergonomic design is the brand’s forte, but vintage and used Herman Miller furniture is also chic and—in the case of such masterpieces as the Marshmallow Sofa—downright sweet!
Named for founder D.J. De Pree’s father-in-law, Herman Miller was founded in 1923 when De Pree purchased the furniture company he’d been president of since 1919, previously known as The Michigan Star Furniture Co.. For its first several years of operation, Herman Miller produced traditional wood furniture intended for the home, but the onset of the Great Depression forced the company to pursue other avenues—mainly office furniture.
As fate would have it, the office furniture market exposed Herman Miller to modern design, just as the trend was coming into maturation. In the late 1940s, architect George Nelson assumed the role of design director and reeled in talents such as Ray and Charles Eames and Isamu Noguchi while they were still novices. The stockpile of talent led to Herman Miller emblazoning its status as a true modern master.
To learn more about the iconic designers who have partnered with Herman Miller over the years (we’re willing to bet their roster will seriously surprise you!), and the vintage and used Herman Miller furniture we love most, read on!
George Nelson served as Herman Miller’s Director of Design from 1945 to 1972. During that tenure, Nelson created a number of iconic Herman Miller pieces. Although some of his designs have now been debunked as belonging to other designers (see the Marshmallow Sofa), they continue to live on as shining examples of vintage Herman Miller furniture.
Coconut Lounge Chair
Evoking serious vacation vibes, the coconut chair is modeled after exactly what its name implies—a chunk of coconut. Shaped like a shallow shell, this piece of vintage Herman Miller furniture promises to not just seat you, but cradle you thanks to its low, sling-like silhouette. The seat portion of the chair features an indulgently plush, rubber foam cushion that’s been wrapped in smooth black leather, while the back is constructed of plain white plastic. In case you didn’t notice, a black leather seat and a white shell means this chair shares the colors of a typical coconut, but reversed. Leave it to vintage Herman Miller furniture to (oh-so delightfully) mix things up.
While its form might be better likened to a Connect Four game grid than a bag full of marshmallows, the Marshmallow Sofa is Herman Miller’s undeniable pièce de résistance. Although usually credited to George Nelson, it was designer Irving Harper who designed the bulk of this vintage Herman Miller furniture piece when an outside inventor approached him with a plastic disc he said could be manufactured in bulk. Intrigued, Harper took the disc (18 of them to be exact) and applied them to a metal frame. Hence, the prototype for the Marshmallow Sofa was born. Among our favorite attributes of this vintage Herman Miller furniture piece is that its 18 cushions are detachable, making them easy to clean and distribute wear (ingenious, right?).
Born to an American journalist mother and Japanese poet father, Isamu Noguchi would have seemed a shoo-in for a novelist, but instead became one of the 20th Century’s most enigmatic sculptors and furniture designers. His eye for balance and sculpture can be best attributed to his time spent studying under the sculptor, Constantin Brancusi.
Composed of just three pieces—an oblong glass top and a jointed, sickle-shaped base—Isamu Noguchi’s eponymous cocktail table was a landmark piece for Herman Miller. With a biomorphic shape that feels pulled straight from a Picasso abstract, this vintage Herman Miller furniture piece is—undeniably—a piece of sculpture, yet maintains a remarkable accessibility. Although knock-offs are plentiful, it’s easy to identify a Herman Miller original thanks to an Isamu Noguchi signature that appears on the longest edge of the glass top and a medallion that’s affixed to the underside of the table base. Pry up that medallion, and you’ll also find Noguchi’s stamped initials.
While Ray and Charles Eames transcend introductions, it’s not always known that Eames furniture can also be categorized as vintage Herman Miller furniture. The Eames began working with Herman Miller as early as 1946, and while their seating will always take precedence when talking vintage and used Herman Miller furniture, we’re shining a spotlight on one of their lesser-known pieces.
Eames Walnut Stools
In 1959 Charles Eames was contracted to design chairs for the newly opened Time-Life Building in New York City. A year later, Ray Eames was asked to design occasional furniture to complement her husband's. The result? A collection of three simple walnut stools. Endlessly functional, these vintage Herman Miller furniture pieces were immediately likened to chess pieces thanks to their blunt proportions and polished contours. With a sweetly dimpled top and bottom, each of these stools can also be flipped hourglass-style. To say that you’ll think of two or three—or a dozen—ways to use these vintage Herman Miller furniture pieces is likely to be a serious understatement.