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Combining a distinguished look and pioneer ergonomics, the Aeron chair performance is incomparable. It adapts and adjusts with precision to people of all sizes and postures, who engage in all types of activities all day long. The creative design of the office chair, the stool and the guest chair provides superior comfort, body support and a style that is broadly copied, but never matched.
Design by Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick
Bill Stumpf once said, "I work best when I'm pushed to the edge. When I'm at the point where my pride is subdued, where I'm innocent again. Herman Miller knows how to push me that way, mainly because the company still believes—years after D.J. De Pree first told me—that good design isn't just good business, it's a moral obligation. Now that's pressure."
Stumpf's association with Herman Miller began in 1970 when he joined the staff of the Herman Miller Research Corporation. After establishing his own firm in 1972, Stumpf created the Ergon chair, the first ergonomic work chair. Later, in collaboration with Don Chadwick, he produced the groundbreaking Equa and iconic Aeron chairs. He also was principal designer for the Ethospace system.
"I enjoy myself, and I do it through design," Stumpf declared in an interview a few years ago. "I love beauty, and I love the availability of beautiful things and useful things immediately around me."
When he looked around, though, too often he saw design that "denies the human spirit," architecture that acknowledged money and not people, offices that were "hermetically sealed in artificial space." He constantly battled against such designed indignity—a battle that began in the 1960s at the University of Wisconsin.
"Everything goes back to those days at the University of Wisconsin," he said recently, referring to the postgraduate years he spent studying and teaching at the university's Environmental Design Center. "Everything was about freeing up the body, designing away constraints."
It was there where Stumpf, working with specialists in orthopedic and vascular medicine, conducted extensive research into ways people sit—and the ways they should sit. In 1974, Herman Miller commissioned him to apply his research to office seating. Two years later, the Ergon chair was introduced.
During his lifetime, Stumpf—a key figure in Herman Miller's transformation into a research-based, problem-solving innovator—received numerous awards for this work. He was named the winner of the 2006 National Design Award in Product Design, an award presented posthumously by the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum.
Don Chadwick isn't one of those designers who say that their "real" studio is in their mind. Chadwick's real studio is in Santa Monica, thank you, and anyway, he prefers to call it "an experimental lab". "We're set up to get dirty and take chances," he says.
His lab apparatus includes saws and grinders, lathes and drill presses and vises—and not one computer-numerically-controlled anything. Computer technology, Chadwick allows, is great for some things, but when he hears someone suggest that a new chair could have just as effectively been designed by computer, he says, politely, "You're out of your mind!"
"The only way to be sure a chair is comfortable is to actually sit in it and make changes along the way," Chadwick says. "A computer can't deal with the subtleties of chair design. Good chairs are too complex."
Too complex? Yes, and not just for computers.
"Most industrial designers don't take furniture design seriously," he says. "They're not trained to get into that kind of detail. It's too personal, too much like surgery. And besides, you have to be in love with this kind of work."
Chadwick's love for furniture design goes back to his childhood, when his cabinetmaker grandfather taught him how to use the tools of the trade—hand tools that required skill, precision, and patience. Later, unlike the other industrial design students at UCLA in the mid-1950s, he focused on furniture. And after hearing a Charles and Ray Eames lecture there, Chadwick was convinced: Furniture offered designers, even industrial designers, the chance to use materials in new, innovative ways—and to make a "real difference" in people's lives.
He attributes at least some of this optimism to the "LA recklessness" he's experienced as a lifelong resident of Southern California. "There's less fear of failure out here, so people are more apt to take risks. It's fertile ground for innovation."
For over two decades now, Chadwick has had a partner in recklessness. "Herman Miller isn't afraid to take chances on new ideas. That's why the company's been successful for so long, and that's one reason why it's challenging to work for them."
The Santa Monica-Zeeland connection continues, the experimental lab whirling with the sounds of belt sanders and power saws. That, after all, is what real design studios do.
At 12 years old, Jerome Caruso discovered his career when a friend of his father introduced him to industrial design—and he heard about a General Motors contest for futuristic car concepts. "I worked in the basement every day after school for months," Caruso remembers, "developing a clay model for the car, transferring the design to a block of wood, and carving it out by hand. That was when I realized what I wanted to do—especially after winning an award."
Caruso refined his design sensibilities in Europe in the 1960s. While a graduate student at the University of Copenhagen, he also worked at that city's premier design office. "There was a sensitive approach to European design that made an indelible impression on me," he recalls.
Deciding to go it alone, he lined up projects in Scandinavia; at age 26 he opened a practice in Brussels with clients in Belgium, England, France, and Germany. Later he returned to the U.S. and again established a one-man studio. His diverse projects ranged from spearheading Motorola's entry into the manufacture of LCD watch modules to designing and engineering the first completely machine-produced stack chair for the U.S. contract market (now in the American Arts collection at the Chicago Art Institute).
Caruso is most noted as Sub-Zero's first and only designer for more than 20 years, responsible for their entire line of sophisticated refrigeration icons and industry-leading firsts, including winestorage units. He invented Sub-Zero's revolutionary drawer-and-cabinet system, named one of the 10 best products of '95 by Timemagazine. For the 2002 debut of Wolf, Sub-Zero's corporate companion, he designed 25 new cooking appliances within 18 months.
With more than 75 design patents to his credit, Caruso takes a hands-on approach and enjoys doing it all—concepts, drawings, prototypes, and engineering. "The bigger the challenge, the more fun it is to work out the solution," he says. He's especially intrigued with chairs and vividly recalls the challenge of Herman Miller's high-performance, award-winning Reaction chair, which he designed with his son, Steven.
But Herman Miller's Celle chair, he smiles, was the "Mt. Everest of fun. At the beginning, I imagined a highly engineered, 'intelligent' surface that could be the ultimate in seating comfort. I envisioned hundreds of tiny 'cells'—each one consisting of a pad with spring-like loops that would both support and respond to different anatomical areas." And after years of development and experimentation, the Celle chair closely follows that original concept.
Today, from his spacious, sky-lit studio in Lake Forest, Illinois, Caruso continues to enjoy the design process as much as he did when he first discovered it as a boy. "My goal has always been to bring function and art together in products that perform superbly and look great," he says.
Burkhard Schmitz, Claudia Plikat, and Carola Zwick began their partnership in 1992. They were looking for the freedom to work on projects that interested them. And for the freedom to do so without bosses and titles.
And that's pretty much how they've operated ever since. "Everybody does everything," says Burkhard, speaking for the group that now includes Carola's brother Roland Zwick. "That's how we cultivate ideas and maintain our openness and curiosity."
The group's name—Studio 7.5—comes from an early idea to rent a 7.5-ton truck, put a model shop in it, and drive from one project site to another. Obviously, freedom of movement is a big deal for these designers. They move freely—and smartly—when designing products for their clients.
Going from concept stage to the model shop, sometimes within a day or two, they begin to create rough prototypes. And like kids let loose with a pile of clay, this is their favorite activity.
You really have to work in three dimensions when designing products," notes Claudia. "So we don't spend much time on fancy renderings. Computer drawings just don't give you the feel, the touch, the smell."
And they love designing furniture. "What's so interesting about designing furniture as opposed to, say, a tape recorder, is that the designer who designs the recorder comes in last in the chain of command," explains Roland. "It's just the beautification or 'packaging.' With furniture, it's far more holistic."
They find designing office chairs in particular to be the most rewarding. One reason is their experience working with Herman Miller on their award-winning Mirra chair and their newest design called the Setu chair. "We define not only how the chair looks but how it performs," says Carola. "We're very involved with its physical behavior, because beauty is not only what you see, it's also what you feel."