Are Herman Miller’s posters as enduring as its chairs?
MoMA and the Smithsonian seem to think so. Here’s the story behind the company’s poppy summer picnic graphics
Herman Miller is both a modern and, in a sense, an old-school company. The Michigan furniture producer helped popularize modernist styles of design throughout the United States, but it also adopted a fairly traditional, communitarian approach to its workforce. Company founder, D. J. De Pree, was also a lay preacher, and believed his faith led him to value both its workers and good design more highly.
Each summer, from the late 1940s onwards, De Pree threw a summer picnic for his employees. “In the early days, D. J. and his wife, Nellie De Pree, hosted the picnics in their own backyard, providing food and fellowship for the Herman Miller workforce,” explains our book Herman Miller: A Way of Living. “As the business grew, so did the picnic. The venue shifted to local parks in Zeeland and included games and contests that awarded prizes like an Eames Lounger and Ottoman or a week’s paid vacation.”
One of the first jobs assigned to the company’s first in-house graphic designer Steve Frykholm when he arrived at the firm in 1970, was to design that year’s picnic poster.
Frykholm had volunteered with the Peace Corps prior to his arrival, and had picked up some screen printing skills, which he brought to bear on that first picnic poster, which had been dubbed ‘the Sweet Corn Festival’ that year.
The designer was pretty pleased with the resultant image, and entered into the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) annual competition.
Unfortunately, the designer didn’t read the small print, and only after submitting the poster, did he realize that, in order to qualify, the work must be produced at least in an edition of 500.
“Embarrassed and unsure how to correct his error, Frykholm went to his boss, advertising manager Howard Sutton, and confessed what he’d done,” our book explains. “To Frykholm’s surprise and relief, Sutton agreed that if the poster won the competition, Herman Miller would have to pay to have five hundred copies printed.”
That gamble paid off. The picnic poster won the AIGA competition that year, and Herman Miller made good on its promise. Five hundred copies of the Sweet Corn Festival poster were printed and offered for sale to employees at cost and quickly sold out.
“People liked them because they were familiar,” Frykholm later reasoned. “Food is certainly familiar—even if the vantage point in which I portrayed it might not have been.”
Frykholm stayed on at Herman Miller for a further 45 years, and went on to design many more works for the company, including many more picnic posters, which have also gone on to win admirers far beyond the annual company bean feast. The Museum of Modern Art has 12 examples in its permanent collection; while Cooper Hewitt and the Smithsonian Design Museum have laid some down for posterity. Proof, perhaps, that Frykholm’s designs are every bit as classic and evergreen as Herman Miller’s best-loved pieces of furniture.
“A good poster – a poster that is really communicating an idea – is still relevant,” Frykholm argued, when he was asked to look back on his work. And that's something to chew on this summer.
For more on this innovative company and its beautiful products, order a copy of our book Herman Miller: A Way of Living book here.