We’ve referenced WHY, Herman Miller’s online essay series, a number of times on the blog. Through a collection of stories, interviews and videos, the essay series invites readers to discover why Herman Miller does what they do. Herman Miller has managed to make WHY playful, yet meaty - publishing a 4,000 word essay that doesn’t feel daunting, and a 108 second video that covers 108 years of design history.
Curious about the work that goes into developing these stories, we interviewed Sam Grawe, Editorial Director at Herman Miller, and the man behind the WHY series. Grawe has been interested in design since a young boy. In college, he studied art and architectural history, and it was there that he learned about 20th century design. Grawe went on to be the Editor-in-Chief of the popular architecture publication Dwell Magazine. After 11 years with the magazine, Grawe began working for Herman Miller, first as a consultant, and then as the full-time Editorial Director.
It comes as no surprise that he’s a modernist at heart, with Eames, Nelson and Girard topping his list of personal design heroes.
Cover designs of Herman Miller’s WHY publication (print)
EQ3 What prompted you to move from consulting to working full-time with Herman Miller?
SAM GRAWE There are very few truly design driven companies in the world, no less the United States, and Herman Miller has one of the most storied histories of design with Nelson, Eames, and Girard. All are longstanding personal heroes of mine, especially Nelson and Girard, with Nelson having been a magazine editor prior to being a furniture designer and working as the Creative Director at Herman Miller. I think it was the opportunity to work with such an incredible legacy, and to think about how to communicate that today.
In addition to that, just being a part of an organization that is really dedicated to problem solving design, and what that means in the 21st Century and moving forward.
EQ3 Have you always had an interest in design? Do you have a specific background in it, or is it something that has just come naturally to you?
SG Actually, if I go back to my youth, I think I was pretty obsessed with Lego. Whether it was my parents telling me, or whether it was myself learning about it, I always thought I was going to be an architect. I studied architecture and architectural history, and I ended up ultimately studying art history. But, as I was studying art history, I got a little bit of 20th Century design history too.
Then I moved to the Bay Area in the late 90s and I became more and more interested in industrial design and furniture design. I knew that I wanted to work somehow in design. I was thinking at that time that I would go back to school for a design degree, but I ended up working for a guy named Bruce Burdick, who actually did the Burdick Table for Herman Miller in the early 80s. I worked for Bruce for probably 2 years in San Francisco, and then I started at Dwell (Magazine) in 2000, right after the first issue had been published.
Obviously, I had an amazing education at Dwell – eleven years there – and great exposure to contemporary architecture and to contemporary design. I had the opportunity to meet so many people and be exposed to so much. That was one of the great pleasures of that job.
The Living Office is Herman Miller’s framework for understanding the future of office design.
EQ3 Now, in your role at Herman Miller, what does a typical day look like for you as the Editorial Director.
SG I don’t know if there is a typical day, but I am involved in a lot of different projects. I am in charge of all of the writing, but I am also in charge of my own editorial projects.
I also work really heavily with the brand design team that consists of all of the designers internally doing our spaces, our graphics and our digital work. “How are we conveying the messages that Herman Miller should be conveying? And, what medium are we going to use to convey it best?” And then, “How are we going to bring it to life?”
I’ve also been really heavily involved in the core team that has put together Living Office, which is the framework for Herman Miller’s understanding of the future of office design and work. I think anyone would tell you, at Herman Miller, that we’re kind of a meeting-based culture. There are a lot of cross-functional teams, and things happen in a pretty organic way amongst those teams.
EQ3 You mentioned about the variety of mediums that you work with. Is there a particular medium that you find most gratifying to work with?
SG I think there is something, ultimately, always satisfying about print. It’s sort of finite. You can hold it in your hands, and it’s an object. Once you’re done, it’s done.
On the other hand, right now I have sort of an unabashed love for Instagram. I think Instagram is, for me, probably the most satisfying of social media, from both from a personal standpoint and I think we’ve been having a lot of fun with the Herman Miller Instagram account, as well. But it’s just because it’s visual, and in a way it feels less promotional than some other formats.
“Alexander Girard: An Uncommon Vision” pop up celebrating first archival re-introductions of Girard’s furniture and screen printed fabric panels (New York Design Week, May 2014)
EQ3 Do any particular projects, then, standout in your mind as a favourite?
SG I’d have to say the recent work that we did with the pop-up showcase for Alexander Girard in New York.
I’ve always had a supreme passion for Alexander Girard, since a friend of mine introduced me, in probably 2001, to his work. It was less known than Nelson and Eames, at that time. In a lot of ways, his work was more ephemeral. He did textiles, and he did restaurant interiors and office interiors. Those are the kind of things that get changed or go away. I think, also, he did so much work that until you start digging, you don’t really realize that he was such a polymath and really did do everything. But when you start to discover his world, it’s just kind of amazing. It’s this endless trove of treasure.
In some ways it’s unfair to just put a table by him into the world, especially to a world that doesn’t know him as well as Eames or Nelson, without giving more context to what he accomplished in his lifetime.
EQ3 We’ve talked about the WHY series a fair bit on our blog and we really love it! We’re curious how this particular essay series developed because it’s a slightly different twist on a blog.
SG My colleagues Steve Frykholmand Clark Malcom did a magazine called “See” in the mid 2000s, which was this beautiful high production value magazine that I think they did a total of 6 issues for, back in the day. They were just re-launching a new magazine called WHY, and that was one of the first projects that I worked on. We’ve done 3 print issues of WHY.
The idea is “Why does Herman Miller do the things that we do?” If there’s not a strong why, there’s kind of no point in doing it. And that’s, definitely, very much the ethos of how we approach things at Herman Miller – from our products, to our marketing, to everything. We want stuff to very much have purpose, and WHY is really the mechanism for bringing that conversation to life, whether it’s in print or it’s on social media, or in digital format. We launched last July online and I think we’ve produced something in the order of 35 stories in the last year.
EQ3 Where do the ideas for stories come from? Where do you draw inspiration from?
SG We work in a somewhat programmatic way with the marketing organization, so we base what we are doing on WHY with what the business is doing at the base level.
I’ve been able to bring in some great folk – my colleagues Amber Bravo and Everett Pelayo – that have a really good sense for editorial and for how to bring a story to life. Then we’ll take what is happening in the world of Herman Miller and we have editorial meetings. It’s a process almost like at any magazine. You have pitch meetings and you have creative meetings, and you sit around and you shoot around ideas. The one that kind of hits the nail on the head, or gets closest to it, is the one you pursue. But again, it comes back to “What’s the best way to bring this content to life.” We’re not married to any one approach. So sometimes it might be a video, sometimes it might be a photo essay, sometimes it might be a 2000 word interview.
Image Source: All photographs courtesy of Herman Miller