VINTAGE MID-CENTURY ADVERTISING HOLDS AN ARTISTIC APPEAL ALL ITS OWN. IN FACT, SOME OF THE GREATEST FURNITURE DESIGNERS OF THE 20TH CENTURY SPENT DECADES CREATING SEMINAL MAGAZINE ADS FOR THEIR OWN PRODUCTS. HAVE A LOOK AT A THIS WELL-CURATED COLLECTION.
WORDS: CHARLIE KEATON
Herman Miller makes furniture. In fact, the Michigan-based company has produced some of the most recognizable furniture in the world, dating back to the early 20th century. But the Herman Miller legacy extends well beyond the bounds of tables or lounge chairs. It’s also responsible for some truly groundbreaking advertising, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s.
It was perhaps the single greatest insight of Herman Miller founder D.J. De Pree to hire multifaceted designers—people with a talent for more than just furniture making. When George Nelson was named design director in 1947, it was the first in a series of shrewd personnel decisions whose effects still reverberate. Nelson would soon recommend the hiring of Charles and Ray Eames, and later, all three would voice support for the hiring of Alexander Girard. And while this murderer’s row of design legends would each contribute his or her share of enduring design to the Herman Miller brand, responsibilities didn’t end there.
Given the lens of intense specialization through which we experience the modern world, it’s hard to imagine someone like George Nelson being asked to design furniture and the advertising behind it. But that’s exactly what happened. When Nelson joined Herman Miller, he quickly established his own small office in New York, and to his eternal credit—and with the gratitude of design scholars ever since—Nelson added Irving Harper to the team almost immediately. Harper was an industrial designer with experience working on exhibits for the 1939 World’s Fair. He also had experience as a draftsman under famed designer Gilbert Rohde and, before that, experience designing department store interiors.
What Harper didn’t have was graphic design experience. Nevertheless, his employment agreement called for, among other things, the production of two ads per month. Many of those ads are now considered artistic landmarks in their own right, and some are even part of college curricula. (For good measure, Harper also designed the Herman Miller logo.) Not to be outdone, Charles and Ray Eames opened an office in California, and began creating ads of their own. That geographical distance implies a stark contrast in style, but the Nelson and Eames offices managed to produce two decades’ worth of highly complementary work, often designing ads to highlight the other’s furniture.
With the help of Corporate Archivist Amy Auscherman, Modern In Denver has curated a collection of vintage Herman Miller magazine ads. The publication dates range from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, although the through line is so well-measured, it’s not always obvious which ads belong to which years. You may find yourself surprised. And amazed.