December 2008 | Instances of fakery and shady dealing aside, furniture is rarely if ever the object of ethical quandaries. But Dirk Jan (known as D. J.) De Pree (1891-1990), the founder of the Herman Miller Furniture Company, tended to view most aspects of life through the prism of his devoutly held religious convictions, and in the summer of 1930, De Pree was spending more time than usual in prayer and contemplation. His Zeeland, Michigan, firm-then known best for grand historicist bedroom suites, comprising pieces heavily ornamented with moldings and turned legs and posts-was in trouble. The business looked like a certain victim of the Great Depression. Then a day arrived that De Pree would call "providential"-the day a man named Gilbert Rohde (Fig. 1) came to visit.1 A self-taught furniture designer influenced by both the Bauhaus and late French art deco, Rohde had come to try and convince De Pree to manufacture his works. Rohde argued that modern, middle-class lifestyles had changed, and required a new type of furniture. Smaller, more compact households could not accommodate large-scale pieces; fewer families employed servants to take care of the dusting and polishing that highly adorned furnishings required. And Rohde made two other points that De Pree took to heart. He suggested that the traditional designs of Herman Miller were not only grandiose and pretentious, but were also essentially stolen from earlier makers; and he pointed out that the company's manufacturing techniques-giving wood an aged look through artificial means and using decorative elements to conceal shoddy joinery-were fundamentally dishonest. As De Pree would later say, "I came to see that the way we were making furniture was immoral."2
Rohde, of course, won a design contract with Herman Miller. Given the preceding tale, one of the yarns that aficionados of twentieth-century design most fondly, if infrequently, recount, it is tempting to view Rohde as a sort of Professor Harold Hill of the furniture world. But Rohde, like De Pree, had a touch of missionary zeal. "His goal was to convert Americans to an appreciation and understanding of modernist design," says Phyllis Ross, the author of a Rohde biography scheduled to be issued this coming March by the Yale University Press. While Rohde succeeded in his mission-insofar as he led Herman Miller to the forefront of mass-produced modern design-his accomplishments led, ironically, to underappreciation. He died suddenly and relatively young, and the dynamic design achievements of his successors at Herman Miller, such as Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, and Isamu Noguchi, effectively eclipsed Rohde's reputation, and, more importantly, obscured his surprising foresight in the realm of modern design. "Along with Raymond Loewy, Russel Wright, and Paul T. Frankl, Gilbert Rohde is one of the most notable figures in the early history of modern design in America," says Rosemarie Haag Bletter, a professor of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European and American architecture and theory at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "But what has been ignored or forgotten is Rohde's incredible prescience as a designer."