The most interesting thing in the home is the people who live there and I’m designing for them.

Gilbert Rohde

Designs for Living

Gilbert Rohde and Herman Miller's Vision for the Future

In 1933, Herman Miller Furniture Company was on the brink of dissolution. The firm was feeling the pinch of the Depression and their bedroom and dining room suites, largely in the outmoded historical styles still fairly popular in middle America, were failing to turn a profit. The previous year, Herman Miller's director, DJ De Pree, had (somewhat reluctantly) brought on Gilbert Rohde as a design and marketing strategist consultant. Rohde presented a bold new vision of modern design, inspired by European movements such as the International Style and the Bauhaus.

Rohde began designing furniture only in 1927, after working as a commercial illustrator for many years; he was greatly inspired after seeing the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes in Paris in 1925, which introduced Art Deco to the design world and, more importantly, put forth a revolutionary model to display and market new, modernist designs. America's first exposition in this vein came to New York in 1927 and was co-sponsored by Macy's. Rohde immediately recognized the potential and impact of these exhibitions and was an early and ardent adopter of showing his furniture in these spaces.

Rohde's one-room apartment at the Design and Industry exhibition in New York in 1933. 

Rohde designed the furnishings for the interior of House No. 4 (later renamed the Design for Living house, after a Noel Coward play running at that time that used Rohde's furniture as part of its set), which was designed in the International Style by architect John C.B. Moore. The home and its progressive furnishings debuted at the Century of Progress World's Fair in Chicago in 1933; Herman Miller produced the furniture for the top floor and Heywood-Wakefield, the bottom; Rohde designed everything in the home, including a line of clocks and textiles.

Pamphlet cover for the Design for Living House at the Century of Progress World's Fair in Chicago, 1933. Image: Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

The furniture in the Design for Living House incorporated traditional elements, such as darker woods, with modernist ones, including brushed chrome (a nod to the Machine Age aesthetic) and low, comfortable designs that were neutral, adaptable, modular and suited to mass production. The Century of Progress World's Fair welcomed twenty-two million visitors and De Pree was stunned by the positive response Rohde and Herman Miller's designs received. The following year, the exhibition was adapted to department store showrooms around the country and in 1934 Rohde designed his first all-encompassing suite of designs for Herman Miller. 

Though Herman Miller did not immediately become profitable from these ventures (the Depression still loomed and WWII was imminent), Rohde's assertion to De Pree that "you're not just making furniture anymore; you're making a way of living—a lifestyle," took root in the company and this approach would become essential in establishing Herman Miller as the beacon of modern design in post-war America.

Bedroom interior of the Design for Living House, featuring Bedroom Group 3317. Image: Herman Miller Archives.