Inside Herman Miller’s Design Yard

The cubicle was invented at Herman Miller, and now the office furniture manufacturer is presiding over the next phase of its evolution.

As companies increasingly move away from closed offices and cubicles and into open work spaces, furniture companies like Herman Miller are adapting to suit evolving needs. The first priority: create spaces that support collaborative, team-based work.

Ben Watson, the executive creative director of Herman Miller, says, “Ten years ago, 80 to 90 percent of an organization’s budget would be spent on individual workspaces. Now, it’s 65 to 70 percent and is scaling down to 50 percent real fast.”

Today, Watson continues, up to 70 percent of work happens between two or more people. The solution is to develop microenvironments — “so that you want to be at your office more than Starbucks.” (Another thought: maybe better coffee would help.)

Watson and his colleagues have developed a smartphone app that lets companies track usage of office space in real time. No more empty offices and overbooked conference rooms. Organizations that use Herman Miller’s program can figure out exactly how often that giant, sixteen-person boardroom gets used.

All of this happens at the Design Yard, a colorful name for a colorful work space. Herman Miller’s design studio sits in a 40-acre cornfield in Holland, Mich., and evokes a Midwestern farm yard. Cheap to build at $52 a yard (in 1985 prices, but still) the complex has won numerous awards and received LEED certification in 2005 — some twenty years after it was built.
The farm has kept its roots as well, thanks to employees who maintain a vegetable garden on the property. Workers can take home extra produce, and flowers from the perennial beds decorate the office.
The Design Yard offers customer tours, where envious outsiders can get a peek at the company’s inner workings. Most tours start out in the Parlour, where visitors are greeted by a concierge and the smell of coffee wafting over from the coffee bar.

The furniture is, of course, Herman Miller.