Gilbert Rohde’s designs rescued Herman Miller

Gilbert Rohde for Herman Miller side table with drawer, circa 1930s, made from figured walnut, enameled wood, chromed steel and glass. Estimate: $800-$1,200. Sold for $4,000+ the buyer’s premium on Sept. 24, 2017, by Rago Arts & Auction Center in Lambertville, N.J.

NEW YORK – It’s impossible to talk about the renowned furniture and industrial designer Gilbert Rohde (1894-1944) without bringing Herman Miller Inc., the Michigan-based office furniture and home furnishings manufacturer, into the picture. The two are inexorably linked, although it wasn’t a marriage made in heaven, at least not initially. First, a bit of background, starting with Rohde.

Rohde began a career in advertising illustration in New York, but a trip to France and Germany in 1927 changed all that. In Europe, he fell in love with design and embarked on a new career path that helped define American modernism in its first phase from the late ’20s to World War II. His work reflected American Streamline Moderne design and trends in European art and design.

As for Herman Miller Inc., the company was founded in 1905 as the Star Furniture Co. in Zeeland, Michigan, as a maker of high-quality furniture (especially bedroom suites) in historic revival styles. In 1923 the company was renamed Herman Miller Inc. when company president Dirk Jan De Pree and his father-in-law, Herman Miller, purchased 51% of the company’s stock.

Gilbert Rohde for Herman Miller Paldao kidney-shaped desk. Rohde created the Paldeo Group, influenced by the biomorphic shapes associated with Surrealism. Estimate: $1,000-$1,500. Sold for $600+ the buyer’s premium on March 25, 2017, by Vero Beach Auction in Vero Beach. Fla.

As a maker of traditional wood furniture, Herman Miller Inc. was a force to be reckoned with – that is, until the Great Depression hit in 1930. Then, the company was forced to explore new products to survive a shrinking market. Reluctantly, they hired Rohde, the designer who specialized in modernist designs. In the next few years he took the firm in a whole new direction.

“Gilbert Rohde literally saved the Herman Miller Company,” declared Aileen Ward, vice president and senior specialist at Andrew Jones Auctions in Los Angeles. “It was Rohde’s contract with Herman Miller that brought Modernist, streamlined style to the American home and made the firm of Herman Miller synonymous with cutting edge design.”

Gilbert Rohde for Herman Miller bird’s-eye maple and walnut Art Deco vanity, designed in 1936 and with the interior top drawer showing a Herman Miller plaque and a stenciled model number to the back. Estimate: $1,000-$1,500. Sold for $1,600+ the buyer’s premium on March 3, 2018, by Andrew Jones Auctions in Los Angeles.

Ward said the Great Depression only hastened the company’s inevitable transition. “Herman Miller was known for producing high-quality reproductions of traditional furniture styles, the fashion for which had waned moving into the Art Deco era,” she said. “Interior design trends had changed dramatically in the ’30s and De Pree knew something had to change.”

Ward noted that as people pare down their lives and live with more minimalist interiors, Rohde’s intelligent modular designs are experiencing a renaissance today.  “His aesthetic from 90 years ago fits perfectly with the contemporary lifestyle,” she said. “His market will continue to grow as new generations come to appreciate the adaptable, functional, sustainable style of Mr. Rohde.”

Wade Terwilliger, president and marketing director of Palm Beach Modern Auctions in West Palm Beach, Florida, said Rohde entered the Herman Miller orbit at just the right time. “Rhode joined the firm when it was struggling during the Depression,” he said. “At the lowest point in company history, he insisted they update their line of furniture to suit the current American lifestyle.”

Pair of Gilbert Rohde for Herman Miller ‘Cloud’ wooden side tables, model #4187, made in 1940. Estimate: $1,000-$1,250. Sold for $7,680+ the buyer’s premium on March 3, 2018, by Palm Beach Modern Auctions in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Terwilliger said Rohde had insight into the way people’s daily lives had changed, and how their surroundings hadn’t caught up. “That was the concept he sold Herman Miller,” he said. “People no longer wanted ornate pieces that take up space and require a lot of care, so he made just the opposite: Streamline Moderne designs that reflected his time in Europe and with the Bauhaus.”

Gilbert Rohde designed sleek, well-constructed pieces in exotic woods like bird’s-eye maple, paldao and laurel, Terwilliger said. “These aspects reflect today’s sensibilities as much as they did in the 1930s. With quality construction there is lasting appeal. His biomorphic pieces – such as the “Cloud” tables – are always a hit. We’ve also seen his Herman Miller clocks and his chair and ottoman sets for Troy Sunshade do very well. As with all designers, rarer forms are most desirable, and we would expect the same moving forward.”

Art Deco clock designed by Gilbert Rohde for Herman Miller, 6½in. tall x 8in. wide x 2in. deep. Estimate: $300-$600. Sold for $275+ the buyer’s premium on Oct. 22, 2017, by Westport Auction in Norwalk, Conn.

Jad Attal, a specialist in 20th/21st century design with Rago Arts in Lambertville, New Jersey, pointed out that Rohde’s career wasn’t limited to just his work for Herman Miller. “He worked with many mass production companies, sharing the aim of placing modern items in every home and workplace in the country. His designs for the home and workplace were broad, varied, comprehensive and novel.”

Attal said Rohde’s many items incorporated revolutionary materials and applications. “Paring Plexiglas, Lucite, Bakelite and more with the streamlined style of the late Art Deco era was hugely fashionable and was in demand for many years,” Attal said. As for the demand for Rohde designs today, “Items that are formal, stylish and functional are hot, such as pairs of lamps, pairs of chairs, a nice vanity with stool, a desk with chair or just the right side table.” He added, “Items that are rare and appeal to design geeks like me – like a small lamp or desk clock – can be hit or miss with a wider audience.”

Gilbert Rohde for Herman Miller formal dining group buffet, made from maidou burl with a mahogany veneer and Brazilian rosewood base, unsigned, numbered. Estimate: $800-$1,000. Sold for $3,750+ the buyer’s premium on March 10, 2019, by Toomey & Co. Auctioneers in Oak Park, Ill.

The best situation is when an item appeals to both camps, Attal said, “like a matched pair of amoeba side tables. Those are really rare, as they were made many decades ago and were often neglected and in general didn’t wear well. Veneer chips and stains. Chrome rusts. Upholstery degrades. But the time capsule pieces are out there. And whether they’re for the home or the office, if it has the evocative style of the era and the condition is good, it can fetch a premium. Remember, Rohde’s designs numbered in the hundreds. So if you really look, you’ll find a gem.”

Don Schmaltz, a senior specialist in Modern Design for Toomey & Co. Auctioneers in Oak Park, Illinois, said Gilbert Rohde had a minimalist sensibility with a high style look and his modular storage solutions were revolutionary. “His interest in rare woods, timeless design and the unique names of his lines – from Paldao to East India Laurel – set him apart. I have seen growing interest in Rohde items and am excited that we’ll be offering a large number of rare Gilbert Rohde items in our December sale.”