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You Had to Be There: Steve Frykholm at Herman Miller

Written by in Design, Profiles
Photo: Dress Code

 Saving the Best for Last:
Steve Frykholm and Herman Miller 

Editors’ Note: For more than three decades, Steve Frykholm designed many of Herman Miller’s most memorable annual reports. Most were  created in the pre-computer age when there was no SFX substitute for experience, big concepts, courage, and flawless execution. Frykholm’s work epitomizes what we have espoused for the past eight years through profiles of hundreds of men and women—some notable, some working in relative obscurity—who are connected to us through a mutual love for paper and print.  For 2017, we save the best for last. Beginning in 2018, Against the Grain will focus on Neenah Paper customers who share that same passion for paper. Please log on — and onward — to Against the Grain. — Matthew Porter

Herman Miller is the master modern furniture maker with eclectic, ergonometric products for home and office. For more than 100 years, the company has enjoyed economic highs and weathered economic lows. No one better captured these highs and lows than Steve Frykholm, former vice president of creative design, who for three decades told the tale of Herman Miller through stunning annual reports.

Among the finest ever made, Steve Frykholm’s annual reports for Herman Miller are far more than summaries of financial data; they are stories of people and the products they make. Frykholm demonstrated his love for the men and women of Herman Miller with annual reports that swept awards and became collectible. Today, these books stand as text book examples of design at its best: human connection through creative courage, audacity, ingenuity, and flawless execution. “It was never just about me,” he reminds, “I was surrounded by talented men and women who brought these books to life.” Humility is perhaps the least acknowledged secret to success—and longevity.

Happy Employees Make Shareholders Happy

Steve Frykholm knew his audience.

“We satisfied the FCC compliance rules and all that stuff, but I believed the most important audience for any of these reports was the people who worked for the company. Employees make it happen; they were foremost in our minds when we developed our annual reports. Next came the shareholders.”

Now (sort of) retired, bearded, and bespectacled, Frykholm contracts with Herman Miller as spokesman for the company’s design and culture. Speaking at the the 2017 Hopscotch Design Festival in Raleigh, NC, he did what he has done his entire career: he left the audience wanting more. Afterwards, we contacted him to ask him if he’d share more detail that time in Raleigh did not permit.  Below, more of Steve Frykholm’s fantastic stories.


1979 – Red Spinning Wheels

This shows the inside of the report, but all the “action” was on the wheels inside the diecut. Even though it was a good year, for fun I printed much of the book in red ink. This report was to be CEO Hugh De Pree’s last since he would soon be appointing his brother, Max, to take his place. Hugh wanted something special. After showing him our concept, he sent me to legal to approve the idea. I’ll never forget what he told me to ask our attorney: “Don’t ask him if he likes it; ask him if we can do it.” Our counsel, a fellow named Jim, gave us the green light. I never asked Jim if he liked the book but from time to time in the years before his death, I’d run into him and his wife at the city ballet. He was always a gentleman, but he never said whether or not he liked the red ink report.  I believe he did. Creative direction: Frykholm; Design: Gary Cronkhite; Words: Melissa Brown

1992 – The Page Turner

We were inspired by literary philosopher Michel de Montaigne and the way he went about storytelling. Our CEO, Kermit Campbell, was new to us, so we wanted people to get to know him. With the help of another writer, we asked Mr. Campbell to write short essays about many different topics and roles at play at Herman Miller. There was something for everyone in this book so we designed it to appear like dime-store paperback. Design: Frykholm and Yang Kim; Illustration: Guy Billout


1993 – Slew of Happy Customers

Much of this report was designed at the printer. The CEO showed us a little note that he got from a shareholder, and said, “What can we do with this?” It was a relatively decent year, so we asked employees if they had any “atta boys” they wanted to share. We got a slew of them. We categorized and reproduced them to appear exactly as they were delivered to us. If a note came to us on the sender’s  stationery, we reproduced that stationery to real effect.  It was fun but it was challenging trying to collate the pages and keep track of what went where while on press. It was production gymnastics. For example, I learned about these sensitive scales at the end of the line—if one page or printed element was missing, the books wouldn’t weigh the same. Design: Frykholm and Yang Kim


2002 – Weathering the Storm

Nobody was happy with this year’s performance. I wanted to print the report on a garbage bag. I prototyped it to fit, so I knew we could do it even though I didn’t know who could do it. We found a supplier that could print on a garbage bag, but they couldn’t meet our deadline. I took a different direction.

One rainy day, Deborah Sussman came to my office. She was wearing one of those cheap ponchos you’d buy at an outdoor music or art event. This provide me an idea: We printed the report conventionally but attached a poncho to the cover with a note: “Thanks for weathering the economic storms of 2001-2002 with us. We’re grateful for your loyalty. When you need this poncho, remember that stormy weather never lasts forever.” Creative direction: Frykholm; Design: Brian Edlefson


1985 – Turning Cartwheels

This was the year Herman Miller employees became shareholders. We decided to photograph every employee, but, remember, this was pre-computer age. My original thought was to put everyone in an arena and take a group shot—around 4,000 people—but that was impossible since our employees were scattered worldwide. We needed a procedure that was affordable and consistent. I was talking about our challenge with friend Sara Giovanitti—also my design shrink because she’s always full of positive affirmation. Sara figured out how to get everyone photographed by setting up the shoots in the manner of a department store photography studio. Since these kinds of photographers take a lot of baby photos, they use squeaky toys to keep their subjects attention and keep them animated. We paid a guy to turn cartwheels and run around to loosen people up. It worked.

The photos were outlined by a photo stripper. He (or she) probably had carpal tunnel by the time they finished this project. Later, we had to integrate the people so, for example, someone who worked in a plant would appear standing next to the CEO. This report won every design competition it entered and garnered a lot of press. Later, I grew irritated by how often this concept was imitated. Why can’t people be original—or at least make a good idea better? Design: Frykholm and Sara Giovanitti; Words: Nancy Green