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Exhibit shows origin of the cubicle in modular office plan

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

The popular love affair with modern design doesn't show any signs of abating.

Call it the "Mad Men" effect or perhaps the sycophantic popularity of hipster lifestyle publications like Dwell magazine, but the public's appetite for all things vintage mid-century modern or for re-fashioned high modernism isn't likely to change soon.

But for all the Eames chairs and Nelson "Marshmallow" sofas that continue to pop up in living rooms around the country, the most important tenet of modern design and architecture often gets overlooked.

Modernist designers sincerely sought to solve important lifestyle problems, not merely make cool-looking stuff.

And a traveling exhibit now at the Austin Museum of Art, "Good Design: Stories from Herman Miller," serves as a handy reminder that designers such as George Nelson, Ray and Charles Eames and Robert Propst were motivated by problem-solving, not just stylistic trends.

The show is organized as four case studies that outline the process designers for the Michigan-based company employed to create the products that would make Herman Miller Inc. a leading manufacturer of office and home furnishings and a purveyor of some now-iconic items such as the curvaceous, molded plywood lounge and dining chairs designed by husband-and-wife innovators Ray and Charles Eames — chairs that have never been out of production since their launch in 1946.

(Yes, Herman Miller was a person, but he was not a designer. He was a businessman who bought controlling shares in the company in 1923, leveraging its move from a traditional furniture-making concern known as Star Manufacturing Co. to the modern, design-oriented firm Herman Miller, Inc.).

Though the home furnishing items in the exhibit might be the most familiar, one of the most revealing sections outlines the creation of the Action Office, the first open-plan modular office system.

With post-World War II America in an economic boom, the office landscape faced a radical change. White-collar business surged, creating a whole new class of office worker. Where once inkwells and ledger books were the norm, now modern equipment such as electric typewriters, multi-line telephones and eventually early computers took up residence on desks in information-driven offices.

How to streamline and maximize that knowledge-based workplace?

Try a flexible wall system that could be changed around and likewise modular office furniture that allowed users to customize their workspace. Yes, those modular pieces morphed into the now pervasive — and some might say soul-crushing — office cubicle. But the original Action Office designed by Propst and Nelson was sincerely meant to make office workers more comfortable and, ultimately, happier.

If "Good Design" sometimes bears more than a whiff of corporate hagiography, there's a reason: Exhibit curator John Berry served as Herman Miller vice president of communications for 16 years and led the national PR campaign that introduced the best-selling Aeron chair. Indeed, the show was organized by the Muskegon Museum of Art in Western Michigan, which is one county over from where Herman Miller, Inc., is headquartered. Not surprisingly, Herman Miller, Inc., is a supporting sponsor of the exhibit.

Still, despite its corporate zeal, "Good Design" manages to illuminate how modern designers employed a complex problem-solving process involving behavioral psychology, human physiology, physics and even mathematics to create radically new furnishings that would, in turn, make everyday life just a little better.

Sure, style and aesthetics were also essential to what these designers developed. But artistic concern was secondary to practical concern.

It's like Charles Eames said: Design "is an expression of purpose. It may, if it is good enough, be later judged as art."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

'Good Design: Stories from Herman Miller'