updated: December 2nd, 2019 / Ross Johnson / 0 Comments

History of Design in Michigan

While most known for automotive, Michigan has a rich history in design. As a designer myself, I wanted to learn more about Michigan’s design roots. Not knowing what to expect, I found Michigan is home to many historic designers, several innovative design-forward companies, and top design schools.

Automotive is a source of Michigan pride, but shouldn’t be our only source of pride. Let’s look at why Michigan should also be proud of our design history.

Furniture

It’s hard to talk about Michigan and design without discussing the furniture industry. The two most notable companies being Herman Miller and Steelcase.

Herman Miller

Herman Miller was founded in 1923 when two Michiganders purchased the Michigan Star Furniture company. Originally founded in 1905, the Michigan Star Furniture company was located in western Michigan, near the city of Grand Rapids.

When Herman Miller took over the company was struggling and primarily produced traditional home furniture. In an attempt to turn the company around, co-founder De Pree hired industrial designer Gilber Rohde in 1931. Rhode’s was tasked with designing the “new look in furniture.”

Rohde’s designs premiered in the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair where they were met with enthusiasm from buyers. Within five years, most furniture makers had begun emulating Rohde’s designs.

An early design team at Herman Miller – Credit Brooks Protzmann

In the 1940s Rhode turned his attention to office furniture, what Herman Miller is most well known for today. Focusing on function over decoration, he produced a range of desks, drawers, cabinets, and pedestals that could all be interchanged to fit an individuals needs. Rohde also designed a sectional sofa which influenced furniture design for decades to come.

By 1944 the company had dropped all focus on traditional home markets and has continued to focus and innovate on the design of office furniture.

Steelcase

Herman Miller isn’t the only landmark furniture design company from Michigan. Steelcase has been innovating in the office design market for decades.

Steelcase was founded in 1912 under the name “Metal Office Furniture Company” in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As the original and current company name suggests, the company always focused on metal office furniture – originally producing a strong, durable, and fireproof wastebasket.

In 1915 the first product line was released which included lockers, strong boxes, steel shelving, and safe deposit boxes. After winning a bid to produce metal desks for Boston’s first skyscraper, Steelcase designed a steel desk in single week.

From this point forward, they became known for high-end office furniture that incorporated the strength and durability of steel. In 1937 they designed furniture for Frank Lloyd Wright for the S.C. Johnson Wax Building. In 1946 they released a modular desk based on 15-inch components allowing for more flexible space planning in open offices, setting a universal standard in the industry.

The modular steel desks – Credit Jericl Cat

Today Steelcase is still well known for their high quality and innovative furniture design for office environments. Steelcase is the largest office furniture manufacturer in the world.

Architecture

I’ve always been fascinated with architecture. Designing physical spaces demands thorough and detailed design thinking. You need to consider how people will use the space, know about appropriate building materials, consider a timeless aesthetics, build for longevity, etc… every design decision is critical.

Michigan is home to many famous architects and one of the top architecture schools.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the most famous American architects in history. He pioneered what is now called the “Prairie School” movement of architecture. While he is most well known for innovative homes, he also designed offices, churches, schools, skyscrapers, hotels, museums, and other structures.

While Wright primarily worked in Chicago, he designed over thirty buildings in Michigan.

University of Michigan School of Architecture

The University of Michigan Taubman college of architecture and urban planning is one of the best in the country. The university first offered architecture courses in 1876 under professor William Le Baron Jenney, becoming its own school in 1931.

The program thrives and expands. In 1939 the college is renamed to the College of Architecture and Design and is expanded into a five-year curriculum. In 1969 Michigan is the first American school to offer a doctorate of architecture degree.

In 2010 the College is named the number one graduate architecture program in the country by DesignIntelligence.

Detroit Landmark Buildings

You can’t go to Detroit without noticing the iconic and historic buildings all around you. During the automotive boom, Detroit attracted hundreds of innovative architects to the city and as a result we’re now surrounded by some of the most historically significant buildings of that time. Some of the more notable architects include:

Detroit Yacht Club designed by father/son team Gino and Matthew L. Rossetti
  • Norman Bel Geddes who designed the 1939 New York World’s Fair pavilion Futurama (born in Adrian, MI)
  • Louis Kamper who designed the Cadillac Square Building and Book Cadillac Hotel
  • Florence Knoll
  • George D. Mason, designer of the Masonic Temple and Detroit Yacht Club
  • Gino and Matthew L. Rossetti who designed Ford Field and the Palace of Auburn Hills

Automotive

I opened stating that Michigan is not just about automotive, but I don’t want to overlook automotive design. Not surprisingly, Michigan was home to some of the most famous automotive designers in the world.

Harley Earl

Harley Earl was the original head of design at General Motors. He was an industrial designer and a pioneer of modern transportation design. As a trained coachbuilder, he pioneered the use of freeform sketching and hand sculpted clay models as automotive design techniques. He also is responsive for the idea of a “concept car” as a tool for the design process and marketing.

He’s most well known for his work in designing the original Chevrolet Corvette.

Preston Tucker

Preston Tucker was a designer and entrepreneur born in 1903 in Capac, Michigan. He’s most well known for his Tucker 48 sedan, an innovative automobile responsible for many features still used in modern cars such as fuel injection.

The Tucker 48 sedan. Many design innovations established in this car are still being used today.

John DeLorean

DeLorean is one of the most famous automotive designers and was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. He is responsible for work on the Pontiac GTO, Pontiac Firebird, Pontiac Grand Prix, and his most well known… DeLorean sports car.

The DeLorean was an innovative and forward-thinking car that unfortunately never received the success it could have due to a depressed buying marketing, production delays, legal scandals, and funding issues.

Graphic Design

Now an industry closer to our realm of expertise, graphic design. Graphic design as a practice has existed under the label since 1922. I was excited to see that Michigan was home to several graphic design institutions.

Robert G. Heft

Robert G. Heft is best known for being the designer of the current United States 50-star flag. He also designed a 51-star flag should a new state join the United States. Robert was born in Saginaw, Michigan.

A humorous back-story, Heft designed the current flag as a school project when he was seventeen years old, and got a B- on the project. He later persuaded the teacher to agree if the flag was made the official flag he would get a better grade for the project. Heft’s design was chosen out of more than 1,500 designs and his teacher changed his grade to an A.

Cranbrook Academy of Art

The Cranbrook Academy of Art was formed in 1925 as an experimental artists’ colony. The original department president Loja Saarinen (a textile designer) wanted students to have the flexibility and education to envision, create, and understand all aspects of design. This included architecture, textiles, furniture, and metalworking. She also encouraged experimentation.

As it sounds, students had able freedom to explore, learn, and experiment as part of their education rather than a fixed, rigid curriculum. This approach has remained largely unchanged even to this day.

Currently the academy is the top-ranked graduate design program, and the countries only school devoted exclusively to graduate education in art, architecture, and design.

Charles Bigelow

One notable Detroit native who was also a student of the Cranbrook Academy of Art is Charles Bigelow. He is most famous for being the co-creator of the Lucida, Lucida Grande, and Wingdings font families.

He previously was a professor of digital typography at Stanford University, served as president of the Committee on Letterform Research and Education, and organized the first international seminar on digital type design called “The Computer and the Hand in Type Design.”

He currently runs an agency called Bigelow and Holmes Studio.

Let’s be proud of Michigans design industry

This list is not comprehensive, rather just some of the highlights I came across during my research. There are other famous industries and designers that lived and made an impact in Michigan.

If you’re a designer be proud that you’re from Michigan and let’s work together to make Michigan known for its design community. We’re a proud Michigan web design and marketing firm.

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