Designing the Mirra Chair

The Mirra chair, which debuted in the spring of 2003 at the Annual NeoCon International furniture show centered in the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, was an instant hit, winning a number of awards. It is an excellent example of global design coordination: A furniture company based in Zealand, Michigan, blended a German design team and the concept of Nike shoes while holding to a new environ­mental standards system developed in conjunction with William McDonough and Michael Braungart. Herman Miller had made a major commitment to work with McDonough and Braungart to make their company an environmentally friendly manufacturer. Their buildings and manufacturing facilities were environmentally respon­sible, and now they had a new process for designing their chairs. The end result is the latest office seating sensation in the industry, the Mirra chair. The chair design not only added a new dimension ergonomically, it also used new technology and introduced a new visual design that may have the same impact on office seating trends as the Aeron did a decade ago. The German design group Studio 7.5, working with the new environmental standards team within Herman Miller, delivered a design that continues Herman Miller’s tradition of brand excellence and innovation. The chair costs less than the Aeron and Herman Miller’s competition. This new chair design is starting with the same success that its predecessor had a decade ago. The Aeron also won an award at the NeoCon show when it debuted and has been reviewed and discussed by design organizations and muse­ums across the globe. It remains to be seen whether the public will embrace the Mirra and whether sales will follow a trajectory similar to that for the Aeron.

The breakthrough idea was based on the concept that a chair should be as comfortable as an athletic shoe. When giving the project to Studio 7.5, Herman Miller had no idea what the chair would look like, but it was convinced the idea was worth researching and devel­oping. At the same time, during the early phases of the design of the new chair, Herman Miller developed a new environmental approach to help designers ensure that material and manufacturing decisions would be the best from an environmental standpoint and that prod­ucts would be designed for disassembly, reuse, and recycling. A team of two Herman Miller specialists—Scott Charon in marketing and material purchasing, and chemical engineer Gabe Wing—worked with Studio 7.5 to make sure the design would be the best possible solution environmentally.

When you look you at the chair, the first thing you notice is the form of the back support and the unique pattern of holes in the hard – molded one-piece plastic shape. Just when the competition respond­ed to the advanced breathable mesh of the Aeron, Herman Miller introduced a new solution. The Mirra achieves a new hybrid aesthet­ic by combining a solid polymer back with a set of organically shaped holes to look like a cross between a butterfly and a piece of swiss cheese. This new ergonomic aesthetic provides a viable alternative to the Aeron. The shadows projected by the profile of the shape and holes add a light and unique new visual element to the landscape of a home or office. Herman Miller had to take a risk to see whether its customers would accept this new visual style and the idea of a solid one-piece back. Herman Miller has had an uncanny instinct as a company during the past 50 years, anticipating and setting new trends in material choice, product aesthetics, and ergonomics. Under the direction of George Nelson in the 1950s and 1960s, Herman Miller introduced one new classic after another for the home and then for office seating. The designers hired by the company introduced designs using bent plywood, fiberglass, and aluminum. The designs of Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames, and Eero Saarinen set a new stan­dard for design in the office environment. The Mirra chair continues that tradition.

When you sit on the chair, the first thing you feel is the chair back conforming to your back and the woven seat supplying a firm support for your bottom. The adjustable arms are easy to set, and the mater­ial has a slight friction that prevents your elbow and forearm from slipping, keeping your arms positioned where you set them. The best thing is that, after awhile, you stop being aware of the chair. The feel­ing is just like a good pair of running shoes. The design team at Studio

7.5 actually consulted with Nike when designing the chair. The design team took the perspective that your back should receive the same support as the bottom of your foot. A shoe has to flex and respond to a number of three-dimensional movements of the foot, and so does a chair in a modern office environment. The challenge with a chair is the difficulty in making a size that fits everyone. Although the Aeron does accommodate size differences with three sizes of chairs, studio

7.5 wanted to make one back and seat to fit the whole spectrum of people. By achieving this goal, it allowed Herman Miller to have to manufacture only a one-size chair, which cuts costs on tooling, man­ufacturing, and inventory. This feat was accomplished by choosing a plastic material for the back membrane that, enhanced by a series of organic-shaped holes, has just the right flex to conform to different – size backs. The support of the membrane is done via a Y-bar that went through several redesigns because it originally did not meet the design team’s environmental standard. The original design was made from different materials. The drive to stay true to the environmental mission led to an innovation that improved the chair’s comfort and, at the same time, reduced production costs. The end result is also a chair that is 96 percent recyclable.

In this case study, we roamed far and wide to identify trends. The Mirra chair is a product that is international in scope, universal and ergonomic in design, and thoughtful in terms of material, manufac­ture, assembly, disassembly, reuse, and recycle. It is an exciting, con­temporary new look and feel for the office landscape and costs less than the leading chair it is designed to complement in the Herman Miller stable of seating options. Herman Miller is willing to share its new cradle-to-cradle environmental furniture design method with others. The company has more than enough innovation in ergonom­ics, aesthetics, engineering design, and manufacture, so it can be gen­erous with its new environmental innovation. The key trends that started this discussion are aging and associated back problems, and relevant trends ended far beyond those boundaries, touching on aspects of life relevant to every country in the world.

The art of reading trends can be learned by anyone intimately involved in developing new products. You need to learn to read the dynamic social, economic, and technological factors. Based on those factors and changes in them, what are the probable directions for new needs, wants, and desires? From those directions emerge multiple opportunities for new products. The iPod and the Mirra chair each emerged from an insightful but straightforward understanding of contemporary trends. All the innovations discussed throughout this book similarly emerged from an educated understanding of yesterday’s trends.