Second, he walled his group off from current operations. Herman Miller had always formed partnerships with outside designers — like Eames or more recently Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick for the Aeron chair — and then had inside engineers complete development. Miller wanted his group to go it alone, independent of any internal staff resources. The team would give birth to ideas, incubate its own prototypes, and lay the groundwork for the new business.
During the first six months, his group of seven identified key trends and studied current products. They all found the same thing: Incumbent companies plied the waters of many established, but separate, oceans of commerce — but none were exploring the uncharted waters between them. The incumbents weren’t even talking with one another. “That’s our opportunity,” Miller realized. “It’s in the gray space.”
That’s when his group recognized the opportunities to use LED lighting in new ways. Flush with that and other design concepts, the team looked for an outside designer. By fiat, Miller prohibited the hiring of a furniture designer. Instead, he hired two well-known technologists and alumni of Disney Imagineering — Bran Ferren, an architect and special effects designer, and Danny Hillis, a computer designer — from Applied Minds, a Glendale, Calif., think tank cum prototype shop. Miller also hired Sheila Kennedy, a Boston architect who teaches at Harvard University. He then gave the team a set of product boundaries instead of a product brief.
The new team created a stream of innovations, reinventing many aspects of office interiors. In a 5,000-square-foot (465-square-meter) Glendale warehouse, they installed the suite of product prototypes that included the LED concepts; a programmable electrical system; and articulating, ceiling-mounted walls and room dividers. From the explosion of design created by the team, Herman Miller chose a subset for development.
Herman Miller launched Convia in 2006 as a product suite mixing hardware and software, with the intent of addressing an entirely new market, for programmable workspace. The hardware amounted to an infrastructure backbone. Installed in a building’s ceiling, the backbone carried an intelligent, modular electrical system with its own data network to enable programmability. It also provided a structure for suspending components of office interiors. The software allowed facilities managers and building occupants to program all aspects of the backbone’s operation.
Herman Miller now had a product to help it grow in a market outside its traditional furniture niche. To property developers, the company could sell a means of building and reconfiguring offices without throwing away wires, conduits, panels, or other material. For facilities managers, it could sell the benefits of managing energy, light, and HVAC for each desk. To users, it could promise the ability to personalize space, light, heat, and sound with a few clicks of a mouse or hand wand.
Miller admits to waking up in the middle of the night during the multiyear project. He worried about how much he had spent, how little distance he had covered. “It takes patience with ambiguity to the nth degree,” he says. One of the biggest hurdles was figuring out how to commercialize products in a market — building infrastructure — in which Herman Miller was a novice. Miller solved that problem in 2009 by partnering with Legrand and its subsidiary Wiremold, a maker of electrical and network gear for buildings.
Whether Convia and Programmable Environments will solve the bigger Herman Miller problem of growth into new markets remains to be seen. The hurdles are many: selling a new concept to builders, teaching a furniture sales force how to sell to builders, complying with unfamiliar electrical and building codes, and of course showing customers the value of the new products. But the new business has gotten off to a solid start. It has attracted customers like Notre Dame, Hewlett-Packard, and Microsoft, which chose the Convia system for the Envisioning Lab — a facility at the Redmond, Wash., campus where the company shares its long-term vision of technology with customers and partners.