Recently we had the pleasure of speaking to Mike Kuperus, who has the distinction of being the Plant Manager for Classics Production at Herman Miller. This is where products like the Eames Lounge Chair are made. We picked Mike’s brain about the manufacturing process, working with designers to achieve a unique vision, and what separates Classics Production from the rest of the madding crowd.
1. What is unique about the process of manufacturing chairs, apart from other common furniture?
I think the level of craftsmanship and the quality of the core materials can't be overemphasized when it comes to the Eames, Nelson, and Noguchi products. During tours of our facility people are usually quick to pick up on the fact that everything is done "by hand." Almost nothing can be automated since we deal in very natural products, leather and wood of course being the primary materials. Since every piece of veneer and every hide of leather is unique they need to be processed uniquely by people who understand how the material will react. The HMI standards for the material going into these products exceed normal industry specification in many cases … material rejected for use in the classics is typically still acceptable as first tier level material for most other furniture! So while our rejection rate for material is high it typically does not go to waste and can be used for other applications.
2. What is your favorite product to build?
I think the best products we make are the ones that are unique, so I would have to say the sofas that customers individualize by picking a high quality leather or a great patterned fabric. We are spoiled here; we see beautiful pieces being made every day, so it takes something with real distinction to catch our eyes, and one of these sofas would be an item that one of our employees would actually call me and tell me to come take a look at it before they box it up. Second to that would be the Eames Lounge Chair when nature helps out and we get a really wild grain on the wood set, usually with Santos Palisander. There really is no better wood - the variety is truly amazing in both color and grain.
3. Molded plywood is obviously one of your specialties; what makes that material so appealing to designers and buyers?
Molded plywood allows you to do the impossible with wood … how Eames developed this process over 50 years ago is still beyond me. To take a sheet of veneer (that starts out so thin and brittle that you can easily break it in two between your thumb and index finger), and bend it over 90 degrees just does not make sense, but it works. A linear look to a piece of furniture can be great, but the ability to add curves and radii is what makes something stand out to a lot of people. Second to the overall look is that the edge detail that is created by having to cross ply (or run the grain direction of every sheet of veneer opposite the one below and above it) is appealing in and of itself, giving the edge the striped look. Lastly, molded plywood is incredibly strong and durable. Very little furniture today is made with solid wood; it usually has a cheaper core of particle board or MDF, which is basically chips of wood bonded together, and then is covered by a laminate or veneer face. The buyer of one of the classics is actually buying a product stronger than solid wood, since the cross ply is superior. While the initial price is high for these products, people are literally buying something that lasts a lifetime, a design that won't go out of style, and after 50 years would be worth more than it is today!
4. Do you work closely with designers to figure out the best way to make the products they see in their heads? How much of the design process is affected by the manufacturing side of the equation?
We are heavily involved in product development, or helping companies determine how their ideas can become reality. Dealing with natural products makes it difficult to accurately predict an outcome when attempting to do something that has not been done exactly before, whether it is a new shape or an existing shape but with a different species or thickness of wood. There are still limits to molding plywood, and to what shapes can be sewn and upholstered consistently with a wide variety of textiles, so not every idea is possible. We rely heavily on science and technology to start with on the wood side, and experience and trial and error for pattern development on the sewing/upholstery side.
5. What kind of training does it take to work in the manufacture of fine furniture?
People are what makes the difference on the classics, because no matter what the quality of the components, a craftsman really impacts the final look the most. We have a great group of employees, and I can't emphasize enough how much having pride in what you produce affects peoples attitudes and expectations for themselves every day. Many of our people have 25 years of experience in their craft, wood working, sewing, and upholstery being the ones that impact end quality the most. Many manufacturers use temporary employees to handle spikes in demand. We are not able to do that because of the level of either experience required or the length of training needed to produce the classics. So in order to respond to higher, long term demand, individuals are hired and are paired up with an experienced employee, and are not allowed to sign off on a completed product until they have built up enough experience themselves to be able to do so. So while lead times may run longer for periods of time, quality levels are protected by not rushing people into situations they are not ready for.