Steve Frykholm’s design career at Herman Miller began with a large ear of sweet corn—a curiously appropriate symbol, its rows of kernels forming an orderly grid and its roots originating in the watery, agrarian landscape of Western Michigan. Soon after arriving at the Zeeland-based furniture manufacturer, in 1970, Frykholm was asked to design a poster for the company picnic, named the Sweet Corn Festival. “I said I’d take a crack at it,” he recalls. Working with designer Phil Mitchell, Frykholm came up with a 29“ x 39” screen print of a pair of teeth clamped around an ear of corn, printed Pop Art-style in high-gloss inks. Part of the impulse also came from muscle memory: “I had learned to screen print while in the Peace Corps teaching at a trade school for girls in Nigeria,” says Frykholm. The combination proved fruitful. Frykholm went on to design 20 picnic posters in the subsequent 20 years, several of which ended up in the permanent collection held at the Museum of Modern Art.
Having now worked for Herman Miller through four decades, several economic downturns, and six different CEOs, Frykholm has acquired a juicy body of work, some considerable experience, and some of the blunt Calvinist demeanor of his progressive but no-nonsense employer. Like the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and Apple Computer in Cupertino, Herman Miller in Zeeland is one of those few U.S. design-driven firms with an unusually high commitment to visual coherence and research and development. An unabashed Modernist zeal runs through Herman Miller’s communications, from its general corporate guidelines to remain “human, spirited, and purposeful” to the clean but personable lines of Meta, the Erik Spiekermann-designed typeface that Frykholm introduced as the house face in 1999. (Meta replaced uber-Modernist Helvetica, which had been the corporate typeface for 30 years.)