Q&A: Steve Frykholm, CD at Herman Miller

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Published:  August 22, 2012
Alison Copley
Q&A: Steve Frykholm, CD at Herman Miller

Steve Frykholm has worked in the graphic design industry for the past four decades, beginning his career in the design studio at Herman Miller in the 1970s. Forty two years later and Frykholm is now the creative director and vice president at Herman Miller.

While in Melbourne for Herman Miller’s touring poster exhibition ‘Then x Ten’, I met with Frykholm to explore his career, favourite projects and future plans.

Started out: I actually got started in this career at the advice of a judge in a high school art competition. He wrote on the back of my entry that I “might consider a career in commercial art.” My undergraduate work was at Bradley University (in Peoria, Illinois), a four-year Bachelor of Fine Art degree. At the time they called it ‘Advertising Art’ and then it eventually became ‘Graphic Design’ and a lot of names after that.

Steve Frykholm with his winning Picnic poster from 1970

In my junior year, the Peace Corps recruiter was on campus and I was drawn into the room because of all these photographs of places all over the world. I went in, listened to the sales pitch, filled out an application and six weeks later I received a letter from the government inviting me to participate in a Peace Corp Training Program to be a teacher in West Africa.

I was in the Peace Corps for two years in Nigeria, teaching at a school in Aba – The Government Trade School for Girls. I taught screen-printing and other useful things that they could use when they graduated. But then the civil war started and they closed the school system (it was getting pretty hairy) and I was evacuated so I thought, “I guess I’ll go to grad school.”

I had applied to several schools and was accepted at all of them, but I decided to go to Cranbrook Academy of Art (outside of Detroit, in Michigan). It was a two-year intensive program. While I was there the department was mixed… it comprised of all of the design disciplines, which was really good. There were industrial designers, there were interior designers, there were exhibition designers and graphic designers. We didn’t see the Prof much, it was like a good bottle of wine – some years are good, some years aren’t and a lot of it depended on who was at the school at any one time.

Herman Miller is about a three-hour drive from Cranbrook and they had an annual sale. All of the industrial designers would drive across the state the night before to camp out to be first in line. They’d buy these products that Charles and Ray Eames or George Nelson (among others) had designed and they’d bring their treasures back and show them off to the rest of us. That was my first exposure to Herman Miller, and my first understanding of Charles Eames and the others.

I graduated after a couple of years and decided that I wanted to work on the east coast (or perhaps the west coast). I had a headhunter trying to help me out and I also sent my own letters to different design studios that I thought I’d like to work for. I got a call from Herman Miller out of the blue and they mentioned that they were going to establish an in-house graphic design group, and asked if I’d be interested in working with them. But… I wanted to go to the east coast (or the west coast), so I wasn’t really too excited. But I decided to have an interview with them and became more interested. I kept remembering those treasures! So, once they offered me the job (after a series of interviews) I said I’d try it for a couple of years. A couple of years have turned into four decades!

1970 Herman Miller Picnic Poster by Steve Frykholm

Big break: The ‘Sweet Corn’ poster I designed in 1971 for the Herman Miller annual picnic could be considered a big break [see above]. As the first in-house graphic designer at the company, the committee came to me and asked if I would design a poster for the picnic. I had learned how to screen-print after I had taught it in Africa and decided to use that technique. The project was great because I didn’t have to present it to anybody, I could just do it.

And after that, I went on to design 19 more, and they all had to do with picnic food. I used Cooper Black on all of them, and they are all showcase of a ‘Lilliputian view on picnic food’. All of them are relatively large-scale and kind of abstract. That initial poster however gave me my very first peer recognition when I got into a major competition in New York (AIGA competition).

1971 Herman Miller Picnic Poster by Steve Frykholm

1978 Herman Miller Picnic Poster by Steve Frykholm

Favourite projects: There have been several. The picnic posters are a favourite, primarily because they were ‘my’ project and I didn’t really show anyone until finished.

The other body of work would be the annual reports that I did for Herman Miller for 35 years. They’re really interesting reports. I never looked at them as annual reports but rather viewed the project as a corporate capability piece that reflected on what had happened in the past year that the company was especially proud of. Herman Miller became a public company in 1970 and John Massey did the first five annual reports from 1971 – 1975. They were all different, they were all distinctive and he kind of ‘primed the pump’ for me when I took over. We tried to be different every year and were fairly successful at it.

Herman Miller annual report, 1992 Client: Herman Miller; Designers: Steve Frykholm, Yang Kim; Illustrator: Guy Billout. Image sourced from AIGA.org

For three years we [at Herman Miller] produced a magazine called See and it was great. We used a young designer from San Francisco called Todd Richards (from Cahan & Associates) and he was the designer for every issue, bringing with him new illustrators and photographers. The team was small – there were only about four of us. And again, it was one of those projects that we didn’t really show anyone. We could just ‘do it’ and the budget was healthy.

See was edited internally by a good friend and colleague, Clark Malcolm. He was actually the person that I collaborated with for several of the 35 years on the annual reports. He would select writers and so forth, depending on what the topic or main theme of the issue would be. And then the economy went to pot and they yanked the budget. We were able to do six issues – two a year – from 2004-2007. Each issue was 100 pages, with a really interesting editorial layout as well as great photography and illustrations.

SEE Magazine covers, 2004–2007 Client: Herman Miller; Design firm: Cahan & Associates; Creative Director: Steve Frykholm; Art Director: Todd Richards; Designers: Todd Richards, Nicholas Davidson, Erik Adams. Sourced from AIGA.org

For a personal favourite project – I live in the country and decided to document the wild flowers that grow on our property. It has kind of fizzled out now because I’m up to 250 flowers, but I don’t have them all yet. In the beginning it was really exciting because I was learning so much about the different flowers… and the walks became longer and longer as I was looking for new specimens.

I remember one plant, a coffee plant, a nice bloom. I noticed it plant growing and didn’t know what it was. I’d take the same path every day and keep my eye on it. And I decided, “Tomorrow… it’s going to bloom tomorrow.” So I went out early in the morning all excited and… a deer had eaten it. It was the only one on my property, so I had to wait a whole year to photograph it again.

Current project: The Then x Ten poster exhibition is my most current project since I reproduced a large number of the posters especially for it. A few of them were originally ads, but I didn’t know they were ads! I’d seen pictures of them in books and I thought they were posters, but when I found the ‘real macoy’ in the archives they were definitely ads so I decided to transform them into posters. For the exhibition, we settled on ten historical posters from the years, and the ten new commissioned ones… so it’s been a lot of fun.

I also get involved in assets for hermanmiller.com that take some time. And right now I’m working on a project in regards to the Herman Miller archives, working out how we make our archives ‘come alive’ by perhaps redesigning the space. Right now, archives like to have a narrative, a story, but a lot of them have objects… but what’s the story, how has it developed? I’ve had the opportunity to visit some great archives to see how they operate.

What’s next: Personally, my next project is my house – my wife and I are selling the farm and moving into the city. It’ll be a new chapter.

I plan to continue working, because I like to work. And as long as I’m doing some interesting work and still learning and having fun, I’ll carry on. I love design and it’s been a good career.

Image: Steve Frykholm image – sourced from Hermanmiller.com.
Thumbail image: Left: 1981 Herman Miller Picnic Poster by Steve Frykholm; Right: 1988 Herman Miller Picnic Poster by Steve Frykholm.

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