Former CEO Max De Pree’s relationships with designers and architects put human-centered, problem-solving design at the heart of the company he served for more than 40 years.
In Zeeland, Michigan, you can drive down a typical small-town street lined with typical small-town houses—shingled roofs, painted shutters, clapboard siding and all—until you come to something altogether different. At first, it looks like there’s a mistake or a missing house. Approach further and you’ll find a low-slung set of flat-roofed shoeboxes set back from the street into the woods beyond. This is the home Charles and Ray Eames designed in 1952 for their friend and colleague, Max De Pree—one of Herman Miller Founder D.J. De Pree’s three sons—his wife Esther, and their four children. Like the man who commissioned it, the house is humble, approachable, appropriate, warm, and completely one-of-a-kind.
Max De Pree helped make Herman Miller a leader in management philosophy and human-centered design. The last De Pree to hold the position of CEO, Max codified the company’s values in a series of books on leadership, which have gone on to sell more than a million copies in more than 20 languages around the world. He will be fondly remembered for establishing concepts such as “servant leadership” and “inclusive capitalism” that have become deeply rooted in our culture. In 1970, Max began a poetic brief for a Herman Miller manufacturing facility in the United Kingdom by stating, “Our goal is to make a contribution to the landscape of aesthetic and human value.” While he may have only had a building in mind, the contributions he made throughout his life extend far beyond.
Max was simply a wonderful and complete human being. Toward the end of his life, we had several conversations that connected us and passed along his family’s commitment to Herman Miller. He taught me many things—how to listen, how to ask questions, and above all the debt all leaders owe to the people they lead.
I have known Max for 50 years. He is the most principled person I have ever met: severe and, at the same time, kind and caring—a model of wisdom, warmth, and spirituality. He was a great teacher and my mentor in the early years of my professional life. I still use the note cards with the rounded edges that he gave me to get organised. More importantly, I learned through my exchanges with Max that ethics and business are compatible.
I have not seen Max often over all these years, but every time I would visit Max and Esther, it was as if we had not been separated for long. This immediate intimacy—Max’s big smile when I entered the room—sadly, I shall not experience any more.
Max had a striking and original way of describing and valuing all the important things we can’t see—human potential, corporate spirit, and even love. His legacy extends far beyond the company he led, and all of us who are part of the community called Herman Miller will miss him and benefit every day from his and his family’s gifts to us. I will smile at his humour and wonder at his insights for a long time.