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Ben Watson was in his happy place.

Sitting in the showroom that also doubles as an office above the Herman Miller flagship retail store on Park Avenue South and 21st Street in New York, Mr. Watson was enmeshed in groups of employees taking meetings and salespeople schmoozing clients surrounded by the nearly 100-year-old brand’s signature modern desks, tables and chairs.

“I don’t know what the situation is in your world, perhaps less of it is spent in offices?” Mr. Watson, the 57-year-old president of Herman Miller, said to me, the formality of his buttoned-up chambray shirtjacket, white shirt and tie offset by his bare feet and black Birkenstock sandals. “But it’s awesome to see folks spending time together here, our customers coming in, looking at things, thinking about what their world could or should look like next.”

Shortly after he said this, the din around us grew louder, and we moved into a glass-walled conference room. This shift in location seemed anathema to the president of a company that invented the open-plan office in the 1960s. But Mr. Watson complied.

Things are definitely changing at Herman Miller. In May 2021, amid the profound shifts in the office furniture business, and as the economy was battered by the coronavirus pandemic, the company acquired one of its biggest and best-known rivals, Knoll, another Midwestern purveyor of sleek, modern furnishings and textiles, for $1.8 billion.

This deal created the world’s largest office furniture company, newly named MillerKnoll. Though these individual brands will remain separate, this entity now controls both companies, as well as more than a dozen others. In addition to his new post-merger role as president of Herman Miller, Mr. Watson was also named chief product officer of MillerKnoll, the larger organization.

“The condition, the moment we’re in now, is the most intense one that I’ve ever been in, in my career in furnishings,” Mr. Watson said, referring to the ways the pandemic particularly has catalyzed a profound shift in people’s relationships to work, space and the office.

This statement holds particular weight considering his near-lifelong career in the industry. Though his father was an electrician for the Federal Aviation Administration and his mother was a nurse and a homemaker, during his childhood in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, they reupholstered their neighbors’ button-tufted furniture in their basement as a “side hustle.”

Choosing a path distinct from his four older siblings, all of whom are engineers, Mr. Watson majored in visual and environmental studies at Harvard, and wrote his senior thesis on La Chaise, designed by Charles and Ray Eames. He worked on the product team at Knoll, and he was the vice president of American sales and marketing and then global marketing director at Vitra, and worked as the chief executive officer at Moroso before joining Herman Miller, which is based in Zeeland, Mich., 13 years ago.

“I’m here to reiterate, we’re not living on Easy Street here in the furnishings realm,” Mr. Watson said.

This is no understatement. Overall, the category contracted globally by 12 percent in 2020; as people fled offices for fear of contagion, corporations closed or drastically …….

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/06/style/furniture-miller-knoll.html

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