Why is this interesting? - The Archivist Edition

On the power of archives, Herman Miller, and process

Sam Valenti (SV4) is a longtime friend and founder of the incredible record label and design brand Ghostly International. He’s been a champion for the idea that a label can be more than something that just releases music, but rather a platform for art, curation, and a strong worldview. Here, he writes about the power of archives in one of my favorite WITIs to date. -Colin (CJN)

Sam here. Amy Auscherman is the Head of Archives and Brand Heritage at Michigan’s Herman Miller (employee headcount ~8,000) which, in their words, has “for more than 100 years, played a central role in the evolution of modern and contemporary design, producing timeless classics while creating a culture that has had a remarkable impact on the development of the design world.”

Herman Miller archivist Amy Auscherman. Photo: Lance Nelson

The wonk image of the archivist as someone buried in banker’s boxes in a dusty basement now has street-level cred. Auscherman has a hit Instagram account called Acid Free (a nod to the preferred, long-lasting paper style for the job), and was recently featured in the psychotic fashion-centric newsletter, Blackbird Spyplane. She is also responsible for editing the eminently gift-able Herman Miller: A Way of Living book. 

In her own words... “I manage the historic resources for a hundred plus-year-old furniture company. That ranges from photography, design drawings, advertisements, any sort of publications that are generated when you're trying to sell furniture to people. Herman Miller was started in 1905 so there's a lot of material there to go through and find the goodies. That's what I do.”

With an abundance of moodboard and archive accounts casing the internet for rare finds in art and commerce, the distinction of who is let into the vaults is real and coveted. There has never been such a wealth of material available, yet there is plenty of honest work to be done to make sense of it all. It’s not uncommon for fashion designers to tout their respect (or sometimes dismissal) of archival pieces when they join a storied brand. This constant referencing of the past means we’ll likely see more jobs opening for archivists. And not just for brand vanity, these folks are increasingly acting as essential elements of marketing and R&D. 

Thanks to Amy, I was able to visit the Herman Miller archive in Zeeland, Michigan a few summers back. Cool Hunting sums it up best: “There we found many expected things like correspondence, old catalogs, sketches, swatches and rare pieces of furniture, along with unexpected treasures like shop floor-made templates for cutting wood pieces of modernist masterpieces and the negatives for the Eames‘ seminal 1977 film ‘Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of the Universe.’ The archive of course plays a significant role in discovering, managing, and sharing the company’s past, but it’s also used as a navigational tool in charting the company’s future.”

Photo: sv4

Whether or not this work ever comes to market, that’s not the point. The point is knowing these items exist. In a culture where vintage is obsessively sought from movie promo tees to sneakers, the idea of the grail item is no longer the province of the antique dealer. Thoughtfully culled bedroom collections are now archives too. Why not?

“I think I’ve just been super lucky to also make my job my own and seek out projects that I care about within the company,” Amy says. “It helps to have my IG to share all the cool things I get to see day-to-day. And that is the job of an archivist! To liberate and contextualize information. At heritage brands, in particular, it is also good business to tell stories.”

Photo: sv4

Auscherman is, of course, not alone in this game. My limited research found Dave Moore at workwear company Carhartt who shared his thoughts on building their archive in 2019. Also, Nicole Rodriguez Woods who works as an archivist and brand marketer at Rimowa just put together a monograph. Even museum archives are getting in on the action, with fellow Michigan modernist landmark art school and museum Cranbrook turning its archives into a destination by offering tours for its collection of work that isn’t currently on gallery walls.

Why is this interesting?

With infinite shelf space and increasing levels of fandom made possible by direct patronage and social media, the impulse is for enthusiasts to seek ever-deeper cuts to differentiate themselves. As a result, the vaults are no longer confined to the basement:  increasing their value for both corporate research and fan fuel. Understanding which bits are worth keeping, and more importantly, worth sharing, will be increasingly useful.

Across media, the “lost tapes” are giving shape to catalogs of all stripes. As the slew of expansive Prince reissues has come out, including a group of Sign O’ The Times editions that includes 60 unreleased songs plus two full concerts, there has never been more interest in the lost, obscure, and partially finished.

What this means for fans and employees of these companies is perhaps a better sense of the process of work, which, depending on where you stand, is both a good or bad thing. The desire to “show the work” is often seen as an aesthetic choice for artists. This impulse also brings with it a sticky set of concerns. Prince, a perfectionist, by many accounts (including that of his former manager), didn’t want his archives released and had planned on burning everything in his vault. Without leaving a will, it looks like the choice wasn’t his, which will change the way future generations experience his artistry. Maybe for good. Maybe for bad. But definitely different. In fine art, we have Michaelangelo’s unfinished work to marvel at, which has helped burnish his image all these years later—making tangible the difficult reality of the medium he mastered in a time that’s hard for us to imagine. In the end, it will be the decision of the archivist to decide if volumes of digital drafts will enhance or diminish the finished, “perfect” thing. (SV4)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Sam (SV4)

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