The Maker of the Aeron Chair Grapples with Politics and the Pandemic

As the C.E.O. of Herman Miller, Andi Owen has had to navigate a polarized work force while thinking about the future of the offices her company makes furniture for.

Andi OwenCredit…Emily Rose Bennett for The New York Times

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By David Gelles

When Andi Owen took over the furniture company Herman Miller, in 2018, she didn’t expect to get caught up in politics. But these days, it seems no chief executive is safe from the culture wars.

Over the last year, Ms. Owen, a former executive at the Gap, has had to mollify a work force shaken by the same polarizing forces straining the nation. On her factory floor in the battleground state of Michigan, wardrobe choices — from Make America Great Again hats to Black Lives Matter T-shirts — have provoked arguments among employees. In response, Ms. Owen has tried to hold together a company already tested by the pandemic and slumping sales.

“We’ve tried to create opportunities for people to have frank conversations, for them to get together and discuss the hard topics of the day,” she said. “I don’t think these are new problems. But whether it’s about race, or inclusiveness, or whether it’s about what’s happening in the world today, these are all things you have to talk about.”

At the same time, Ms. Owen has been steering Herman Miller through a pandemic that closed offices worldwide — an existential threat to a company that makes office furniture and owns Design Within Reach, an upscale retailer.

Ms. Owen went to Interlochen Arts Academy, a Michigan boarding school focused on the arts. It was there that she first learned about Herman Miller, which produces iconic pieces by famous midcentury designers such as Isamu Noguchi and Charles and Ray Eames, and modern office staples like the Aeron chair.

Ms. Owen then studied art history at the College of William and Mary, and started working in retail. A job at The Gap led to a series of senior roles at the retailer, culminating in her leadership of the Banana Republic brand, before she moved to Herman Miller.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

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