Amy Auscherman on Rare Books, Celebrity Gossip, and Isamu Noguchi
As the director of archives and brand heritage at the Michigan-based furniture powerhouse Herman Miller—now known as MillerKnoll, following the 2021 acquisition of Knoll, yet another American design giant—Amy Auscherman has a reflective and retrospective relationship to not only design and furniture, but also to media. In her research-heavy role, she delves into the rich histories of these storied companies, wading through a wide variety of materials, to unearth little-known facts and essential findings. Spanning both office and home furniture, Herman Miller is best known for its staples such as the Noguchi coffee table, the Eames lounge chair, and the Aeron chair; Knoll, with pieces that similarly cross home/office boundaries, is renowned for its designs by the likes of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Harry Bertoia, and Eero Saarinen, and more recently, Sir David Adjaye and Ini Archibong.
Both brands helped create the contemporary office as we know it: In 1968, Herman Miller’s director of research, Robert Propst, devised a series of semi-closed office configurations called “the Action Office,” which evolved into the cubicle. Meanwhile, Knoll’s founder, Florence Knoll, was a pioneering figure of the modern office and propelled the interior design profession forward. To say that Auscherman has a special position is an understatement. She is deep inside what has to be one of the most compelling corporate archives in America.
Through her work, and despite her encyclopedic design knowledge, Auscherman takes a refreshingly unpretentious approach, one that pairs curatorial rigor with insatiable curiosity. Her personal high-low tastes certainly evoke her inquisitive, welcoming nature, and her witty sense of humor. We spoke to her recently about her media intake, which traverses celebrity news, rare books, and Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
How do you start your mornings?
I’ve been listening to a lot of John Caroll Kirby lately. I also have an ECM playlist that I like to put on sometimes. I usually get on my personal email before my work email—a softer entry. I’ll check my eBay alerts that have turned up overnight.
I studied rare books in college [at Indiana University Bloomington], and I’m on this hilarious Listserv called ExLibris, which I still also read pretty frequently. Usually it’s lists from book dealers—their sales lists or catalog announcements—but sometimes there’s also people asking questions or students speaking knowledge. People can get spicy on it, because they’re old rare-books guys, and sometimes people are trading commentary back and forth for the whole Listserv. It’s a funny remnant of the early internet that still brings me a lot of joy. Then, of course, I passively scroll Instagram and maybe open Twitter if I’m really wanting to punish myself.
What are some of your favorite newsletters?
I subscribe to a few newsletters that aren’t necessarily hitting every day, but I open them every time. I love Ayesha A. Siddiqi’s Substack. I’m a proud receiver of Rachel Seville Tashjian’s Opulent Tips, which is a fashion newsletter. I love her meanderings on collecting and style and culture. Blackbird Spyplane: I’m a collector, and I love Erin [Wylie] and Jonah [Weiner]’s treatises on how one can collect, or even tips on how to find things on eBay, or rabbit holes for people to go down.
I like Tammie Teclemariam’s newsletter for New York magazine, The Year I Ate New York. I love food and eating, and reading and consuming media about eating. So I loved her dispatches about visiting restaurants around New York. Business-wise, I like reading The New Consumer, Dan Frommer’s business-guy digest. Then, along with that, I scroll Business of Fashion and Business of Home; I look at headlines there day to day.
Any other daily or go-to reads?
I love celebrity gossip, so I subscribe to Hunter Harris’s [Hung Up] newsletter. Frankly, I feel like my brain cleanse is looking at Lainey Gossip or Dlisted or Gawker. Celebrity gossip is fun to consume, but also accurately reflects many things in culture. All the writers on Lainey Gossip tie things to larger cultural conversations. D-Listed is just comedy gold every time, and very smart, too, very slapstick.
I don’t listen to them a lot, but when I do, I like listening to people talk shop. When I was growing up, I really loved Car Talk. Not only the personalities of the hosts [Tom and Ray Magliozzi], but also [their] coaching people through how to repair or diagnose problems with their cars. I like listening to people talk about how things work.
There’s a Studs Terkel archive online, which is pretty cool. It’s a lot of his interviews over the years, digitized and compiled into one place. Yesterday I was listening to some old George Nelson interviews from the early sixties. It was fun to listen to a great thinker of his time on design and culture rant and rave about things that feel very familiar today.
I like listening to How Long Gone. That podcast has co-hosts [Chris Black and Jason Stewart] with a great rapport. They cover everything from pop culture to media to music to food to design. That’s fun to tune into when there’s somebody on there that I’m interested in hearing, like Charli XCX.
I like Scratching the Surface with Jarrett Fuller, which is a design podcast. Recently, I’ve been listening in installments to Molly Lambert’s Heidi Fleiss podcast.
What have you been reading lately?
A recent book I got, thanks to one of my eBay alerts, is a catalog from Isamu Noguchi’s Venice Biennial in 1986. He did an exhibition called “What Is Sculpture?” at the United States Pavilion, and it was famously panned. Everyone was not psyched with the fact that he included Akari [light sculptures]. It was looked at as too commercial, which I think is dumb. It’s this very rare catalog that was published by PS1 in the mid-eighties that came up, and I got it for a steal.
We just went through this huge merger, Herman Miller and Knoll. And while I’ve always been a Knoll fan, I’m definitely reading up on the company history. And for that, I’ve been diving back into the Knoll Textiles, 1945-2010 tome that Irma Boom designed.
I also just read a few articles last night from a book called The Politics of Furniture, which is a more academic look, but placing interiors within the context of art history. I was reading about Knoll’s international expansion and how it became very popular in France by way of the very tasteful Yves Vidal and his partner, Charles Sevigny.
Cranbrook also put out a book this year to coincide with an exhibition called “With Eyes Opened: Cranbrook Academy of Art Since 1932.” A lot of designers from both Herman Miller and Knoll got their start at Cranbrook. This book has an amazing compendium of every artist and designer that has gone through those doors, whether that’s Nick Cave or Marianne Strengell or Alice Kagawa Parrott or Ray Eames.
I just got back from L.A., and I visited the Neutra House and picked up a book while I was there called The Library of Mr. and Mrs. Neutra. It’s basically a list of every single book in the library, and every single inscription has been scanned and reproduced on the front page.
Favorite TV shows?
I’m not joking, but it feels like a joke: The show I watch the most is Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives because it’s low-stakes but also just fun.You’re seeing all these different places and people and businesses. It’s like my pacifier at the end of the night. But, of course, I love Antiques Road Show, too, and turn that on a lot. I’m also a big fan of Selling Sunset. Not so much for the interpersonal drama, but I love seeing the real estate and interiors. All of the agents on Selling Sunset sit on Aeron chairs in their office—they’re my favorite characters on the show.
Any guilty pleasures?
I guess some people would say that celebrity gossip is a guilty pleasure, or Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. But I appreciate high culture and what some would deem “low.” So I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. I’m open to all of it.