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100 years of design.

DESIGN: An Introduction N.Y. TIMES NEWS SERVICE, July 29, 1995: "Footprints preserved in volcanic ash show that human ancestors in Africa were walking upright as early as 3.7 million years ago.

No, we do not intend to review the History of Man here, and, yes, you are right to wonder what the above has to do with the last hundred years of furniture. But do you not also wonder about that biped walking through the ash and whatever else his environment included? Did he sleep in trees, using branches for support? Did he lie on fallen branches spread upon the ground? Did he sit on tree stumps or recline against a rock when he wanted to rest?

In the sense that any of these branches, stumps, or rocks were functional, utilitarian, and used for comfort -- they also were furniture. Three million seven hundred thousand years ago, branches, stumps, and rocks served the same purpose as our Thomasville beds and Tell City chairs. About 3,695 million years after man got to his feet, however, he began to expect more than in from furniture. just utility from furniture. One can observe his interest in design and workmanship and perceive the social and cultural significance of his furniture in drawings and artifacts from ancient burial places. (The oldest existing movable furniture was found in the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun, c. 3140 B.C.).

The purpose of furniture has not changed significantly since the first man quit his animal posture and pulled up a rock to sit upon. And ownership of furniture still implies certain cultural values, as it did to the Egyptians 5,000 years ago. But people continually seek more advanced technologies, and designers will always look for ways to apply discoveries in the creation of new furniture forms.

It is true, as Italian cultural historian Mario Praz has said, "Furniture reveals the spirit of an age. " To understand why furniture looks the way it does, one needs to look to the time of its origin, the materials it is made from, and, most importantly, the technologies involved. Technologies developments have led to pivotal designs in the history of furniture.

Windsor chairmakers were bending wood in the 1700s, but not until Michael Thonet perfected the method about 1840 was mass-production of bentwood furniture possible. Thomas Chippendale used three-ply mahogany back splats in the 1770s, but American Henry Belter is credited with developing plywood lamination that allowed curving and carving and eliminated joinery (c. 1850). The invention of the carving machine in 1845 allowed repetitive reproduction of carved ornament. Today's CNC machines can shape every single wood component that a piece of furniture requires.

Unlike human genealogy, the evolution of furniture design cannot be traced from generation to generation in direct lines. How could a 1950 molded plastic armchair with metal legs, for instance, spring from the same bloodline as an 18th-century mahogany Philadelphia highboy? Therefore, the intent of this chapter is to discuss predominant Movements, starting from 1895. It will not track every single style that has appeared (and re-appeared) in the past hundred years.

As we attempt to portray the variety and richness of 20th-century furniture design, we keep in mind the words of Confucius who said one picture is worth 1,000 words.


A Very New Style

Art Nouveau originated as a philosophy among artisans who wanted to create something entirely new for the 20th century.

During a period roughly corresponding to the heyday of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, the swirling botanical and arabesque forms of Art Nouveau left their mark on European architecture, jewelry and furniture, especially in France and Belgium. In the United States, Art Nouveau had a lesser impact on furniture design.

Art Nouveau originated in France more as a philosophy than a style. The idea behind those sinuous forms was to create something entirely new -- without historical precedent -- in anticipation of the new century approaching.

In time, Art Nouveau came to be expressed by standardized motifs particularly suited to graphic design: women with clinging gowns and long, flowing hair; or lilies, tulips, and irises with long, twisting stems. (Drawings by Europeans Erte and Alphonse Mucha are prime examples.) In other media, American Louis Comfort Tiffany's masterful art glass and leaded stained glass are so well known that his style has become symbolic of Art Nouveau design.

The beginnings of Art Nouveau

Since the 1870s, Emile Galle had been producing art glass in a distinctive style of his own, enhanced by flowing lines and natural motifs of flowers, birds, butterflies and dragonflies. Eventually, Galle formed a co-op of architects, painters, sculptors, cabinetmakers and decorators to produce decorative arts. Their work was influenced by Japanese art, the English Arts and Crafts Movement, and a budding Gothic revival, as well as earlier rococo designs.

In 1885 Galle established a cabinet shop staffed by a group of carpenters, carvers and cabinetmakers. The furniture they built there had free-flowing decorations that followed the form of the underlying structure. Carvings and marquetry consisted of elaborate concoctions of flowers, lily pads, trees and leaves, insects and vines, rushes and weeds. The shop stocked hundreds of species of solid wood and veneers in order to execute these designs.

In December 1895, Samuel Bing opened a shop in Paris called Maison de l'Art Nouveau, with the idea of exhibiting new art by young French designers. Its interiors were designed by Henri van de Velde, a Belgian architect. The shop name, Art Nouveau, was not intended to represent a movement at the time, but the name was picked up and attached to certain decorative styles.

One version, with rococo ties, was characterized especially by sinuous lines and foliate or waving shapes. The other, much more restrained, treated the structural form of furniture as a major design element. Van de Velde, who preferred abstract to natural forms, became an outstanding exponent of the latter.

Structure, proportion and line

Organic motifs were expressed sculpturally and decoratively in French pieces -- a chair appears rooted to the floor, a cabinet with a free-flowing base seems to have grown from the earth as a natural form. Galle created tables with tangled vine legs and lily pads floating on a tabletop. Always trying to harmonize structure and decoration, he planned a smoking table made up of carvings of tobacco plant stems, flowers, and leaves and designed marquetry spirals to represent cigarette smoke.

Louis Majorelle was another major craftsman and designer in the Art Nouveau period. His early furniture emphasized structure, proportion and line. Majorelle's guiding principles were: furniture decoration should be secondary to graceful flowing line and design should be simple.

Other Art Nouveau stylists included: Belgian architect Victor Horta; French designers Hector-Germain Guimard, Eugene Gaillard, Eugene Vallin and Georges de Feure; and Antoni Gaudi, Spanish architect. Edward Colonna, an American who emigrated to France, also worked in Art Nouveau style.

Also, Josef Hoffmann, Austrian architect; Richard Riemerschmid and August Endell, German designers; and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Scottish architect, worked in the style. Mackintosh set a precedent for later Americans Frank Lloyd Wright and the Greene brothers with his emphasis on complete design unity, and integration of building and furniture.

In Germany, the style was known as Jugendstil (young style) and in Italy as Stile Inglese, because of the influence of British designers like Mackintosh and C. F. A. Voysey.

Art Nouveau in America

After the Paris Exhibition of 1900, several American manufacturers including: S. Karpen Bros., George C. Flint & Co., and the Tobey Co., all of Chicago, and the Indianapolis Chair Mfg. Co., attempted to duplicate French Art Nouveau furniture but in simplified versions for a mass market, with machinery-made carvings. (Adolph Karpen was a prominent supporter of modern industrial art.)

American copies seemed to lack the thought, craftsmanship and style inherent in the one-of-a-kind French pieces, however, and were made of less expensive woods. Marquetry, as well as carving, was frequently purchased ready-made, and did not necessarily relate to the form or quality of the furniture on which it was used.

Eventually, the appearance of any swirling plant form seemed to imply "Art Nouveau." Decorative carved arabesque elements or floral marquetry often were added to a piece of furniture that otherwise would not be considered as Art Nouveau style at all. In fact, curlicue carvings sometimes seemed to be an afterthought popped onto the standard golden oak or mahogany furniture already favored in this country.

In attempting to copy the designs without understanding the reasoning, too many American manufacturers produced quaint or overwrought furniture that lacked artistry. In addition, manufacturers used inexpensive woods and tacked on extra costs for producing or buying the curvilinear carvings and inlays, which further dampened consumer interest.

Never really hooked on the organic style that originated in France, Americans continued to fill their homes with golden oak, wicker, antiques, or period reproductions, in Victorian, 18th century, Tudor, Eastlake or Japanese style, Rococo revival, Renaissance revival, or Modern Gothic. But some Americans were ready for simple and straightforward "Mission" or Craftsman furniture that summoned up the image of "noble" American craftsmen.

Arts & Crafts


With no-nonsense designs, unhidden construction and use of machine technology to supplement handcraftsmanship, Arts and Crafts furniture offered an early preview of Modernism in America.

American Arts and Crafts furniture was the first to reconcile handcraftsmanship with machine technology. During this movement, which flourished during the early 20th century, the design, the manufacture, and the


The piece ... is first, last and all the time a chair, and not an imitation of a throne,

nor an exhibit of snakes and dragons in a wild riot of misapplied wood ca -- Gustav Stickley in a 1907 ad for an Art and Crafts chair


Wood is a friend of mine; the best friend on earth of a man is the tree. When we use the tree respectfully and economically, we have one of the greatest resources of the earth.

Frank Lloyd Wright The late dean of American architecture assembly of a piece of furniture became an integrated process. Simple forms, straight lines and lack of ornament were well suited for mass production. At the same time, the use of machines for laborious and repetitive tasks freed-up craftsmen for distinctive hand assembly.

Groundwork for the Arts and Crafts Movement had been laid in England during the 1880s by the writings of John Ruskin and William Morris, who believed that well-built furniture revealed the "true dignity of labor." Furthermore, Morris said the use of beautiful furniture would lead to harmonious environments and relieve the so-called alienation of the Industrial Revolution. Thus, furniture was given a "mission" -- social reform.

But Ruskin and Morris rejected what they called the "evils of machinisation." They cited the "moral superiority" of handcrafted furniture -- one piece/one man -- over other products of the industrial age, which they said dehumanized the factory worker. Morris' goal was to restore the medieval "guild" status of the craftsman.

Morris earned his reputation, not for furniture design, but for the ground rules he set. Furniture made in his shop, Morris & Co., was not outstanding or innovative, nor did it make important contributions to the development of design. However, as author Paul Thompson has written, Morris & Co.'s work, "has fundamental integrity, respect for material and quality of workmanship. His call for simplicity ... has proved inspirational."

English Arts and Crafts had no clearly defined style. Ideas and characteristics of past styles were used freely. In addition, allied artisans and craftsmen used each others' carvings, stained glass, repousse panels, inlays, and metalwork, which added variety but not definition.

Eastlake -- English architect,

author and artist

Charles Locke Eastlake's best-selling 1868 book, Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, became enormously influential in the United States in the 1870s. Sketches of furniture with shallow carving, marquetry, pierced designs, and turned spindles were included. The book sparked demands for functional and sound furniture designed according to Eastlake's dictates for good taste.

Eastlake disapproved of the curving forms of Rococo revival furniture and advocated a return to simple joined and "honest" (i.e., visible) construction. He said ornament should always be related to function. Eastlake disliked the use of stain and varnish and favored oil-rubbed furniture. His book also recommended that furniture be made of solid wood -- oak, walnut or mahogany.

Until 1900, manufactured furniture that was rectilinear in form, made of contrasting woods, inlaid, spindled, incised, relief carved and ebonized, was known as Art Furniture, Eastlake, or East Lake. Eastlake is not known to have built or designed furniture, however, and was not pleased to see his name later associated with a generic "Eastlake" style. "I should be very sorry to be considered responsible for this," he is quoted as saying.

Even though he agreed with the leaders of the Arts and Crafts Movement in theory (i.e., the joy of labor, the dignity of work), Eastlake recognized the role of the machine and the value of mass production in making furniture affordable to more people. Eastlake was a bridge between William Morris (whose motto was "Perfection of Craftsmanship") and including advocates of the machine Gustav Stickley and Frank Lloyd Wright.

From idealism to pragmatism

Arts and Crafts was more successful in America than it ever was in Great Britain when Americans revised the original English Arts and Crafts idealism into a more practical working plan. Among those taking up the banner were Stickley and Elbert Hubbard, both extraordinary entrepreneurs.

A one-time soap salesman, Hubbard founded Roycroft in 1895 in East Aurora, New York, as a utopian craft guild based directly on Morris' writings. Some 500 persons settled in the community where the main occupation was printing and bookbinding. To furnish the inn and shops, the Roycrofters began to make furniture. It was heavy, predominantly oak furniture, fastened with pins, pegs, mortise and tenon, finished with a dark reddish-black stain, and polished to a high sheen. This furniture exhibits influences from English Arts and Crafts prototypes, particularly the bulbous foot of A. H. Mackmurdo origin.

Within 10 years, Roycroft furniture was sold through catalogs and eventually in major department stores. Hubbard was more marketing genius than furniture designer, however, and apparently left the fine points of design to others. The most versatile Roycroft craftsman was Dard (or David) Hunter, described as architect, designer, artist, sculptor, cabinetmaker, coppersmith and iron worker. Work attributed to him includes an oak side chair with carved inscription on the back.

A&C in Grand Rapids

Probably the earliest Arts and Crafts furniture built in America was an 1894 chair made in Grand Rapids. David Kendall of the Phoenix Furniture Co. designed a simple, comfortable chair with a curved front apron, cane back and seat and wide armrests. Made of oak and stained green, it became known as the McKinley Chair after President William McKinley put one in the White House. The McKinley chair was in production for 30 years. Kendall was considered the dean of more than 200 designers practicing in Grand Rapids at the turn of the century. In 1928 the Kendall School of Design was established in his name.

In Grand Rapids, the major Arts and Crafts manufacturers were Charles P. Limbert Co. and Stickley Bros. Albert and J. G. Stickley's early designs were influenced by Art Nouveau, and they produced a wide range of furniture that was not exclusively Arts and Crafts. D. Robertson Smith was their designer.

Limbert produced furniture strongly influenced by the designs of Scottish designer and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh: tables with oval tops and wide, canted sides with square cut-outs, cafe chairs and bedroom pieces. In 1903, Limbert combined Art Nouveau-styled stained glass with a massive Arts and Crafts buffet. A Limbert dining chair (1906) incorporates a tall back with square spindles that go almost to the floor, in Prairie style.

Other Grand Rapids manufacturers working in Arts and Crafts style included: Grand Rapids Desk Co., Grand Rapids Bookcase and Chair Co., Berkey & Gay Furniture, Luce Furniture, C. S. Paine Co., Sligh, and Michigan Chair, which showed quarter-sawn oak chairs and spindle-sided tables in its 1898 catalog.

Stickley's strengths

It was Gustav Stickley, however, who is recognized as the principal force behind the Arts and Crafts Movement in America. Stickley has been called the first of the Machine Age designers. He recognized that certain basic and repetitive tasks were more efficiently done by machine to save energy and time for fine craftsmanship and detailed assembly. In Stickley's Craftsman furniture, exposed pegs, through tenons and dovetails of its joinery, were used as design details. In order to keep furniture "honest," no part of the construction was hidden.

The Craftsman magazine, created and edited by Stickley from 1901-1916, included plans for furniture and lessons in cabinet-making and emphasized Stickley's straightforward approach to construction. An essential source of information, The Craftsman also was tremendously influential in spreading Arts and Crafts philosophy.

Before opening his Craftsman Workshops in Eastwood, New York, Gustav Stickley had traveled to Europe where he met C.F.A. Voysey and other designers who urged him to quit making colonial-style furniture. At a turn-of-the-century Furniture Exposition in Grand Rapids, then the center of the furniture industry, Stickley offered the nation its first peek at modern furniture when he introduced rectilinear furniture made of solid oak and strongly influenced by Arts and Crafts principles: simplicity, utility and honest construction.

His furniture eventually became known as Mission furniture because of its similarity to furnishings of 18th-century Spanish churches and also because of Stickley's repeated statement that, "a chair, a bookcase or a bed must fulfill its mission of usefulness as well as it possible can." Before long, Mission became a generic term for Arts and Crafts furniture.

Simplified versions of the now-famous Morris chair emerged from the Stickley factory, as well as countless rockers, tables, hanging shelves, china cabinets and sideboards. For a short time, Harvey Ellis, architect and journeyman draftsman, created graceful designs with stylized copper and pewter inlays to be executed by Stickley's Craftsman Workshops. The inlays emphasized vertical elements, slenderizing the bulky furniture.

But Stickley declared that the only proper decorations were construction features, such as exposed mortise and tenon joints, butterflies, keyed tenons or dovetails. He used only quarter-sawn oak, which exposed the tree's medullary rays, to build Craftsman furniture. Upon completion, it was not stained but placed in a sealed room and fumed with ammonia for a rich brown color.

Harmony of house and


Design unity was another Arts and Crafts goal advocated in England by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and shared by American architects Frank Lloyd Wright in the Midwest and the Greene brothers in California. They believed that just as buildings should harmonize with their location and landscaping, so furnishings should correspond with the total design concept of the architecture. Wright said, "Every chair must be designed for the building it will be in."

Hence, Wright and the Prairie School architects designed furnishings -- stained glass, light fixtures and textiles, as well as architecturally styled furniture -- to coordinate with their houses. Among the notable Prairie School architects was George Grant Elmslie, a Scotsman whose chairs are distinguished by geometric cutouts in the splat.

Wright designed his first furniture when he was in his early 20s. By the time he was 32, he had reduced furniture to a fundamental geometry of rectangles and horizontal lines. To Wright, a chair was primarily an architectural problem. He defined interior space with his tall straight chairs that act as a screen around tables. Wright's idea that the whole must be considered as an integral unit led to renewed emphasis on built-in furniture, not unlike what the Shakers were doing in the 1800s.

In Stickley fashion, Wright designed furniture in simple shapes to allow for machine production. Machines can render clean-cut, straight-line forms far better than would be possible by hand, he declared.

Lecturing to the Arts and Crafts Society in Chicago in 1901, Wright said, "The machine makes it possible -- by its wonderful ability to cut, form, smooth and repeat -- to work so economically that the poor as well as the rich can enjoy clear and austere forms in the handling of surface detail that a Sheraton or a Chippendale could only indicate ..."

Wright added, "The machine has liberated the beauties of nature in wood ... for, with the exception of the Japanese, wood has been misused and mishandled everywhere."

Without a doubt, the use of machinery had become a major consideration in furniture design.

Greene and Greene

In California, the elegant designs of Charles Sumner Greene and his younger brother, Henry Mather Greene, were influenced by Stickley's The Craftsman magazine and a growing familiarity with Japanese buildings and furniture. The Greenes are considered to be the consummate American Arts and Crafts designers, but they inherited some of their aesthetic ideals from the Japanese as well: asymmetrical design, respect for the materials and superb craftsmanship.

As teenagers, the brothers attended Washington University's Manual Training High School in St. Louis, which required students to study woodworking and metalwork with an emphasis on understanding the inherent nature of the material. They learned how to use tools and machinery at the same time they were studying liberal arts.

In 1888, both entered the School of Architecture at M.I.T. After graduation, they set up practice in Pasadena, California, and designed their "ultimate bungalows" between 1907 and 1909. Their most famous project, the David B. Gamble House in Pasadena, visibly celebrates the ways wood can be joined, interlocked and sculpted. The furniture in this and their other major homes (for Robert Blacker, Charles Pratt and William Thorsens) was mostly made of walnut or teak, inlaid with ebony, fruitwood and semi-precious stones.

The decline of Arts & Crafts

A contribution of the Arts and Crafts period that is not always acknowledged is its elevation of furniture and the decorative arts to a level more closely aligned to fine arts. Because of the efforts of people like the Greenes and Wright, and their ideas of "total design," the fussy Victorian clutter of the 1890s disappeared. People were awakened to new forms in furniture.

In time, however, the whims of fashion and too many low-cost versions of Arts and Crafts-style furniture contributed to its decline. The machine could be used to make inexpensive and reasonably correct copies, but manufacturers to whom Arts and Crafts was a fashion, not a philosophy, used veneers to simulate quarter-sawn oak, added on tenons to look structural, and replaced hammered copper hardware with cast brass.

Production in the East faded about the time of World War I. American traditionalists continued to seek antiques or period reproductions, as Europe moved ahead into modern design. Within the next 15 years, these European design innovations would become universally recognized:

* Restrained, but luxurious Art Deco;

* Functional, rational styles of the Bauhaus; and

* Revised, more ergonomic Arts and Crafts forms from Scandinavia.

Regardless, much of the early American Arts and Crafts furniture was so well made that collectors continue to seek it out. During the late 1980s, movie stars and pizza kings paid unprecedented prices for individual pieces of Mission and Prairle furniture and the boom in reproductions and adaptations was on in the American furniture industry.

The Modern

Period Begins

Unusual shapes, bold color, exotic woods, new materials, and overall luxury characterize cosmopolitan furniture of the Art Deco period.

Art Deco was born in France just after World War I, when some of the country's leading furniture designers produced their finest work. The style exploded, however, at the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes. The Exposition is considered the traditional beginning of Art Deco style.

Art Deco's many aliases include: Le Style Vingt-Cinq (25) in France, Moderne and French Moderne (U.S.), Jazz Modern, and Zigzag. When the generic term "Art Deco" was coined is uncertain; some say it was not until the style was revived in the 1960s.

Taking Paris by storm

The curving, sinuous lines and organic forms of Art Nouveau still prevailed in the 1920s, when suddenly new geometric forms and exquisite cabinet work in rare woods, metal and glass took Paris by storm. Two major pavilions at the Paris Exposition defined the style, its materials and techniques. One was filled with glass and ceramics of Rene

A Furniture Recipe

Style! Fashion! Mode! -- constant, fleeting and fickle, are the grains in the grist mill of the furniture manufacturer. The success of the bread will be the blending of the mixture. To 10 parts of "Style" add two parts of "Fashion" and just a dash of "Mode" -- season well with "Taste" and stir in the mortar of "Good Construction."

The style element must be the principal of the composition, while fashion is more the garnishment. All garnishment would not be nourishing, and all staple style would be too limited in appeal. The seasoning of taste should also vary with the appetite of the user.

The Furniture Industry, as a whole, has been starved of the vitamin "Style" and over-fed on the protein "Price." It needs a definite diet in order that it regain growing health -- a diet that is balanced.

100 Years of


Lalique; the second contained elegant and graceful furniture by Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann, Jules Leleu and Andre Groult.

Ruhlmann's designs were lavished with marquetry and tortoiseshell, ivory, jade, silver, sharkskin, leopard skin and exotic woods like macassar ebony, violet wood, amboyna and amaranth. On later furniture he used contemporary materials as chrome and Bakelite, and put sculptured, silvered-bronze legs on upholstered seating.

Leleu created a room for the exhibition that led to many commissions. His work followed Ruhlmann's elegant style, using exotic species such as amboyna wood with stylized floral marquetry and ivory inlays. Leleu's dining table had an innovative three-legged pedestal with brass detail. Groult exhibited a chest of drawers made of wood covered with sharkskin, with ivory details, curving top and concave sides.

Leading stylists preferred luxurious materials and rare woods, and liked to show them off by keeping surfaces smooth and undecorated. This was Luxury Deco, which flourished in France, and was chiefly for the rich. With the advent of the Great Depression, the opulent French Art Deco-style faded.

Unlike other periods, when furniture styles developed unselfconsciously, Art Deco seemed to be a deliberate attempt by French architects and designers to define and interpret a style. Art Deco furniture was deservedly costly. It was entirely handcrafted of expensive materials and was never meant to be produced by machine. Art Deco furniture was an expression of wealth, not designed for the common man.

Something new for the Jazz Age

In the United States, department store merchandising was on its way to becoming a new art form, assisted by a booming economy and the prevailing jazz Age attitude that, "If it's new, it's good." It was not long until upscale New York department stores were exhibiting the new French style and, in 1927, an important event took place.

Macy's invited 300 exhibitors, including the best designers and craftsmen in Europe and the United States and filled several sample rooms with their avant garde furnishings. Americans hungry for something new were thunderstruck by the unusual shapes, bold color, exotic woods, new materials and overall luxury of this cosmopolitan furniture.

A second landmark event was presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1929. Tided "The Architect and the Industrial Arts," the exhibit attracted 10,000 attendees the first day and ran for six months - 20 weeks longer than originally scheduled.

The Met's exhibit comprised 13 room settings designed by nine architects, including Joseph Urban, Eliel Saarinen and Raymond Hood. Urban's Man's Den was described as having "fine proportions and severe and strongly articulated wood surfaces of wall cabinet, bookcase, desk and chairs." Saarinen's dining-room furniture was all wood and highly geometric. Hood's executive office emphasized metal and glass, and introduced the use of aluminum for chairs, couch frames and tables.

Urban, a renowned stage designer, was key to the development of Art Deco in the United States. Born in Europe, he participated in the Wiener Werkstatte (Vienna Workshop) before emigrating to the United States in 1911. Here, he was chief designer for the Metropolitan Opera in New York for 20 years.

Baker Furniture became one of the first American companies to manufacture Art Deco furniture when it produced a bubinga (also called African rosewood) bedroom group designed by Joseph Urban. His furniture was rectilinear and geometric, usually made of black-stained wood and inlaid with silver or ivory.

American Modern after 1930

In 1928, Collier's magazine described new American furniture in this manner: "It is distinguished by its utter simplicity, smooth and solid surfaces, tendency toward smooth unbroken lines, solidity, practicality, and comfort." Also noted was the use of new and unusual woods, inlays of ivory and metal, and unusual fabrics.

Even though Art Deco stylists tried to leave history behind, their work was influenced by ancient Assyrian, Aztec, and Egyptian forms popular in the 1920s. (King Tut's tomb had just been opened.) Later designers also borrowed from contemporary culture, using sharply defined geometrics from Cubist art, iconography of transportation and the skyscraper, and stylized lightning bolts or racing clouds to represent dynamism. American industrial designers tried to suggest speed by streamlining contours, rounding corners and generally creating sleek surfaces and edges.

Art Deco furniture shares characteristics of modern architecture, such as the skyscraper's strong verticals and angles and its stepped-back look. New industrial materials that had gained prominence in architecture, such as plastic laminate, aluminum, chrome, and stainless steel, also became significant in Art Deco furniture.

Splendid Art Deco interiors outfitted the French ocean liner Normandie, which burned in New York harbor in the early 1940s. The Chrysler Building and Radio City Music Hall, both in Manhattan, are prime examples of existing Art Deco architecture.




Modernists design furniture with sleek lines and contemporary materials for high-tech look.

Modernistic, International and Modern are names for furniture that developed after World War I without regard for national origin or traditional decoration. Instead, emphasis was on form and design, inspired by the materials from which the furniture was made and the uses to which it would be put. Bauhaus Modernists, to whom structure was paramount, evolved the now-famous dictum, "Form follows function." Few Bauhaus designs actually were mass produced, but their forms symbolized the machine age.

Modernism was shaped by architects such as Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Alvar Aalto and Eero Saarinen, and the design team of Charles Eames and his wife, Ray. They altered furniture forms for all time when they began to explore the technology of new materials -- plywood, tubular steel, and plastic -- and to use these materials in furniture that "carried the promise. of assembly-line production."

Good design benefits all

The German Bauhaus design school, founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius, was noted for a program that combined craftsmanship, design and technology. Gropius said, "The Bauhaus believes the machine is the modern medium of design and seeks to come to terms with it."

The Bauhaus investigated machine technology and its implications for design in order to design furniture that could be mass produced. Designers must first be craftsmen, Gropius said, and Bauhaus furniture prototypes were handcrafted, but their materials and basic geometric shapes gave the deliberate impression of having been mass produced industrially.

The idea of making good design available to the general public was a guiding principle of the Modernists, based on the Bauhaus concept that good design benefits everyone, not just a privileged few. Believing that "Design can change society," the Modernists set out to create goods that were functional, inexpensive, and good looking.

About the same time that the Bauhaus was founded, Dutch artist Gerrit Thomas Rietveld designed the now-famous Red and Blue chair that had no precedent in furniture history. As a member of the Modernist De Stijl group, Rietveld investigated abstract geometric forms, aligning the chair with modern art imagery of lines and planes.

An industrial aesthetic

Where England's William Morris rejected the machine in his desire to elevate the status of the craftsman, and the labor-intensive "total design" of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Greene brothers was at odds with mass production, the concept of machine technology was a prime factor in the Modernist design process. The Bauhaus school considered the machine an extension of the hand -- a thing to be used.

Members of the Bauhaus broke with historical styles and the tradition of applied decoration for an aesthetic meant to give the appearance of industrial production. Saarinen declared, "A mass-produced item must be impersonal -- not smack of the artist's personality. It must be classic...responding to a recurring need, both practical and visual, in many situations.'

This generation of designers wanted furniture to take up as little room as possible, in contrast to the emphasis on mass and solidity of Arts and Crafts furniture. Space should flow freely through furniture. The profiles of chairs designed by van der Rohe or Breuer show how negative space had become as important in furniture as it was in sculpture.

Breuer and tubular steel

Marcel Breuer joined the Bauhaus in 1920, when he was 18 years old. Four years later, he headed the carpentry and furniture department. In 1925, he developed his celebrated -- and revolutionary -- Wassily chair of bent seamless tubular steel with leather sling. (The chair was named after his friend and colleague Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, who lived on the Bauhaus campus.)

In designing the chair, Breuer's vision was to achieve transparency of form and visual as well as physical lightness. During his work he had come across polished metal surfaces that reflected shimmering fines in space. Breuer said he saw this effect as the symbol of modem technology. His steel tubing furniture precisely illustrated the form-must-follow-function axiom, and at the same time employed a material that was right for mass production.

Architect Mies van der Rohe designed a cantilevered tubular chrome-plated steel and cane chair in 1927, followed by his cold-rolled, chrome-plated steel and leather Barcelona chair two years later. Designed for the German Pavilion at the 1929 Barcelona exhibition, the chair is another modem classic. Its factory look is "achieved through painstaking handwork," and its sleek line and use of contemporary materials define it as "high tech." Sixty-six years after its introduction and still in production (in stainless steel), the Barcelona chair has become a symbol of the Modem Movement.

Van der Rohe was the last director of the Bauhaus, from 1930 until 1933 when Nazi intervention forced its closing. The exodus of Bauhaus teachers and students to the United States was the catalyst for some of this country's finest modem design.

Variation on a theme

The Modernists believed that furniture's form should come from its use, materials, and the way it was made -- a variation on the Craftsman's theme of "honest" (unhidden) construction and the Prairie School idea of designing furniture for the place where it would be used. Their earliest work was handmade, but as R. Craig Miller writes, "They clung to the curious aesthetic precept that the use of simple geometric forms could give the appearance of industrial production." Miller cites Mies' Barcelona chair as an example -- the chair is not inexpensive to make nor is it suitable for mass production.

For the most part, Modernist designers:

* Used a minimum of parts

* Fused elements for a single, strong profile

* Limited their palettes to black, white and gray

* Omitted ornament that was not inherent in materials

* Employed the latest technologies in materials

The Modern Age:

Desiqn, Technology


New technology and materials challenge designers to find innovative ways to make furniture.

Modern furniture received a huge boost from exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1929, "The Architect and the Industrial Arts," and in 1934, "Contemporary American Industrial Art;" from World's Fairs in Chicago and New York; and



Despite the fact that the French and English were not very neighborly in the 18th century, reproductions of furniture made in both countries during that period go well together. from galleries and department stores. As early as 1927, Chicago's foremost department store, Marshall Field's & Co., exhibited modern furnishings imported from France and Austria.

That same year, Adolph Karpen, Chicago furniture manufacturer and supporter of industrial arts, sponsored a living room furniture design competition, with $5,000 in prize money. He offered to manufacture the winning entries, most of which were characterized by straight lines and undecorated surfaces. This event was hailed as a giant step toward interesting American industrial, interior and theatrical designers in furniture design, a field neglected while period furniture reigned in the American home.

The new wave o f modern American designers included: Norman Bel Geddes, Gilbert Rohde, Raymond Loewy, Henry Dreyfuss, Russel Wright and Walter Teague. Others were Donald Deskey, Paul Frankl, Kem Weber, Leland Atwood, Wolfgang Hoffmann, Robert Switzer, Cedric Gibbons and Marianne Willisch.

Furniture in the House of


The 1933 World's Fair in Chicago, occurring on the 100th anniversary of the city's founding, was subtitled "A Century of Progress Exposition." Thirteen model homes included a 12-sided House of Tomorrow and an all-glass Crystal House with ultra-modern steel and glass furniture. Atwood, Rohde, Hoffmann, Switzer and Willisch designed the furniture; Kroehler, Bowman Bros., the Howell Co. and Chicago Workshops made it.

Modern, straight-lined case goods and simple chairs of chromeplated tubular steel, and other contemporary furnishings shown at the fair, created a market for mass-produced and affordable modern design among middle-class Americans. After the World's Fair, the Howell Co., for example, sold thousands of cantilevered Chromsteel S-shaped kitchen chairs, with vinyl seat and back cushions.

The evolving aesthetic of the 1930s incorporated polished veneers and painted wood finishes for a sleek look; restrained use of pattern; plate glass tops, walls and shelves; and "streamlined" curves. Furniture occasionally took on asymmetrical forms. By the end of the decade, "waterfall" curved edges appeared on case goods. Art Deco was still trendy in the early 1940s.

A change in direction

S. Karpen Bros. built an entire line of modern furniture designed by Ken Weber and Eugene Schoen. Kroehler Mfg. Co. mass produced designs by Gilbert Rohde. From 1934 until 1942, Hoffmann, who was the son of Joseph Hoffmann, a founder of the Wiener Werkstatte, designed for Howell. He was known for modern furniture that combined steel bars or tubing supports and wood, leather or fabric. Plate glass or black Bakelite topped his tables and desks.

In 1930, Rohde radically changed Herman Miller's design direction from handcrafted and ornate period furniture to sparse 20th-century furniture -- virtually single-handedly. Rohde designed Herman Miller's first seating -- upholstered chairs with wood legs, cantilevered tubular steel chairs and the first sectional sofa.

Rohde also originated a system for standardizing office furniture. In the late '30s, he developed EOG (Executive Office Group) with 15 components -- tops, top supports, legs, bases, and drawers -- that could be assembled in 400 different ways.

Streamlined and modern

During the Depression, Heywood-Wakefield Co. invited Rohde, Wright, Leo Jiranek and Alexis de Sakhnoffsky to create new furniture lines using the latest machinery. These designers were modernists who popularized the streamlined look and confirmed the Bauhaus principle that quality furniture could emerge from a production line.

Heywood-Wakefield's Streamline Modern rejected surface decoration, combining solid birch with sleek and simple lines, rounded corners and light finishes. The line was in production, with variations, for almost 20 years.

In the mid-30s, Wright also designed Modern Living, a solid maple line for Conant Ball. The furniture was rectilinear with rounded edges and corners. It was sold as individual pieces and became a best seller.

"Livable Modern"

In 1934 Marshall Field's & Co., showcased "Livable Modern" -- streamlined and contemporary versions of traditional forms -- in light woods or new combinations of materials. The furniture all came from American manufacturers, with styles classified as Classic Modern (simplified neo-classic), Chinese Modern (enameled surfaces and oriental details), Provincial Modern (native woods), Pure Modern and Modernissimus (far-out), according to Sharon Darling, author of Chicago Furniture.

A consumer poll at this time established Modern as the favorite, over any traditional period or style, but that may have been the result of economy as much as taste. Manufacturers facing economic crises kept production costs as low as possible, producing plain, generic, straight-line furniture in a process that bypassed designers. Ornament or designer details were out of the question on lower-priced furniture.

Sycamore was commonly used for veneer work. Also, in the mid-30s, inexpensive and plentiful Baroque furniture from Italy and Spain was imported into the United States. It was stripped and bleached to suit the contemporary preference for lighter wood.

Scandinavia adds another


Simple, lightweight, well-proportioned and well-made wood furniture was in production in Scandinavia, and the world became aware of it at the Stockholm Exhibition of 1930. A broad sector of Americans saw it at the New York World's Fair of 1939 and admired its warm and craftsman-like look. When American furniture markets began to show Scandinavian furniture, Scandinavian-Swedish-Danish Modern became household words.

Important Scandinavian designers include: Alvar Aalto, Finn Juhl, Hans Wegner, Karl Malmsten, Bruno Mathsson, Fritz Schlegel, Soren Hansen, Kaare Klint, Arne Jacobsen and Verner Panton.

Foremost in the Scandinavian Movement was Aalto, a Finnish architect who pioneered the use of laminated wood and added another dimension to chair design. The soft and irregular forms and comfort of his chairs were a welcome alternative to the hard edges of Modernism.

During the 1930s, Aalto adapted the cantilever principle used in Breuer's and van der Rohe's tubular steel chairs, and applied it to chairs of molded plywood. The Paimio chair, named for the Paimio Sanatorium he designed, was a single unit of curving plywood suspended between a continuous-loop frame made of hardwood veneer layers.

Aalto also designed a chair of bent plywood on a metal frame, which he produced and marketed through Artek. Inexpensive birch furniture, modeled after Aalto's designs, was mass produced by Finmar Ltd. Schlegel designed rectilinear box furniture proposed as modular add-ons (perhaps the first wall unit), and it was manufactured by Fritz Hansen Eft. Schlegel and Soren Hansen designed chairs in the time-honored bentwood process. Danish designer Juhl created a number of pieces for Baker Furniture, including a sleek armchair in 1945 in collaboration with Niels Vodder. Architect Elias Svedberg designed a line of RTA pieces that was well-made and inexpensive.

It was Aalto's first chairs, however, that made the most of plywood's inherent resiliency. His Paimio chair was the forerunner of molded chairs by Breuer (1935) and Charles Eames, designer of some of the 20th century's foremost chairs in the United States after World War Il.

Further developments in


Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen were students at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, which was designed and directed by Eliel Saarinen, Eero's father. Cranbrook operated in the manner of the Bauhaus, with furniture makers, metalsmiths, and other artisans studying and working together.

At Cranbrook, Eames and Saarinen, assisted by Ray Kaiser, designed a revolutionary, three-dimensional molded plywood chair that won first prize in the Museum of Modern Art's Organic Design Competition, 1940. The plywood shell was molded in two directions, rather than bent in one direction like the plywood in Marcel Breuer's and Aalto's furniture. A unique rubber shock mount made it possible to join plywood to metal supports.

The contest's objective was to discover furniture that could be factory produced on assembly lines and at reasonable cost. This chair was never manufactured, however, probably because of wartime priorities.

While designing for the U.S. Navy during World War II -- special splints and a litter to move the injured -- Eames and Ray, now his wife, developed additional molded plywood techniques later used in making furniture. They themselves designed and built the autoclave, presses, and moulds.

The Eameses' famous 1946 chair utilizes molded and contoured plywood, the first chair with compound curves that relate to the sitter. Eames also ploneered the use of fiberglass-reinforced plastic for seating. Eames' molded plywood and plastic furniture came closest to realizing the Modernist goal of producing good design at low cost.

Simplicity, pure form, and respect for materials place Eames, Saarinen, and Aalto in a class of their own. Their designs are timeless.

Seeking the monolithic chair

Following the example of Eames, Saarinen and Aalto, other designers produced innovative chairs using plywood technology. Carl Jacobsen's versatile and low-cost stacking chair (1950) was produced in England and Joe Colombo's "4801" occasional chair (1963) was made in Italy. In 1952, Arne Jacobsen developed a three-legged chair with a one-piece seat and back of molded plywood.

As Arne Jacobsen's design indicates, designers were committed to reducing materials and form to bare bones in order to maximize production. The ideal, which they were fast approaching, was a one-piece product made of only one material -- the monolithic chair.

Danish designer Verner Panton began working on a fiberglass chair in the early 1950s, after learning how crash helmets were made and how little they cost. By 1960, he had solved the problem of one-piece design with a cast stacking chair of polyester and fiberglass -- no wood, no steel and no legs.

"In a way, American style involved a love affair with industry," wrote critic Edward Lucie-Smith. The designer who kept up with the latest technology could always do better than one who collaborated only occasionally, he adds. He cited Eero Saarinen as an example. His Tulip chair, a 20th century classic, retains not one iota of craftsmanship. "It is pure statement of form, born from the designer's brain and machine capabilities."

Design After

World War II

The post-war years were filled with enterprising spirit but defy categorization.

In brief, postwar and late 20th-century furniture included, but was not limited to, the following:

* 1940s -- Sculptured plywood; Borax furniture

* 1950s -- Danish Modern; Craft Revival; kidney tables; plastic chairs

* 1960s -- Blow-up, beanbag and director chairs; Art Deco revival;

* 1970s -- Return to tradition; Post-Modern; Art furniture; modulars

* 1980s -- Memphis Milano; reproductions; Neoclassic Revival; International Country; eclectic, RTA

* 1990s -- "Designer" brands; Biedermeier Revival, Romancing the Consumer; Country; Contemporary.

Furniture designer and author T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings predicted in 1942 that countless families would build homes after World War II, for which they would need good furniture. "It won't be Chinese Modern or Colonial Modern; it will be good, down-to-earth, inexpensive, contemporary American furniture."

Traditionally, American designers had looked to Europe for inspiration, but after the war, European industry was devastated. Then along came Charles Eames. He and his wife, Ray, designed furniture that was nontraditional and uniquely American, using plywood, plastics, fiberglass and metals.

The Eameses, Eero Saarinen and George Nelson created innovative designs that were America's finest contribution to the contemporary post-war scene: the lounge chair, pedestal furniture, the sling sofa and the womb chair. Modernistic furniture was copied by mass-production manufacturers and appeared everywhere, until about 1970.

America's worst contribution to post-war style was "Borax," a pejorative term for big, heavy, and poorly built furniture. It was popularly priced and designed for customers with little knowledge of design. They were expected to conclude that because the furniture looked solid, it must be good.

Traditional 18th-century furniture is a perennial favorite and Early American maple (a simple Colonial form, without strict historical references) continued to be popular in the 1940s, and on through the '70s. American designer Edmond Spence opted for a lighter look in both modern and traditional designs. Herbert Ten Have, who added a rectilinear oriental look to case goods and Danish styling to chairs, received the Waters Award for outstanding achievement in furniture design in 1953.

By the mid-1950s, furniture made of plastic, steel, aluminum and plastic laminate had become acceptable in middle America's kitchens and rec rooms. Living rooms were apt to be furnished with blond wood case goods with tapered legs, sectional sofas and kidney-shaped coffee tables. Coffee tables were a post-war innovation, reflecting a life-style that included "entertaining."

Scandinavian design that emerged in the '30s never lost its easy-to-live-with appeal. Exposed wood furniture in teak and walnut was softer-looking and more natural than metal and plastic, and the forms were lightweight, clean-lined and very functional. Fine craftsmanship showed as well. Scandinavian-designed and manufactured understuffed sofas, chairs with open arms and slim legs, low-slung credenzas and modular wall units became classics of understated style.

American manufacturers of Scandinavian-style furniture included: Baker Furniture, which commissioned a number of works by Danish designer Finn Juhl; Lane, which introduced a major Danish-style collection in 1950; and Winchendon, which introduced the Milo Baughman Collection of Scandinavian-styled solid maple furniture in 1951.

Sleek, affordable, pop and


Milan had become an important design center after World War II. One of the first styles imported by the Unites States was a butterfly-frame chair with canvas sling seat. This arose from a wartime folding chair used by Italian soldiers. The Italians created a sleek modern style of their own, using plastics, fiberglass and foam, in forms created by inexpensive injection molding and hot pressing. Most important, nearly everyone could afford the new designs.

Foremost Italian architect and designer Gio Ponti created the Superleggera chair in the mid-50s, a lightweight, versatile, inexpensive chair that recalls Shaker style. The Castiglioni Brothers, Achille and Pier, carried on recycling (as did Ernest Race in England) with their Tractor Seat Chair (1955). A seat from a '30s tractor, a wing nut from a bicycle and a spring from a railway car were the ingredients.

By the mid-60s, international attention fixed on Italy. Serious designers displayed new forms made of new materials. The not-so-serious displayed bean-bag chairs and a kissy-lips sofa (based on a Salvador Dali painting), inflatable blow-ups and foam rocks for sitting. Italian-born Pedro Freideberg created his pop art sculpture Hand Chair in 1963, while living in Mexico. The Joe Lounge Chair, in the form of a catcher's mitt, was named after baseball great Joe DiMaggio. It came from Design Studio.

Leading Italian designers from this era include: Gae Aulenti, Tobia and Afra Scarpa, the Castiglionis, Giancarlo Piretti, Marco Zanuso, Vico Magistretti, Franco Albini and Joe Colombo. Studio 65, Design Studio and Scolari, who were responsible for the fun furniture, could also be serious. Memphis Milano was still to come.

In England, the Race Co. earned its reputation with simple and unpretentious furniture made with technical ingenuity. The Antelope chair (1950), a simple painted steel-rod frame with plywood seat, won a Silver Medal at the Milan Triennale Competition in 1954. Race's 1945 BA Chair was designed by Ernest Race and used re-smelted aluminum alloy from aircraft scrap.

Another craft revival

The First World War marked the demise of the Arts and Crafts Movement, but a craft revival of another nature developed after World War Il. Of the generation of artisans building wood furniture after 1945, a few stars were recognized for highly original work. Sam Maloof, Tage Frid and the late George Nakashima were at the forefront of the postwar Craft Revival. They emphasized material and techniques as ends unto themselves.

Nakashima produced innovative furniture that incorporated the natural forms of trees. His furniture expressed Nakashima's affection for wood, while disavowing the machine.

Maloof has designed and built handcrafted furniture in California since 1948. He is best known for his greatly copied chairs with flat spindles and extended rockers. At age 79, Maloof continues to build functional objects.

Frid, a Dane who came to America in 1948, was key to the revival of handcrafted furniture after the war. He taught woodworking at the School for American Craftsmen in New York before leaving to set up the furniture program at Rhode Island School of Design. His students were taught technique and function before being allowed to move into self-expression.

Artist-craftsman Wendell Castle was the leading figure in the return of handcrafted art furniture. The master virtuoso of American woodworking, Castle appeared on the national scene before 1970 with monumental, carved biomorphic forms no machine could duplicate. His stacked and laminated cherry wood settee is a representative piece from Castle's early years at the School for American Craftsmen, Rochester Institute of Technology.

The potpourri years

The 1960s and 1970s were the poly-genetic decades, when design could be aligned with Midwest weather. (If you don't like it, just wait a few minutes.) Something of every design from the past, every period from Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, Bauhaus, Art Deco, Scandinavian, Italian Contemporary, plus English, Spanish, French and Italian revivals showed up in American furniture. These years of enterprising spirit defy categorization.

Mediterranean was very popular in the 1960s, and became one of the industry's most financially successful styles. Almost every company offered its own version.

Nathan Bienenstock filled a chapter in his book, A History of American Furniture, with manufacturers' photos from the 1960s and early 1970s. Photos of Mediterranean and Early American outnumber all other styles. American consumers could furnish their homes with these styles from the following manufacturers:

Mediterranean (Italian or Spanish): Howell of St. Charles, United Furniture, Coleman Furniture and Drew Furniture Co.

Italian provincial: A.A. Laun, Union Furniture, Drexel.

Italian 18th century Renaissance: Red Lion Table Co.

Spanish: Gordon's, Pulaski, Clarendon Ind., Drexel, Hammary, Broyhill.

Mediterranean/Mexican: Century of Hickory's Cortez Collection, designed by Ray Sobota.

Venetian Renaissance: Karges.

Early American Colonial maple: Cushman, Ethan Allen, Harden, Heywood-Wakefield, S. Bent & Bros., Tell City Chair Co., Temple-Stuart, Crawford of Jamestown, Taylor-Jamestown, Sumter Cabinet Co., Athens Bed Co., Keller Mfg. Co.

Early American Colonial pine: Consolidated, Fox Mfg. Co., Maxwell Royal Chair Co.

18th century American: Ethan Allen, Thomasville, Brandt Cabinet Works. Also, Chippendale: Pennsylvan'a House, Craftique and Henkel-Harris; and Sheraton: Ethan Allen.

French Provincial: White of Mebane, Schoolfield, Kemp, United, Carlton House.

Louis XV: Hickory Mfg. Co., Hibriten Chair, Kay Lyn Inc., Hickory Tavern.

English Tudor: Consolidated Furniture Ind.

18th-century reproductions: Craftique, Henkel-Harris, Hickory Chair and Baker

English country reproductions: Knapp & Tubbs

Victorian: Victorian Galleries.

American West: A. Brandt.

Contemporary: Sanford designs by O.B. Solie, Widdicomb, Foster McDavid, Henredon Furniture, Laverne International.

Contract style

Also in the 1960s, the concept of systems furnishings ushered in more flexible, efficient offices. Robert Propst, a pioneer in the study of ergonomics, created Action Office System (1964) for Herman Miller. Desks, shelves, work surfaces and other components could be arranged and rearranged on vertical panels depending on user requirements.

Herman Miller also produced George Nelson's Comprehensive Storage System of wall units from 1959 until 1973, as well as his 1964 sting sofa. Jurgen Lange, one of Germany's leading designers, in 1970 created a free-standing, all-white-polyester movable wall system with fold-down tables, storage cupboards, shelves and drawers.

One of the best and most ubiquitous chairs of the 1960s won the 1964 Milan Triennale Grand Prize and the AID International Design Award in 1965. Industrial designer David Rowland, who trained at Cranbrook Academy of Art, spent eight years developing his 40/4 stacking chair. Forty of these chairs can be stacked four feet high. The frame is 7/16-inch steel rods and the seat and back are either five-ply wood or vinyl-covered sheet metal. The manufacturer is GF Furniture Systems.


Some experimental furniture of the 1960s and 1970s was not designed nor expected to last indefinitely. A clear Plexiglas chair could become disreputable looking within a short time. Blow-up chairs were only as durable as the plastic from which they were made. But inflating consumerism stimulated more experiments with disposable furniture.

Architect Frank Gehry tried to find a way to produce inexpensive furniture and began improvising with cardboard, a material he had already used for store window displays. He glued multiple layers of cardboard together like plywood, contoured the pieces, then cut them with a jigsaw. The epoxied material shaped up beautifully -- Gehry created 17 different chair styles. Easy Edges furniture, introduced commercially in 1972, was critically and popularly acclaimed. In 1979, Gehry produced Experimental Edges using the same materials but with loose, shaggy forms.

A Repertory of Late

20th Century


From Memphis back to Mission, Country to Couturier, design seeks its direction as the millennium ends.

In the same manner that Art Deco took the world by storm in 1925 and Scandinavian designs created a sensation in 1930, Italian design burst onto the international scene in 1981. At this time, a small group calling itself Memphis Milano fired the shot heard around the world. Loaded with radical ideas about form, color and pattern, the Memphis Movement was regarded as anti-design.

Much Memphis furniture, particularly that of founder Ettore Sottsass, is characterized by sharp angles, clashing colors, hard edges, incongruous material mixtures and odd proportions. It is also true that Memphis furniture is exciting, amusing and playful. It replaced historical references with decorative patterns, allowed wit to creep in and brought spice to design.

Memphis furniture designers included: Andrea Branzi, Marco Zanini, Aldo Cibic, Peter Shire, Michele de Lucchi, Nathalie du Pasquier and George Sowden. Works by American architects Michael Graves and James Evanson and Japanese designer Shiro Kuramata also were exhibited.

In the United States, no compelling furniture design direction emerged in the years 1975 to 1995 -- partly because design must stand the test of time in order to be considered enduring. But there is a wide range of acceptance for style trends, which develop on all fronts. Any one trend has a reasonable chance of succeeding for a while -- just pick a year and name a style. Neoclassical and Biedermeier appear and reappear. Contemporary makes waves, then French Provincial drifts back. In anticipation of style trends, the residential furniture industry is conditioned to invent new collections twice a year. Sadly, the marketing-propelled race that encourages companies to start trends or keep up with current ones, also forces some commendable designs to be left behind.

The way we were

In the December 1987 issue of Wood & Wood Products, American designers discussed the direction taken by furniture design. Looking back on the 1980s, Randy Culler perceived America as a world leader in Contemporary furniture design. John Mascheroni saw the pendulum swinging back from Bauhaus minimalism to traditional detail. Lawrence Peabody said eclecticism was here to stay.

According to Culler, "For years, trends and innovations from Europe set the design directions for the United States. Today the reverse is true. Offerings originating here are clearly major factors influencing Contemporary design worldwide."

Mascheroni said, "Furniture design is part of, and reflects, environmental design, which is affected by architectural design. There is a definite swing toward Traditionalism, even in Contemporary styles. This started with the post-Modern movement, when the architectural community focused on classicism. That gave the design community a renewed interest in ornamental detail. Prior to this, the Bauhaus international influence dominated the contemporary market."

"All manner of new and old classics from Eames through Bauhaus, Art Deco and Mission are increasing in popularity," Peabody said. "With the shrinking of the world and the new media penetration of it, even in Third World countries, it seems obvious that we will be eclecticising many styles, periods and elements of designs."

The Arts and Crafts revival that commenced after World War II, followed by high prices paid at auctions, whetted public interest in Mission and Prairie furniture. The L. & J. G. Stickley Co. began to reissue Mission pieces in 1989 and the resulting boom was heard by the American furniture industry. Scores of reproductions and adaptations followed. The look of handcrafted furniture was exactly right for the prevailing Country style.

Designer cachet

While Country (read "casual") has been around as long as we have, the old farmhouse-look shaped up into something much more marketable. International Country took hold in the '80s and never let loose. The style is based on ethnic characteristics, nostalgia, eclecticism, nature and outdoor motifs. Consumers are romanced with "lifestyle" furniture, designed to give American homes -- and their occupants -- the ambience they might otherwise lack. 1980s design was also about celebrities.

The designer label, a trend that began with women's clothing and worked its way through blue jeans, sheets and automobile interiors, was perhaps inevitable in an age of consumerism. Ralph Lauren and Mario Buatta signed on to add designer cachet to furniture lines. Other "names" that continue to sell furniture in the 1990s are popular artists Bob Timberlake and the late Norman Rockwell; interior designers Mark Hampton and Jena Hall; Lynn Hollyn and the late Jay Spectre.

In 1994, Dakota Jackson, custom designer of handcrafted furniture for an elite clientele and the producer of high-style, high-end contract furnishings, entered a partnership with Lane Furniture. Jackson's first step into mass production with a major manufacturer created a great deal of interest in the design and manufacturing communities.

The pendulum swings

And now we have completed another century. In 1896 Art Nouveau arose because furniture makers wanted to create something new for the 20th century, and in so doing helped to sweep away Victorian and its attending clutter and ornament. The straight and simple plain-Jane lines and materials of Craftsman furniture gave way to sleek and polished Art Deco and its emphasis on luxury. Art Deco, in turn, was succeeded by the high-tech industrial look of Modernism. The materials of Modernism -- tubular steel, plywoods, and plastics -- were used to create spare and innovative forms of 1950s and '60s furniture. Then came the romanticizing of the American home. If "less was more" in the 1930s, then "more was better" in the opulent 1980s.

In the '90s, a decade trying to have a conscience, style may become secondary to consumers' concern regarding source of materials, the effects of their use upon the environment and capabilities for recycling.

We suggest that 1995's elevation of Eclecticism to a trend shows the following:

* Designers find inspirations everywhere and love to use them all.

* Designers are not hung up on historical relevance.

* Consumers are indifferent about styles and like everything.

* Consumers are unwilling to commit to one style, for fear of picking the wrong one.

* The turn of this century, too, is a time of transition. Designers, manufacturers and consumers are all waiting to see what the 21st century will bring.

Where are we going?

Wood & Wood Products asked designers across the country to look into their crystal balls and predict the direction furniture design would take in the year 2001. Injection-molded Romanticism, Traditionalism, continued Country casual, innovation and emphasis on function lie ahead, they declare.

"We all are creatures of our past," said Ron Stilwell, Lenoir, North Carolina. "We still carry around the luggage of the past, and what we will carry into the next century is Traditional -- memories of our heritage from our parents and grandparents. I think we will see the nostalgia of the Victorian era all over again."

Modern will always be with us, Milo Baughman said. "There will always be a modern way of designing -- that is, to be original in interpretation or innovative in form. There is no single way to be a Modernist any more," the Utah designer added. "Designers today are far too independent to be limited to the doctrinaire definition of Modern."

According to Randy Culler of High Point, lifestyles will be more casual and, "casual will be the operative word for furniture," he said. In styles from traditional, transitional and contemporary, furniture will be casual and low key as people try to uncomplicate their lives and homes, Culler added. Function will become increasingly important, especially as space diminishes: motion furniture, storage pieces and sectionals for media rooms.

New York designer John Mascheroni said, "As much I would love to believe we'll see a swing to Contemporary, I think we will remain in the Country mode. Traditional also will retain its grip on the market."

Mascheroni said designers and manufacturers have to keep elevating consumer consciousness with good design. "Make them feel secure," he added. "I admire the changeover Ethan Allen has made, creating good-looking, contemporary "mod" furniture -- very 1940s. Most manufacturers are not willing to take that step," Mascheroni said.

Injection-molded Romanticism

"We swing back and forth, from a romantic longing for the past to modernism," said Karl Felperin in California. "From the Baroque of the 17th century, we went into the rationalization and elegance of the 18th century, which was modern in its time. The 19th century turned to Romanticism, and by and large, the 20th-century thrust has been Modernism," he said.

The next cycle of Romanticism has already started -- the 1980s Country movement was the first step, Felperin continued. "But now we have public conscience and the pressures of deforestation with which to deal. We have modern technology -- computer design and injection-molded components -- demand for lower prices and the longing for the past. How do we reconcile all this? Injection-molded Romanticism."

Barbara Garet is an award-winning journalist having been honored by the Suburban Press Foundation and President George Bush's Points of Light Awards program. She has been with Wood & Wood Products since 1987 and served as Design Editor since 1990.
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Title Annotation:1896-1996: Wood & Wood Products Centennial; furnitures
Author:Garet, Barbara
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Jan 1, 1995
Previous Article:Wood at war.
Next Article:The American kitchen, 1895-1995.

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