strikes up the band for some lesser copied American mid-century talent
SCANNING the European mid-century tat-hangers, you would be forgiven for thinking that 20th century American furniture design began and ended with the eclectic orchestra of Charles and Ray Eames (d.1978, d.1988), a trombone slide of Finnish-American, Eero Saarinen (1910–1961) and a cymbal clash of George Nelson (1908-1986). There’s so much more to the Land of the Brave.
As it’s July 4, let’s discover a lesser copied American show of talent. Some names will be familiar, others will take a little research, but all will have sounded notes on the high street or are soon to be on parade. First or second-generation Americans, most were drawn to the flamboyant, never–say-die ethos of the US studio-retailer, eager to back the best of bright young domestic and international genius.
Think of Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (look up all that wondrous work), and you arrive at their production house of Knoll, a company founded in 1938 in the United States by Hans Knoll. Not to be confused with Parker Knoll, maker of whiskered British sofas and chairs, Harry’s son Hans, forged another work/love match. His wife Florence Knoll Bassett (b 1917), known by her close friend Saarinen as Shu’, recognised the conjunction of fashion, architecture and industrial design. Championing unproven creatives, and radical forms in plastics and plywood, this fearless entrepreneur was seminal in the firm’s present-day success.
Working with her Planning Unit the entire layout of important corporate palaces in the States including GM and IBM, were delivered with Florence’s couture, modernist touch shot through with functional perfection and superb fabrics. She died with her hand on the helm just last year at the age of 98. Key pieces: Charles Pollock -1920–2013- executive chairs for Knoll c1963 from €500–€800 used, and Dividends Horizon Y-based conference tables by Jeffrey Bernett (current POA — grab if found used), knoll.com
Born in California and working actively on the East coast of the US between 1947 and 2003 the precocious and visionary Milo Baughman (said as Baf-man) is getting enjoying huge adulation if you can call the sly tweaked plagiarising of someone’s work by the retail furniture giants as adulation. The restless young Milo designed his parents’ home in Long Beach, California at the age of 13, inside and out. Would you have that confidence in your darling Derek? Many sleek, understated Baughman designs are still produced by Thayer Coggin Inc, North Carolina, a firm that commissioned him first in the 1950s. His work from the late 1960s right into the 1990s still fascinates, sells and inspires, and Baughman’s tragic death in a fire in 2013 has lead to a resurgence of interest in his work.
Buyers love the Bauhaus bravado in Baughman’s delicately sketched bar-metal square and rectangular chair and sofa supports, matched to the seductive visual stroke of Art Deco comfort and glamour (a style era never completely driven out of the States). A humanist, the work is built around sensory delight first and foremost, using the finest of available classic and contemporary materials including designer fabrics (important survivals – don’t reupholster). Suspended against a wall of glass his seating has a sculptural presence. Seen flat on the floor with a raised Martini, the lines remain insanely beautiful. Suppliers here in Ireland with a clutch of Baughman Étagères and bird’s-eye maple dining tables and chairs in good condition include mid-centuryonline.com (Lusk, Dublin). Worthy affordable Baughman look? €662, The Frame chair, made.com
The career of Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) is the perfect example of why America will continue to enrich itself with immigrant talent and survive at the forefront of art, architecture and design. George Nelson played a part in increasing the public attention given to the Japanese-American artist, including iconic pieces of furniture and public sculpture. Chances are you know his work already. Just look up an image of the feted Noguchi table. An entire museum is dedicated to his work in NY City.
Born as Isamu Gilmour to a family steeped in poetry, writing and dance in LA, and widely travelled with training in multiple disciples, Noguchi was commissioned by the house of Herman Miller in 1947, alongside Charles and Ray Eames. He also did some work, including some lighting pieces for Florence Knoll. Noguchi’s opus in furnishings is relatively small, but the Freeform Sofa c1946 is all you need to know about this magnificent creative spirit — hovering slender pebbles of upholstery which bridge East and West in a meditative, organic form. Rare vintage c1950 forward, they are still produced by Vitra; €7,710, vitra.com for suppliers.
Finally, a designer I’m just getting to know: The dapper Edward Wormley (1907–1995) who side-stepped notice for many years amid more famous names in the mid-century American band. I spotted a spectacular Brazilian rosewood tambour top desk online (model 912C for Dunbar) for a stratospheric, mind-munching asking price, and I was a goner. When they threw in that it was once used in the world-famous Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Price Tower in Bartlesville Oklahoma, I knew it was all over. That’s heading off to some design museum on its brass and walnut trotters. It’s so lush with cabinetmaker detail, the George Nelson’s Home Desk c1958 I used to covet, now seems border-line tacky.
Wormley had fought to become that laudable, self-made American triumph. Forced by lack of money to drop out of design school in Chicago, he took up a position as an interior designer for Marshal Fields. From this inauspicious start, he fell in with the Dunbar Furniture Co, who established and respectable, were looking for change. He gave it to them with fresh, modish Scandinavian informed ranges tailored under familiar, luxurious timbers that wouldn’t terrify their stuffier clients. Seminal buys include his Janus tables from the late '50s, beloved of celebrities including Jennifer Aniston. With the wide availability of his furniture in a long career for Dunbar, it’s climbing in value and still "burning in air".