These are not new forms. Versions of these objects have existed for hundreds of years and have even worked well enough for many people.
But did these objects work well for all people?
This is the question that Universal Design asks. As the industrial design discipline has evolved, designers’ awareness of needs beyond those of “the average person”—such as children, those with disabilities, and older adults—has grown. The practice of Universal Design advocates for the inclusion of a range of bodies and abilities in the design of objects.
Each of the objects below represent the story of a designer working to transform an ordinary object into one that performs better for a group whose needs are often overlooked: older adults.
The results are products that work better for all of us.
Disability Rights & the “Graying of America”
The American disability rights movement gained traction and national attention by the mid-1970s. Activists advocated for equitable care for all people and framed accessibility as a civil rights issue—modeling their language after the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
At the same time, concerns were raised about the future impacts of the baby boom and decreasing fertility rates: soon, the media reported, elderly people would outnumber children.
The disability rights movement and the “graying of America” converged and designers began to explore what part design could play in creating equitable and accessible environments for older adults.
In the 1970s, Michigan-based furniture company Herman Miller embarked upon exploratory design projects for the elderly.
The Notal project was their first foray into design specifically for older adults, researching how their day-to-day lives were affected by ill-suited environments.
The MetaForm project was established in the mid-1980s. The project’s leaders hoped to reimagine whole environments to best suit the challenges that accompany aging—enabling people to “age in place,” at home instead of an institution. A variety of high-profile consultants and designers were hired to explore solutions for five specific areas—sleeping, long-term sitting, food preparation, material handling, and personal hygiene.
Woman in Motion Study with Prototype Sarah Chair, 1987-1991 / THF702658
The Sarah Chair
Herman Miller designers Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf were tasked with creating a chair that would accommodate long-term sitting for the MetaForm project.
Stumpf had deep knowledge of ergonomics; Chadwick was especially adept at solving problems of form. Their “Sarah Chair” incorporated ideas to serve aging bodies, including an advanced tilt mechanism to aid users in getting into and out of the chair without losing balance.
Despite years of research, user testing, and prototyping, Herman Miller canceled MetaForm in 1991, primarily due to the challenges of marketing high-end furniture to older adults.
Stumpf and Chadwick applied the lessons learned from the Sarah Chair toward another group of people who sat for long periods: office workers. The Aeron Chair was introduced in 1994 to immediate and lasting acclaim.
Prototype Sarah Lounge & Rocker Combination Chair, 1987-1991 / THF191319
OXO Good Grips
In the 1980s, Sam and Betsey Farber had retired from a long career in the cookware industry and were enjoying travel. While on vacation, Betsey was trying to peel an apple but was having difficulty due to the arthritis in her hands. The traditional vegetable peeler she was using was difficult to grip, especially when applying force. Sam and Betsey realized there was an opportunity to improve this object and called a friend, Davin Stowell of design consultancy Smart Design, and asked him to prototype an easier-to-user peeler.
The OXO Good Grips Swivel Peeler was introduced in 1990. Despite its cost (nearly triple the traditional peeler), it sold well. This relatively simple improvement to a classic tool increased usability for a wide range of people. The OXO Good Grips line of tools now numbers in the hundreds.
As a young industrial designer working for the firm of design legend Raymond Loewy, Patricia Moore often challenged her superiors to design more accessibly, for a wider variety of body types and abilities. Looking to better understand the challenges of an elderly person, Moore employed a professional makeup artist and transformed herself into an 80-year-old woman using a latex mask and custom prosthetics. She even put baby oil in her eyes to blur her vision, stuffed wax in her ears to muffle sound, and bound her body to restrict movement. She then went out into the world—observing, interacting, and connecting with people as an elderly woman—with the ultimate goal of using these experiences to help design better products for aging adults.
Moore disguised herself for over three years, conducting research and becoming a sought-after expert in design for aging populations. She has spent decades consulting on projects, including Herman Miller’s MetaForm and OXO Good Grips.
Architect and industrial designer Michael Graves developed an interest in Universal Design and the healthcare industry after an infection left him paralyzed from the waist down in 2003. In the years after his own ability shift, Graves redesigned the utilitarian objects that become indispensable with age and disability—objects that didn't hold the attention of most mainstream industrial designers. He focused on the cane as an object particularly ripe for revision, prototyping numerous ergonomic handles and experimenting with the grip.
Cane Handle Models on Display Board, 2014-2015 / THF191163
The canes that Graves designed, as well as those created by his design firm after his death in 2015, are adaptable to bodies as well as lifestyles. They are lightweight, available in numerous colors, adjustable to accommodate differing heights, and foldable for storage.
Michael Graves Design teamed up with Stryker, a medical technologies company, to reimagine the hospital patient’s experience. Spurred by one of his many extended hospital stays, Michael Graves remarked, “It was far too ugly for me to die in there!”
Stryker Prime TC Transport Chair, 2013 / THF188699
Graves redesigned the wheelchair—a chair that had seen little change since the 1930s—as well patient room furniture. User comfort was the ultimate focus. The objects Graves designed feature adjustable components, easy maneuverability, and intuitive operation, as well as quality finishes and his signature injection of color.
Katherine White is Associate Curator at The Henry Ford. A temporary exhibit, Designs for Aging: New Takes on Old Forms, curated by Katherine, was on view in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation from August–October 2022. The content of the exhibition is replicated in this post.
Western Europe and its former colonies in the Americas were long fascinated with the Eastern cultures Europeans depicted as “mysterious”—specifically their exotic and luxurious trade goods. This is the second of two blog posts that examine this European and American fascination with Asia and the way that was expressed in the decorative arts. In the first post, I discussed the China trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, specifically Chinese export porcelain and the related tea trade. This post focuses on the 19th century, with the decline of the China trade, the opening of Japan to the West, Western eclecticism in the decorative arts, and the beginning of Western understanding of Asian design.
The China Trade in the First Half of the 19th Century
By the early 19th century, Europe and America had learned the secret of “hard paste” or true porcelain, so Westerners could produce their own high-quality wares. In the early American republic, porcelain factories popped up as early as the 1820s. This is not to suggest that that trade in Chinese porcelains declined; rather, it entered a new phase.
The serving bowl above would have been a prized possession of an American family in the first half of the 19th century. Part of a dinnerware set, this Canton ware, or “Blue Willow,” pattern appealed to middle-class Americans as an example of the exoticism of a faraway place, and implied the owners’ good taste and sophistication. Compared with the expensive and highly prized 18th-century wares, Canton china was inexpensive. This porcelain was shipped from Guangzhou, then called the Port of Canton by the English, to serve as a ship’s ballast under the more valuable tea chests.
These wares usually depict a landscape with Chinese buildings and a bridge in the center and have a decorated rim. This pattern was widely copied by English makers in the late 19th and 20th centuries and became so inexpensive that it was sold at five-and-ten cent stores in the 20th century. This example is interesting as it broke at some point during its working life and was mended with visible staples, indicating that it was indeed a valued possession.
Watercolor Painting, Two Rooms of a Chinese Painter's Studio, circa 1865 / THF119916
The remarkable image above shows the interior of a Chinese porcelain studio, with craftspeople decorating ceramics for the Western market. Visible on the wall on the left are prints or drawings supplied by Western agents, which were then copied by the artists in the foreground. The table on the right is filled with finished pieces of decorated ceramics. This piece itself was a souvenir intended for the Western market.
While the China trade continued throughout the 19th century, imports to America declined with the Civil War in the 1860s and never rebounded. After the Civil War, the United States and Europe became fascinated with another Asian nation, Japan.
Japan and the West
Japan, like China, traded with the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch beginning in the 15th century. However, by the middle of the 17th century, Japanese authorities closed their doors to Europeans, primarily due to the undue influence of Catholic and Protestant missionaries. In 1853, the American Commodore Matthew Perry, under the direction of President Millard Fillmore, arrived in Yokohama harbor with a fleet of steam ships, which impressed the Japanese with their high degree of technology. The Japanese grudgingly agreed to open their markets to the Americans and the West. During the next few decades, traditional Japanese arts flowed to the West, where they profoundly influenced European and American fine and decorative arts.
Japanese River Scene Wood Block Print, 1900–1929 / THF292625
Japanese Travelers in a Snow Storm, Wood Block Print, 1900–1929 / THF292633
The wood block prints above are good examples of Japanese exports that excited Western artists and designers. The compositions were like nothing ever seen in Europe or America. The use of flat, unmodulated colors laid down next to each other, combined with diagonals, provided a sense of depth. This influenced the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists in France and designers everywhere.
The influence of images from Japanese prints on Western decorative arts can be seen in the carved cranes on the side chair above, painted in black to imitate ebony, an expensive wood that late Victorians associated with Japan. This is known as Anglo-Japanese style, which began in England in the 1870s and spread to America by the 1880s. Like many of the Asian imports, this Western style had little to do with Japan itself; rather, it suggested the “exoticism” of the Far East.
Pitcher, 1870–1875, Made by Tiffany and Company, New York, New York / THF190746
Like the side chair, Tiffany and Company’s elegant silver pitcher uses stylized images of birds and foliage done in the Anglo-Japanese style.
The highly stylized wallpapers shown above were derived from the floral patterns of Japanese prints. European and American designers called these abstracted patterns “conventionalized” ornament. These wallpapers appealed to those interested in what was called the “aesthetic” taste. This taste tended to be high style, although by the 1880s, middle-class Americans applied elements of it in their interiors. For example, the sample above was found in the middle-class Firestone Farmhouse, now in Greenfield Village. The date of our interpretation is 1885.
Eclectic Design in the Late 19th Century
What we’ve looked at so far has imagery directly linked to either Chinese or Japanese originals, but there is another category of decorative objects that contain more interpretive elements derived from Chinese, Japanese, or other Asian designs. Some of these pieces contain imaginary elements that the designer created out of thin air.
“Crown Milano” Vase, 1888–1893, Made by the Mount Washington Glass Company, New Bedford, Massachusetts / THF163595
“Burmese” Caster, 1885–1895, Made by the Mount Washington Glass Company, New Bedford, Massachusetts / THF167758
The ornate and elegant glass pieces above are clearly influenced by Japanese designs but have been transformed by late-19th-century American glassmakers into something unique. They are highly decorative and distinctly of their time.
Silver Tea Caddy, 1875, Made by the Gorham Manufacturing Company, Providence, Rhode Island / THF190070
Tea and Coffee Service, 1883–1884, Made by Gorham Manufacturing Company, Providence, Rhode Island / THF154882
In the late 19th century, wealthy Americans demanded ornate silver sets, and above are notable examples of just how wild they could get. The tea caddy references Asian design elements—as perceived by Americans, who had little true understanding of Asian cultures. Likewise, the full tea set picks up on the Anglo-Japanese style, but takes it much farther, into something truly Victorian—and, like the glass examples, totally unique.
Attempts at Understanding Asia
Vase, 1896–1908, Made by Hugh Robertson at the Dedham Pottery, Dedham, Massachusetts / THF176707
By the beginning of the 20th century, there were several designers looking for true sources of inspiration in Asian design. One of the most interesting of these was the English-born potter Hugh Robertson (1845–1908). During his time at the Dedham Pottery in Massachusetts, Robertson was obsessed with recreating the well-known Chinese oxblood glaze, seen on the vase above. He spent decades experimenting and perfecting the glaze, first at his family's Chelsea Keramic Art Works and later at Dedham. He was also interested in recreating the forms of Chinese porcelain made for domestic production rather than for export.
I hope you have enjoyed this quick journey through The Henry Ford's collection of Asian-influenced decorative arts. All of these artifacts, as well as many more, are available for browsing online in our Digital Collections.
Peggy Ann Mack was an early industrial designer, an author, an artist, and a woman who persisted despite the roadblocks of gender-based discrimination. She is known today primarily for her association with Gilbert Rohde, the famed designer who helped to modernize the Herman Miller Furniture Company in the 1930s. Peggy Ann Mack was Gilbert Rohde’s student, employee, collaborator, his wife, and, just a few years later, his widow. In a pamphlet published by Herman Miller in 1942, Peggy Ann Mack’s name is listed on the cover, with credit for the pamphlet’s “delineation” or illustration. Until recently, these scant details summed up what was known about her life and work, but recent research has revealed a fuller picture of who Peggy Ann Mack was, as well as surfaced some of the many things she accomplished.
Peggy Ann Mack illustrated both of these publications for Herman Miller Furniture Company. She is credited on the “An History…” pamphlet—the middle of the page reads, “Delineation by: Peggy Ann Mack.” / THF626879, THF229445
Peggy Ann Mack was born Margaret Ann Cecelia Kruelski on May 11, 1911, to Anthony and Frances (Krupinska) Kruelski. She grew up as the eldest of six children in the Bedford-Stuyvesant Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Her parents were Polish immigrants and her father Anthony’s occupation was “decorator,” according to census records. He was also an artist who specialized in gilding—or gold leaf application—on bottles and small objects, even on store windows. Peggy, as she preferred to be called, was one in a line of artistically minded members of her family.
Peggy Ann Mack went to Pratt Institute and graduated on June 4, 1931, with a diploma in Teacher Training in Fine and Applied Arts. She later attended Columbia University and the art school at Yale University, first serving as a model there. She was a recipient of a travel fellowship through the Kosciuszko Foundation to study at Krakow University in Poland and, while there, traveled and studied Europe’s Modernist art and architecture. A 1940 article reports that “she became so intrigued with the European methods of industrial designing she flatly refused to come home in time to take up her duties. So, there she stayed until her money ran out and, perforce, she had to return.” The “duties” the article refers to were her teaching duties—she was employed as an art and design teacher in New York City’s high schools at the time. A 1945 Interiors magazine article reports that she considered those four years of teaching to be “miserable.” She was increasingly interested in becoming a practicing industrial designer. Peggy Ann Mack often turned to formal education to help guide her and enrolled at the tuition-free Works Progress Administration (WPA) design school headed by Gilbert Rohde and called the Design Laboratory.
Peggy Ann Mack was one of many students who enrolled at the Design Laboratory. By 1936 she was recommended for an apprenticeship at the Gilbert Rohde Office at 22 East 60th Street in New York City and began working there. Rohde had been hired by the Herman Miller Furniture Company of Zeeland, Michigan, in the early 1930s and was hard at work to modernize the company’s furniture. The Rohde Office also did work for companies like Heywood-Wakefield, Troy Sunshade, and Modernage Furniture Company, as well as completed quite a bit of work for both the 1933–34 Chicago World’s Fair and the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair. It is likely that Peggy Ann Mack did a bit of everything in the office, but, as was common, staff designer contributions largely went unnoted. She was, however, named in a few instances for her illustrations as well as for murals completed in some of Rohde’s interiors. She also likely had a hand in interior, showroom, and exhibit design for many Rohde Office projects.
Peggy Ann Mack’s illustration of Gilbert Rohde’s Executive Office Group (EOG) desks in the Herman Miller EOG catalog, 1942. / THF229448, detail, and THF229449, detail
At some point in Mack’s time employed by the Gilbert Rohde Office, a romance blossomed. Gilbert Rohde and Peggy Ann Mack married on July 28, 1941, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The couple did not have children of their own but Gilbert’s sons (from his second marriage to Gladys Vorsanger), Kurt and Lee, got to know Peggy for a short period. Lee Rohde recalls that Gilbert, Lee, and Kurt Rohde drove all the way to New Mexico from New York, ostensibly for a family vacation, and the boys were surprised when Peggy arrived in Santa Fe. Lee Rohde recalled, “We didn’t know—my brother and I—that our trip to New Mexico was more than just a vacation, that it was a wedding trip!”
In 1944, at the age of just 50, Gilbert Rohde suffered a heart attack while he and Peggy ate lunch together at Le Beaujolais, one of their most-frequented restaurants, as it was located directly across the street from the Rohde Office. A few magazines reported Gilbert’s death and pointed to Peggy as the new director in the same breath—one article reported that she “decided to continue his work in industrial design, product development, store modernization and interiors…” Peggy took over the design office, completing already-begun projects and starting new ones. However, certain clients—like Herman Miller—declined to continue the relationship with the Rohde Office after Gilbert’s death because they did not want to work with a woman. The loss of this business must have dealt a double blow to Peggy Ann Mack—both financially and to her spirit.
“Oodles of duster-uppers” clean the “dust-cashing gee gaws” in Peggy Ann Mack’s 18th-century modern vanity illustration, juxtaposed with the simple lines of the 20th-century modern vanity designed by her husband. / THF626888, detail
Peggy Ann Mack’s work after Gilbert Rohde’s death is easier to account for than her work while under the auspices of his office, but only just slightly. A few documented commissions include the design of model showrooms for department stores and storefronts. She designed interiors for New London, Connecticut–based Templeton Radio in 1947, as well as a line of radio cases for the company. In 1950, she wrote and illustrated a book, Making Built-In Furniture, using the surname Rohde. Peggy’s signature illustrations fill the book, both to convey information as well as for added flourish.
Peggy Ann Mack wrote and illustrated this handy book in 1950, using the surname of her late first husband, Gilbert Rohde. / THF700688
Peggy Ann Mack was an early member of the Society of Industrial Designers (SID). SID was established in February of 1944 and Gilbert Rohde was one of the founding designers, but his name was removed after his death in June of that year, effectively removing record of his involvement as the organization became established. The Industrial Design Society of America (IDSA) reports that SID “membership requirements were stringent, requiring the design of at least three mass-produced products in different industries. SID was formed in part to reinforce the legality of industrial design as a profession, and to restrict membership to experienced professionals.” Peggy Ann Mack was the only female member of SID in its early years, alongside the much better remembered names of designers such as Walter Dorwin Teague, Raymond Loewy, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and George Nelson. Her membership certificate, dated November 9, 1945, was signed by SID President Walter Dorwin Teague and Secretary Egmont Arens.
Peggy Ann Mack’s story ends somewhat abruptly. In the early 1950s, Peggy Ann Mack moved to Northern California, where some of her family lived. She died in 1956 in Alameda, California, just days before her 45th birthday. She has been largely forgotten by the design world—a world that was unkind to her as an outspoken woman in its male-dominated club. She was an impressive and talented woman who continued to find creative avenues to push her design aspirations forward, all the while trying to combat the mounting frustration of doors closing around her due to her gender. Evidence of her life and work continue to evaporate as time marches on, as is unfortunately common for many overlooked women designers from the period. Peggy Ann Mack’s story—and the stories of many other unsung women—is worth uncovering, preserving, and remembering.
Peggy Ann Mack designed a line of radio cases (as well as the storefront interior) for the Templetone Radio Company of New London, Connecticut, including this E-514 Model. She described it as follows: “ACDC Table Model with walnut cabinet and glass slide rule dial in red, brown, and silver. Cream and “silver” rayon and cotton grille cloth. Aluminum legs, White plastic inlay. Wartime availability determined materials used.”/ THF189960
A note on her name: Margaret Kruelski began going by the nickname “Peggy” at least by the time she enrolled at Pratt Institute in 1929. She chose “Peggy Ann Mack” in the mid-1930s. While we don’t know where “Mack” comes from, she reputedly chose to cease using her given surname because people had difficulty saying the Polish “Kruelski.” Even after marrying Gilbert Rohde in 1941 and legally taking the surname “Rohde,” she continued to use the surname “Mack.” However, after Rohde’s death in 1944, she increasingly used the surname “Rohde,” likely to give credence and name recognition to her work. She continued to alternate between “Peggy Ann Rohde” and “Peggy Ann Mack” until her death, even after a second marriage to Basil Durant in 1946. Peggy Ann Mack is used here because it is the name she chose for herself.
Katherine White is Associate Curator at The Henry Ford. Her research on Peggy Ann Mack is ongoing.
When thinking about the celebrated figures in decorative arts history, one first thinks of individuals like Thomas Chippendale, Duncan Phyfe, and Gustav Stickley in furniture, Paul Revere and Tiffany and Company in silver, and Josiah Wedgwood in ceramics. All these prominent figures have something in common—they all are men. There are few celebrated female leaders in the decorative arts. This may be due to the scholarly focus on great men, to the detriment of women, until recent years.
Cover of Tried by Fire by Susan Frackelton, 1886. / THF627718
One of the most important and underrecognized women in decorative arts history was Susan Frackelton (1848–1932). She was a founder of the field of women’s china painting in the 1870s and 1880s. She was also a catalyst in transforming that pastime into a profession with the evolution of china painting into art pottery in the 1890s. Unlike her more famous peers, Susan Frackelton earned her living and supported her family on the proceeds of her publishing, teaching, and collaborations with like-minded artists.
Susan Frackelton faced many challenges in her personal and professional life. In many ways, she was a trailblazer for the modern, independent woman. Only in recent years have her contributions been recognized. Like other major figures in the decorative arts, including Thomas Chippendale, she is best remembered for a publication, her 1886 Tried by Fire. In the introduction, she states, “If the rough road that I have traveled to success can be made smoother for those who follow, or may hereafter pass me in the race, my little book will have achieved the end which is desired.”
Why Was China Painting a Means for Women’s Liberation?
Many factors fueled the growth of amateur china painting in late-19th-century America. As America became wealthier after the Civil War, women of the middle and upper middle classes gained more leisure time for personal pursuits. China painting became a socially acceptable pastime for women because it allowed them to create decorative objects for the home. Further, the influence of the English Aesthetic movement and later the Arts and Crafts movement advocated that the creation of art should be reflected in the home. By the 1870s and 1880s, wealthy women were freer to leave the confines of the home through organizations that they set up to create and exhibit their work.
What Is China Painting?
Pitcher, 1890–1910, decorated by an amateur china painter. / THF176880
This pitcher is a good example of the work of an amateur china painter. The artist would take a “blank”—a piece of fired, undecorated, white porcelain, in this case a pitcher made by the English firm Haviland—and paint over the glaze. These blanks could be purchased in multiples at specialty stores. One of the most prominent of these was the Detroit-based L.B. King China Store. It was founded in 1849 and closed during the Great Depression, about 1932. According to a 1913 advertisement, the retailer sold hotel china, fine china dinnerware, cut glass, table glassware, lamps, shades, art pottery, china blanks, and artists materials. Elbert Hubbard, founder and proprietor of the Roycrofters, a reformist community of craft workers and artists that formed part of the Arts and Crafts movement, wrote enthusiastically about the products of the L.B King China Store: “The store is not only a store—it is an exposition, a school if you please, where the finest displays of hand and brain in the way of ceramics are shown.” A woman seeking to learn about china painting could literally walk into the L.B. King Store and walk out with paints, blanks, and a manual like Frackelton’s Tried by Fire and start painting her own china.
The pitcher above is part of a large group of serving pieces in our collection. Also in our collections is a full set of china decorated by a young woman and her friends who learned china painting at what is now Michigan State University. They decorated the dinnerware service in preparation for the young woman’s wedding in 1911. According to family history, the young woman purchased the blanks at the L.B. King Store.
How Did China Painting Evolve in the Late 19th Century?
During the 1870s, Cincinnati was the center of American china painting. The movement was led by two wealthy women, Maria Longworth Nichols (1849–1932), who later founded the Rookwood Pottery, and her rival, Mary Louise McLaughlin (1847–1939). Both studied with European male ceramic artists who had made their way to Cincinnati. Both evolved from amateur status into extraordinary artists, who moved from painting over the glaze to learning how to throw and fire their own vessels, create designs, and formulate glazes for their vessels. This all occurred during the late 1870s, following a display of ceramic art at the Women’s Pavilion of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Both sought to outdo each other in the formulations of glazes. It is generally believed McLaughlin was the first to learn the technique of underglaze decoration, although Nichols later claimed that she was the first to do so. Nichols’ most important achievement was in creating the Rookwood Pottery in Cincinnati in 1880. It was essentially the first commercial art pottery company in America, and it led the way in the development of new techniques that were widely imitated by other firms. Rookwood and its competitors began to hire women to decorate ceramics, opening a new livelihood for women less well off than Nichols and McLaughlin.
Vase, 1917, decorated by Lenore Asbury at the Rookwood Pottery Company in Cincinnati, Ohio. / THF176918
Tile, 1910–1920, made by the Rookwood Pottery Company in Cincinnati, Ohio. / THF176941
Essentially, through the pastime of china painting, a new industry, art pottery, came into being by 1900. Under the influence of popular magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal and House Beautiful, Americans eagerly acquired art pottery. In fact, tastemakers like the young architect Frank Lloyd Wright filled his houses with art pottery. He considered it very much part of his total aesthetic. Through the first three decades of the 20th century, art pottery was considered a must in any well-furnished American home. It only fell out of fashion in the 1930s, when the Great Depression drastically altered lifestyles.
How Does Susan Frackelton’s Story Fit into All of This?
Susan Stuart Goodrich Frackelton was a contemporary of both Maria Longworth Nichols and Mary Louise McLaughlin, born in 1848 like Maria Longworth Nichols, and just a year older than Mary Louise McLaughlin. Unlike either of these women, she came from a modest background. Her father was a brick maker in Milwaukee, and she was raised in a middle-class environment. Susan began her artistic career studying painting with the pioneer Wisconsin artist Henry Vianden. In 1869, she married Richard Frackelton and eventually raised three sons and a daughter.
Richard’s business was importing English ceramics and glass and was relatively successful. Within a few years, however, the business began a sharp decline and Susan stepped in to help. She later said that she learned about American taste in ceramics and business while working with her husband. Concurrently, she began to experiment with china painting, applying her experience in painting with Henry Vianden. She was essentially self-taught, unlike her contemporaries in Cincinnati. Through publications, she was aware of what was going on in the field. She was also aware of the innovations of Mary Louise McLaughlin in glazes, and by the late 1870s was experimenting in underglaze painting herself.
Frackelton’s contributions to china painting began in 1877, when she opened Frackelton’s Decorating Works in Milwaukee. She trained young women in the art of china painting. By 1882 she opened a related business called Mrs. Frackelton’s Keramic Studio for Under and Overglaze, where she sold her own work, wares made by her students, commercial china, and glassware, as well as painting supplies. Like Detroit’s L.B. King store, she created a one-stop shop for young women interested in exploring china painting and, later, art pottery.
Frackelton made a national name for herself in 1886 with the publication of Tried by Fire. It differed from other manuals for china painters in that it was written by a teacher for beginning students. Frackelton’s conversational style and advice on not expecting too much too soon appealed to readers and the book became a best seller, reprinted in two revised editions in 1892 and 1895. As a teacher, Frackelton had no equal in the world of art pottery. She advocated that both wealthy and poor women could enjoy the art of china painting: “Beauty is the birthright of the poor as well as the rich, and he lives best who most enjoys it.”
Pitcher, 1890–1910, decorated by an amateur china painter. Note that the botanical decoration on this pitcher is similar to the Tried by Fire color plates. / THF176879
Another major innovation was the development of a patented gas-fired kiln, first offered in the advertising section of Tried by Fire. By 1888 she was granted a second patent for a new and improved version.
Advertising section of Tried by Fire showing Frackelton’s portable gas kiln. / THF627793
By 1890 Frackelton was a well-known figure and was noted for displaying her work in international exhibits. In 1893 she won eight awards for her work in a competition held at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition. Additionally, she became renowned for her work in a variety of ceramic media, especially for her blue and white salt-glazed stoneware. She also worked to create new and easier-to-use paints for decoration. She went so far as to organize the National League of Mineral Painters in 1892, an organization “aimed to foster a national school of ceramic art and provide a link between china painters throughout the country.”
By the late 1890s, Frackelton’s reputation was secure, as were her finances. In 1897 she divorced Richard Frackelton and moved to Chicago and spent much of her time lecturing and promoting ceramic art. She collaborated with several ceramic artists, including the now famous George Ohr, a unique artist who called himself “the mad potter of Biloxi.” Together, they created several highly unusual pieces, now in the collections of the Wisconsin Historical Society.
In her later years, Frackelton moved away from working in ceramics, preferring to return to painting and working as an illuminator of manuscripts. However, Frackelton’s promotion of the ceramic arts made her one of the most admired female artists in America in the first decade of the 20th century. Susan Frackelton was a remarkable figure in American ceramics, justifiably earning her status as one of the prominent figures in the decorative arts and certainly in broadening the role of women in American society.
Charles Sableis Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
In my last three blog posts, I discussed how Sidney Houghton (1872–1950), a British interior designer and interior architect, met and befriended Henry Ford during World War I and became part of the Fords’ inner circle. We know this through correspondence, designs, and records held in the Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford. The single document that details the relationship best is a brochure—more a portfolio of projects—published by Houghton in the early 1930s to promote his design firm.
From Houghton’s reference images in the brochure, we can document many commissions that are lost as well as provide background for some that survive. This post centers on Houghton’s later work for the Fords, and my evaluation of why the relationship ended.
According to Ford historian Ford Bryan in his book, Friends, Families & Forays: Scenes from the Life and Times of Henry Ford, the Dearborn Country Club was created for executives at the Ford Motor Company. By the middle of the 1920s, Ford’s operations were centered in Dearborn, with nearly all the company’s upper echelon working from the Ford Engineering Laboratory or the nearby Ford Rouge Plant. According to Ford Bryan, the idea came from Henry and Clara Ford to provide Dearborn with the same amenities as elite suburbs such as the Grosse Pointes or the northern suburbs. They also wanted their associates and friends to have the best that money could buy. The project was an incentive for Ford executives to remain in Dearborn, but proved to be unprofitable for the company. Further, when Henry Ford tried to impose his wishes against smoking and drinking, the membership essentially ignored him. Because of this, the Fords rarely visited the Club.
Architect Albert Kahn, who famously designed the Rouge Plant, was hired to design the clubhouse, seen above. The building was finished in the fall of 1925 and was designed in the “Old English” or Tudor style, popular in England in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Formal Dance at the Dearborn Country Club, 1931. / THF99871
Dearborn Country Club Chef at Banquet Table, 1931. / THF99875
Light's Golden Jubilee Ushers at the Dearborn Country Club, October 21, 1929. / THF294674
We know through documents that Sidney Houghton worked on the interiors. What we have in the way of documentation is a furnishings plan, but little else. Period photos, such as those above, show the elaborate beamed ceiling in the ballroom designed by Albert Kahn, and the elegant lighting and window treatments, likely provided by Houghton.
Henry Ford Hospital and Clara Ford Nurses Home
Henry Ford Hospital and Clara Ford Nurses Home, 1931. / THF127760
Nurses in front of Clara Ford Nurses Home, 1926. / THF117484
One of Henry Ford’s great humanitarian efforts was in founding Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. It was created in 1915 and in 1917 was turned over to the federal government during World War I for military use. By the middle of the 1920s, the hospital was considered the major medical center in Detroit. In 1925, Clara Ford organized the Henry Ford Hospital School of Nursing, and she funded the building housing it, the Clara Ford Nurses Home, on the hospital campus.
Living Room inside Clara Ford Nurses Home, 1925. / THF127777
Only one photograph of the original interior survives, showing the living room on the first floor. This is absolutely the work of Sidney Houghton, done in what he would call the Elizabethan or Tudor style. The walls are covered with heavy, inlaid panels and the furniture is heavily proportioned, with carved turnings. The wood of choice during this period was oak, which Houghton described as the “Age of Oak.” The upholstered furniture is likewise heavy and large in scale.
Houghton Brochure, Furniture from the "Age of Oak." / THF121217a
The End of the Relationship
By 1925, Houghton’s commissions were at or nearing completion. After this date, there is an abrupt end to the correspondence between Houghton and the Fords. The only subsequent communications are a telegram from 1938, congratulating the Fords on their 50th wedding anniversary, and a letter dating to 1941, thanking Henry Ford II for his work on supplying aid for Britain during the second World War. While we have no documentation on how the relationship ended, we do have documentation of one artifact that may shed light on this period. In 1925, Houghton gave the Fords a sterling silver model galleon or ship. Perhaps this is a reference to Houghton’s love of sailing. It appears on the cover of the Houghton brochure at the top of this post.
Was this a peace offering from Houghton to the Fords? Or was it a token of generosity from Houghton, a great navigator, to the Fords? We will never know, but it is interesting to contemplate the implications of this extraordinary gift.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my journey through an unknown aspect of the Fords’ life. Researching and writing about Sidney Houghton has been a pleasure.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
(For clarity’s sake, it is important to note that the Fair Lane estate is a historic house museum, independent of The Henry Ford. The house is currently undergoing a major restoration. You can learn more about the Fair Lane estate here.)
The single document that best details the relationship between Sidney Houghton and the Fords is a brochure, more a portfolio of projects, published by Houghton in the early 1930s, to promote his design firm. From Houghton’s reference images, we can document many commissions that are lost as well as provide background for some that survive. Unfortunately for us, images of Fair Lane were not included in the 1930s Houghton brochure, likely because of the private nature of the commission.
However, The Henry Ford’s Benson Ford Research Center holds exterior and interior photographs of the house, taken at a variety of dates. Additionally, our archives holds a select group of Houghton’s designs for Fair Lane’s furniture. These are the only surviving drawings of Houghton’s Ford-related furniture. One of my greatest joys in researching this blog was locating the completed pieces of furniture in historic photographs.
The Story of Fair Lane
The story of Fair Lane began in 1909, when Henry Ford bought large tracts of land in Dearborn Township, the place of his birth. At that time, Henry, his wife, Clara, and their son, Edsel, were living comfortably in the fashionable Boston-Edison neighborhood of Detroit, not far from the Highland Park plant where the famous Model T automobiles were manufactured. Henry was considering options for building a larger home, where he and his family could have more space and greater privacy. They were also considering building in Grosse Pointe, a community where many of Detroit’s leaders of industry were constructing homes. They even bought a parcel of land there that eventually became the site of Edsel and his wife Eleanor’s home in the 1920s.
In the summer of 1909, Ford visited the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright in his Oak Park, Illinois, studio. The result was a commission for a large estate along the Rouge River in Dearborn. Scholars believe that Henry Ford heard about Wright from one of his chief engineers and neighbor, C. Harold Wills, who previously contracted Wright to build a home for his family in Detroit. By November of 1909, Wright had closed his studio and turned his practice over to the Chicago architectural firm of Von Holst and Fyfe, with his best draftsperson, Marion Mahony, overseeing all of Wright’s remaining projects. Wright felt that his architectural practice was at a “critical impasse” and went to Europe to work on a summary portfolio of his career, published in 1910. He was accompanied by Mrs. Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of a client. This scandalous situation seems not to have affected the Fords, as Marion Mahony continued work on Fair Lane.
Presentation Drawing of Fair Lane, 1914 / THF157872
The project continued slowly through the next few years, until circumstances in the Fords’ lives made securing a new home a priority. In January 1914, Henry Ford announced his famous “five dollar day” wage for factory workers. His home on Edison Avenue near the plant was besieged by job seekers and the Fords lost any semblance of privacy. They soon realized that that the new Dearborn house was a priority. In February 1914, Clara Ford, who had taken the leadership role on the new house, called a meeting of Von Holst, Mahony and related designers. A number of elegant presentations of the home were shown to Clara Ford, including the design above. Many of these are now in public collections and give us a sense of the proposed estate. Two can be accessed here and here.
Instead of continuing to work with Marion Mahoney, Clara Ford chose Pittsburgh architect William Van Tine to complete the house. Van Tine was known in New York and the East, and it is generally thought that Clara Ford was seeking to emulate the tastes of women of her social status. Another key factor was the direction of American taste: the Prairie style promoted by Frank Lloyd Wright and Marion Mahony was rapidly losing currency and Americans increasingly favored revival styles, including Colonial and Medieval Revivals.
When I look at images of Van Tine’s house, completed in early 1916, I am struck by the odd composition, such as the sloping horizontal rooflines, especially to the left of the front entrance. These seem derived from Marion Mahony’s designs. There are vertical, castle-like forms, such as the one just to the right of the entrance, which are not at peace with the rest of the house. The result is a hodge-podge of disharmonious elements that barely coexist with each other.
Planting Plan for Fair Lane Grounds Number 5, November 1915 / THF155894
The planting plan above gives us a sense of Van Tine’s arrangement of the house. To the far left is Henry Ford’s power house, which is connected to the house through a tunnel under the rose garden. The tunnel ends near the indoor swimming pool intended for son Edsel’s use.
Entry Hall from the Living Room around 1925 / THF126547
The main rooms of the house are indicated in an area labeled as “residence” on the plan. The first-floor entrance consists of a grand hall and wide staircase. To the right of the hall is a small library. The hall leads into what the Fords described as their living room, the heart of the house. At the rear of the photograph above, please note the player organ installed in late 1915.
The entrance to the music room is to the right of the player organ in the living room. It is by far the largest and grandest room in the house. The photograph above shows it in its final incarnation, shortly after Clara Ford’s death.
The dining room leads off the living room and is another grand room, although it lacks the scale of the music room. As you can see, all the large public rooms at Fair Lane are rather dark and heavily decorated.
Sun Porch, Identified as the Loggia on the Ground Plan, about 1925 / THF137033
The sun porch is unlike any other public room in Fair Lane. It was filled with light and was said to have been one of the Fords’ favorite rooms. Also, unlike the rest of the house, it was filled with wicker furniture.
As you can see, Fair Lane was a very dark and heavily decorated home. We know that the Fords—Clara in particular—were unhappy with the interior. For example, sometime in the 1920s or the 1930s, Clara Ford went so far as to paint the walnut paneling in the music room. This north facing room must have appeared very dark, especially on a cloudy winter day.
Sidney Houghton’s Work at Fair Lane
Records in the Benson Ford Research Center indicate that Sidney Houghton began consulting on furnishings for Fair Lane in 1919. The records and correspondence continue through 1925, with proposals and payments through the entire period. The only “before” and “after” photographs that we have are of the living room.
By 1940, the furnishings of 1919 have been completely removed. The clutter of the 1919 furnishings have been replaced with groups of furniture oriented around the fireplace. The whole arrangement appears coherent and logical. The furniture styles of the 1940 living room are a mixture of historic English and American. Is this the work of Sidney Houghton? While we know that Houghton was working extensively at Fair Lane, we have no surviving renderings for furniture in this room.
Like the living room, the master bedroom contains a mixture of furnishings in historic English and American styles. For example, the mantelpiece is described as a “Wedgewood,” as the colored decoration derives from Wedgewood’s English Jasperware, first made in the 18th century. There are also pieces that are American in origin, such as the William and Mary–style table in front of the fireplace, and the Federal-style slant front desk in the corner, to the right of the window.
This room also contains two twin beds, likely designed by Sidney Houghton. They are made of veneered walnut with inlaid medallions done in a Chinoiserie style, a western interpretation of oriental design.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Bed, 1921-1923 / THF626014
The headboard and footboard, as well as the crest rail and legs, of this bed are identical to those on the twin beds in the 1951 photograph. Houghton may have presented this design to Clara Ford, and she chose to have twin beds without a canopy produced instead.
The opposite wall in the master bedroom shows us again a combination of English and American historic furniture. They include an American Queen Anne oval table in the left corner. To the right of it is a Queen Anne style dressing table, partly obscured by an upholstered armchair. What is of interest is the dressing table and mirror at the center of the back wall. These are Houghton’s designs.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Bedroom Dressing Table and Looking Glass, 1921-1923 / THF626012
We can see that the dressing table matches the bed—the inlaid medallions are also done in a Chinoiserie style—so this appears be part of a bedroom suite. Indeed, there is another design that does not appear in the room.
Design by Sidney Houghton Design for Fair Lane, Bedroom Cabinet or Chest, 1921-1923 / THF626016
This piece likely was presented to Clara Ford and rejected, or, if produced, removed before the photograph was taken in 1951.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Chest of Drawers and Case, possibly for Bedroom, 1921-1923 / THF626010
This chest of drawers appears to relate to the bedroom suite, as it is similar in scale, although it lacks the inlaid medallions.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Ladies Writing Table, 1921-1923 / THF626008
This elegant ladies desk may have been intended for the Fords’ bedroom. Like the chest, it may have been rejected or removed later.
The Benson Ford Research Center holds more of Houghton’s furniture designs for Fair Lane, although none appear in the historic photographs.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Center Table or Partners Desk, 1921-1923 / THF626002
This heavy, masculine-looking piece was likely not part of the bedroom suite. If fabricated, it would have been a large, clunky piece of furniture.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Side Table, 1921-1923 / THF625998
This piece, done in the Louis XV or 18th-century Rococo style is a departure from anything visible at Fair Lane. Clara Ford likely rejected it.
There are also Houghton sketches and working drawings in the archive.
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Slant Front Desk and Chair, 1921-1923 / THF625994
Design by Sidney Houghton for Fair Lane, Side Table or Stool, 1921-1923 / THF626000
These designs were likely drawn on-site and presented as ideas for Clara’s approval.
As these drawings suggest, Sidney Houghton was extremely talented. He could work in a variety of styles and produced high-quality furniture. He transformed Fair Lane during the early 1920s from an eclectic mix to a more simplified combination of 18th-century English and American styles. This post represents the beginning of inquiry into the role of Houghton at Fair Lane, which should be continued over time. My next blog post will examine Sidney Houghton’s later work for the Fords and the end of their relationship.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
Michele Michael, who discovered ceramics in 2010, likes to create utilitarian objects for the tabletop, loving the feel and meditative properties of the clay in her hands. She is always experimenting with new techniques and processes to make her housewares, like painting freehand with indigo and cobalt underglazes. / Photo by Michele Michael
Michele Michael and Patrick Moore understand the importance of ordinary days and have a renewed appreciation for the concept of time.
Today, Michael creates ceramics that reflect the natural beauty, quiet, and peacefulness that surround her in midcoast Maine. Mostly she creates utilitarian objects for the tabletop. She builds, fires, and glazes her wares—typically porcelain, sometimes stoneware—on the first floor of, or in season outside on the porch of, a light-drenched, barn-style studio that she shares with her husband, Moore, a woodworker.
Michael came to ceramics serendipitously back in 2010. At the time, she and Moore were leading a higher-octane lifestyle in New York City, where they owned a successful prop house together. Michael curated a large collection of tabletop items that she would rent out for photo shoots for magazines, cookbooks, and advertising. Moore built surfaces and other props for their business and also sets for film and music videos, often out of wood he salvaged from dumpsters at construction sites around the city.
On one fateful spring day, Michael ventured into a ceramics studio in their Brooklyn neighborhood (to see if they had any plates or bowls she might want to buy for her inventory), then on a whim signed up for a class that started that very week. It was kismet. Michael loved everything about her experience: the feel of the clay in her hands, the meditative process of forming it into her desired shapes, the warm and supportive community of fellow makers.
“In my career as a magazine editor, then photo stylist and business owner, I was constantly multitasking,” Michael said. “Right away, it felt so good to do something where I was fully in the moment, plus it was just nice to be using my hands to make something again.”
Here, Michele Michael created texture by rolling out the clay between two pieces of handwoven linen. / Photo by Michele Michael
Within just three years, Michael and Moore had sold their apartment and moved full-time to what had until then been a summer home in the small town of Dresden, Maine. By consigning their prop collection to another company similar to theirs, they could keep some of that income stream flowing while changing their way of life dramatically. They would build a studio where Michael could devote herself to her ceramics practice and Moore could do his woodworking.
Today, they are able to live a life they fantasized about away from the city: in sync with not only the natural world that nourishes them but also the creative curiosity that drives them. Michael creates her wares—mostly platters and vases—and then photographs and posts them to their retail website, called Elephant Ceramics, in batches several times a year. Moore’s one-of-a-kind cutting boards, which he makes out of birch, maple, black walnut, cherry, oak, and hickory he sources from a nearby mill, are also for sale on the site. Inventory sells out fast but isn’t replenished until months later, when they feel ready to create a new body of work.
Patrick Moore seeks out wood with unusual grain with which to make his cutting boards. As he cuts, planes, sands, and finishes each piece, his aim is to showcase and maximize the wood’s natural beauty. / Photo by Michele Michael
“We are constantly in a process of learning and trying new things,” said Michael. “I can’t imagine a life without making things. I think it’s in my DNA.”
In between these bursts of making, the two are able to slow down and enjoy ordinary pleasures: walks, birdwatching, gardening, cooking nourishing meals, kayaking on the river that borders their property—and following those ever-important whims. Moore might transform random lobster rope that washes up on the beaches into boat fenders and other nautical knots, weave sticks and saplings collected while pruning in the yard into vessels to be used as planters or compost bins, or teach himself to knit, inspired by a collection of old needles he picked up at a yard sale. Michael sometimes sets off on trips to faraway places and takes workshops—block printing in India, ceramics and cooking in Japan, and weaving in Mexico so far—or she might stay home and hook a chair cushion using yarn from her stash and strips of wool cut from old clothing.
As Michael shared, “Often my inspiration comes from an idea of something I’d like to have but cannot find. I think making things yourself helps you see the value in items that are handmade. You realize how much goes into something that is carefully thought-out and crafted. It also teaches you patience."
With our hands, we take agency over our lives. We connect with others, past and present, near and far, with a similar passion. We feel a sense of belonging, not only to one another but to the planet.
In my last blog post, I discussed how Sidney Houghton (1872–1950), a British interior designer and interior architect, met and befriended Henry Ford during World War I and, following the war, became part of the Fords’ inner circle.
The Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford holds significant correspondence, designs, and records relating to commissions between Houghton and Henry and Clara Ford. Probably the single document that details the variety of Ford commissions associated with Houghton is a brochure, more of a portfolio of projects, published by Houghton in the early 1930s, to promote his design firm.
From Houghton’s reference images, we can document many commissions that no longer survive, as well as provide background for some that are still do. This post centers on two projects, the Fair Lane rail car and Henry and Edsel Ford’s offices in the Ford Engineering Laboratory, which still exist. Fortunately, aspects of both still exist in The Henry Ford’s collection!
Edsel and Eleanor Ford, Henry and Clara Ford, and Mina and Thomas Edison pose on the car’s rear platform about 1923. / THF97966
Images of the Fair Lane rail car from Houghton brochure. / THF121225a
The Fair Lane rail car was built by the Pullman Rail Car Company in Pullman, Illinois, and delivered to Henry and Clara Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, in summer 1921. A detailed history and background on the rail car by Matt Anderson, The Henry Ford’s Curator of Transportation, can be found here.
Sidney Houghton was responsible for creating the interiors and furnishings for the car. Many sources state that he worked with Clara Ford on the designs. What is likely is that Clara Ford approved or disapproved of Houghton’s design work. This is especially evident in the public rooms of the rail car—what Houghton called the “dining saloon” and the “observation parlour.”
The dining room walls are paneled in dark walnut, with veneered elements of mahogany. The effect suggests a richly appointed room from which to view the passing scenery. The styles that Houghton employed, and Clara Ford approved, derived from a combination of eighteenth-century English classical styles, including the caned and oval-backed side chairs and the elegantly carved three-quarter relief columns around the walls. China and glassware were stored in built-in units fitted with slots or pegs to keep the objects from shifting during travel.
What Houghton called the “observation saloon” was where passengers would spend their days while traveling. It was fitted out with sets of upholstered armchairs below the windows and a slant front desk and bookcase against the inner wall. This was an extremely useful piece of furniture; while at the desk, you could read or write correspondence, and when done, store your letters in one of the many drawers in the desk. The upper case allowed plenty of room to store books and other reading materials. Dials above the door to the observation platform displayed the miles per hour, the time, and the outdoor temperature.
As you can see in the recent photographs, over time the painted woodwork in this room was stripped and refinished. Also, the wonderful slant front desk and original light fixtures have not survived. Fortunately, after the Fords sold the rail car in 1942, a subsequent owner lovingly restored the interior, including reproducing much of the furniture, before donating it to The Henry Ford.
The Ford Engineering Laboratory Offices
In the early 1920s, Henry Ford commissioned his favorite architect, Albert Kahn, to design what Ford called his Engineering Laboratory in Dearborn. Completed in 1923, this building came to be the heart of the Ford Motor Company enterprise. Both Henry and his son, Edsel, had offices in the building, and Henry commissioned Sidney Houghton to design identical furniture and woodwork for each. Both offices survive, as does most of the furniture, which is now in the collections of The Henry Ford. Of all of Houghton’s projects for the Fords, it is the best preserved.
Edsel Ford’s office (top) and Henry Ford’s office (bottom) from Houghton brochure. /THF121221a
In looking at the offices, one thing comes to mind: they were designed to impress. Like the rail car, they are paneled in rich walnut, with matching walnut furniture. Both have large conference tables; Henry’s is round, while Edsel’s is rectangular.
Conference table used in Edsel Ford’s office. / THF158754
The chairs and tables all feature heavy, turned, and curved legs, known as cabriole legs. They are also inlaid with woods with their grains carefully arranged to their fullest and most luxurious effect.
The style of this furniture is English Jacobean, deriving from forms used in the seventeenth century. The intent with this furniture was to show off wealth and good taste—as befit a person of Henry Ford’s status.
This console table, seen in the photograph behind Henry Ford’s desk, is inlaid with matched veneers along the drawer front and handles in the shapes of shells. The elaborately turned legs, which look like upside down trumpets, are characteristic of the Jacobean style in England. Combined with the cabriole legs on the chairs, Houghton has mixed and matched English furniture styles here in what decorative arts historians call an eclectic fashion.
Tall Case Clock, works by Waltham Clock Company. / THF158743
If the rest of the office furniture was meant to impress, the tall case clock takes it over the top. Henry Ford was known for his love of clocks and watches. This piece was undoubtedly something that he was proud to possess and show off to guests in his office.
We know from documents that Henry Ford rarely used his office. He preferred to be out in the field visiting with employees or, in later years, in Greenfield Village. Consequently, the furniture shows little signs of wear. Further, there are few photographs of Henry Ford in his office, other than those taken in 1923 when it was newly installed.
On the wall behind the desk is a painting by artist Edward Pennoyer, used as an illustration for a 1931 advertisement. Henry Ford undoubtedly liked the image of himself with the Quadricycle, his first automobile, and hung it behind his desk.
Photograph of Henry Ford with Lord Halifax, to Henry Ford’s right, surrounded by unknown figures, November 1941. / THF240734
Henry Ford with Lord Halifax, November 1941. / THF241506
Henry Ford with Lord Halifax, November 1941. / THF241508
Only three photographs survive of Henry Ford in his office. All date to November 1941, when the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, visited Henry Ford and toured the Rouge Factory. Guests to the Engineering Laboratory were almost always photographed outside the building or in the adjacent Henry Ford Museum or Greenfield Village.
The third photograph above shows another work of art in the office. The landscape shows Henry Ford’s Wayside Inn, in South Sudbury, Massachusetts, purchased in 1923. This, of course, was a place near and dear to Henry Ford, and helped him to realize his goal of creating Greenfield Village.
As we can see, Sidney Houghton was close to Henry and Clara Ford, designing Henry’s office and the Fair Lane rail car intimate environment, used on a very regular basis. In the next blog post, I will look at the most intimate of the Fords’ interiors—their Fair Lane Estate, onto which Houghton put his own influence during the first half of the 1920s.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
Side Chair, Created by Lambert Hitchcock, 1825-1835. / THF81928
Many people believe that mass production started with Henry Ford and the Model T. But the ideas that led to this breakthrough were already being put into practice back in the early 1800s, in mills and manufactories dotting the countryside across New England. It was here that Lambert Hitchcock applied early mass production techniques to turn out chairs by the thousands—uniform, durable, attractive, affordable, and, for a time, wildly popular.
Julia Barton Hunting of Pine Plains, New York, sat on a Hitchcock chair while posing for this portrait by Ammi Phillips, about 1830. / THF95303
Invention was in the air in New England during the early 1800s. Burgeoning industries like firearms, clocks, and textiles were experimenting both with new machinery—to increase production and make up for labor shortages—and with new factory arrangements that integrated materials and activities under one roof.
Furniture making had a long tradition of handcraftsmanship, and manufacturers varied in their adoption of machine production over generations-old hand processes. Hand-crafted pieces were made to order, resulting in low production and fairly high costs. With water- or steam-powered machines to rough out the pieces, furniture makers could turn out more products at lower costs to sell to a wider market. Neither of these processes was right or wrong—the choice was essentially a business decision.
Lambert Hitchcock chose machine- over hand-production, inspired by the bustling firearms and clock industries in his home state of Connecticut. He had started out learning the craft of fine furniture-making. But Hitchcock dreamed of manufacturing affordable furniture, using uniform parts that were quickly and cheaply made by machine, and easy to assemble.
In 1818, Hitchcock chose a site in northwestern Connecticut, where two fast-moving rivers came together. Here, using the rivers’ power to operate his machinery, Hitchcock produced a line of chairs that was so affordable he basically created a brand-new market. Before long, Hitchcock’s chair factory—in the newly named village of Hitchcocks-ville—was turning out some 15,000 chairs per year.
The price, ranging from 45 cents to $1.75 (about $10.15 to $39.40 today), certainly appealed to people. Also appealing was the idea that machines could be harnessed to produce sturdy, functional chairs that everyone could enjoy. But Hitchcock did not ignore aesthetics. His characteristic stenciling across the back chair rails served as an attractive substitute for the hand-carving on more expensive custom-made chairs.
In 1825, Hitchcock went one step further. He erected a three-story factory, arranged into sections, in which specific tools and materials were associated with logical steps in the assembly process. The ground floor held areas for rough-cutting work, like sawing, turning, and planing. On the second floor, the chair parts were bonded together with glue, then dried in a kiln until their joints were firm. On the third floor, the chairs were painted and decorated, using pre-cut stencils and pre-arranged patterns. Each of these stencils, designed to create a different part of the overall composition, was positioned on the chair back, then carefully rubbed with bronze powders to achieve the special tone and shading.
Professional male stencilers probably cut the stencils and lent their expertise, but women did much of the actual stenciling at Hitchcock’s factory. Many had learned this skill as young women at female academies popular in New England at the time. There they practiced the art of theorem painting—that is, creating stylized pictures of fruits and flowers that similarly used pre-cut stencils, metallic powders, and prearranged patterns.
An example of a theorem painting, created in 1835 by Caroline Bennett, a young woman who would have attended a female academy. / THF119757
Women also worked as seat rushers and caners, while children often did the painting and striping. At its peak of production, in the late 1820s and early 1830s, Hitchcock employed over 100 workers.
Lambert Hitchcock was innovative in his manufacturing techniques: integrated work processes, division of labor, and application of fast and inexpensive, yet still attractive, decorative techniques. Hitchcock was also an assertive salesman, opening retail stores in Hitchcocks-ville and Hartford (the state capital), selling chairs wholesale to dealers and store owners, and distributing his chairs far and wide through the network of itinerant Yankee peddlers.
Unfortunately, Lambert Hitchcock also made some costly mistakes. He located his factory in a very isolated area, with deplorable roads to Hartford and other markets. In 1844, Hitchcock moved his factory to a town called Unionville, banking on the construction of a new canal. But, alas, the canal construction was halted, and a new railroad bypassed the town. For all his tremendous contributions, Hitchcock died at the age of 57 with few assets to his name.
But Hitchcock’s name and his chairs lived on. The chairs were so popular during their heyday that many competitors tried to imitate both their aesthetics and production techniques. To this day, chairs of this general style are referred to as Hitchcock (or Hitchcock-type) chairs. Hitchcock chairs were also painstakingly reproduced by succeeding generations of artisans, a tribute to the genius and foresight of Lambert Hitchcock, a true American innovator.
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran in March 2008 as part of our Pic of the Month series.
Sidney Houghton is one of the most interesting and yet-to-be-documented figures in the group surrounding Henry and Clara Ford. Many in the Fords’ entourage are colorful and well-researched, including Harry Bennett, Henry’s security chief, known as the notorious head of the Ford Motor Company “Service” Department; Henry’s business manager, Ernest Liebold, who handled all financial transactions; and even their son, Edsel Ford, whose life and important cultural contributions are thoroughly documented. The great Ford historian Ford R. Bryan tells the story of these figures in his book, Henry’s Lieutenants (1993). Bryan frequently mentions Sidney Houghton, most notably in his book Friends, Family, and Forays (2002).
Perhaps Houghton remains undocumented because he was British, and in the decades before Internet resources became widely available, American researchers like Bryan had limited access to British sources. Today, we are fortunate to not only have the profound resources of the Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford at our disposal, but also digital access to repositories around the world. As Curator of Decorative Arts, I have spent considerable time trying to fully grasp the enigmatic Mr. Houghton—his biography, his business, and, most importantly, his relationship with Henry and Clara Ford. This blog is the first in a series that will delve into this mostly hidden story.
Now, you may ask, why should we care about the Fords’ interior designer? Seeing and understanding the interior environments that the Fords created to live and work provides us with great insight into their characters, creating a well-rounded picture of their lives. We can understand their motivations and desires and see how these changed over time. We can peel back the larger-than-life personas of the Fords that come with such public lives and see them as individuals.
What Do We Know About Sidney Houghton’s Early Life?
Researching Houghton was not easy. The first place I looked was Ancestry.com, but Houghton is a very common name in Britain. After a lot of digging and working with colleagues at The Henry Ford, I located Sidney Charles Houghton, who was born in 1872 and died in 1950. He was the son of cabinetmaker Charles Houghton, which likely led to his interest in furniture-making and interior design.
One of the questions still in my mind is: Where was Houghton educated? To date, I have not been able to find out which art school he attended—these records do not appear to be available online. What I do know is that he married in 1895, and had a family consisting of two sons by 1898. By 1910, according to the British census, his business, Houghton Studio, was established in London.
Houghton in World War I
From Ford R. Bryan’s publications and resources in the Benson Ford Research Center, I knew that Houghton was in the British Navy during World War I. I searched the British National Archives and found his fascinating military service record. Houghton, I discovered, was an experienced yachtsman, and was commissioned as a commander. He helped to create patrol boats, called P-boats, that swiftly located enemy submarines. In 1917, he was sent to the United States to work with Reginald Fessenden (1866–1932), a Canadian-American inventor who worked in early radio. Together, they developed an early sonar system to locate enemy ships, submarines, and mines. For his contributions to the war effort, Houghton was awarded the Order of the British Empire, or O.B.E., in 1919.
Through the reminiscences of Ernest Liebold, held in the Benson Ford Research Center, I discovered that Houghton was brought into the Ford Motor Company’s war effort to create what Liebold called the Eagle boats. These were similar to the British P-boats. Unlike the relatively simple P-boats, though, the Eagle boats would be like a “young battleship,” according to Liebold. He went on to state that the boats would “have the eye of an eagle and would flit over the seas.”
Eagle Boat #1 on Launching Trestle at the Ford Rouge Plant, July 11, 1918. / THF270275
Eagle Boat #60 Lowered to Water, August 1919. / THF270277
Houghton came along, and he said, “We ought to have a listening device put on those ships to detect submarines.” That is where [Thomas] Edison came in to develop this listening device, and I think Houghton is the man who contacted him. I remember him coming out with a long rod and stuff, and it was so darned secret that nobody knew a thing about it.
They had a special room provided for it in the Eagle boats. It was to be this listening chamber in which the apparatus was placed. They could detect a submarine by the beat of its propellers. A magnetic signal could determine just exactly in what direction it was, [sic] and approximately, from the intensity of the sound of the beating of the propeller, they could tell just what distance and in what direction it was.
They would radio that information to the nearest battleship in a cordon of battleships, or destroyers or whatever they had. They would be able to attack the submarine, you see. That was the object of it.
As an integral member of the Eagle boat team, it is highly likely that Houghton travelled to Dearborn and met Henry Ford. We know from later correspondence that Henry and Clara developed an abiding personal friendship with Houghton which continued through the 1920s. They commissioned a series of projects, beginning with the Fords’ yacht, the Sialia—but I am getting ahead of myself. At this point, I would like to discuss Houghton’s work in interior design, specifically his role as an interior architect.
Sidney Houghton’s Studio
Cover of Houghton’s Studio Catalogue, circa 1928. / THF121214
Back Cover of Houghton’s Studio Catalogue, circa 1928. / THF121230
This brochure or trade catalogue gives us great insight into the Houghton Studio. We date it to the late 1920s, when the projects Houghton worked on for the Fords were complete. From the text, we can see just what the firm’s capabilities were. The back cover reads: “Designs and estimates for decoration and furnishing of every kind / from the simplest to the most exotic / always in good style / always at exceptional values.” What this tells us is that Houghton Studio was a rarity in the interior design world.
Houghton was an interior architect, meaning that he designed both interiors and furnishings—the woodwork, wall treatments, lighting, furniture, textiles, and accessories—to create a unified interior environment. In new construction, an interior architect would collaborate with the architect to create an interior in harmony with the architecture. This contrasts with our present-day conception of an interior designer as a person who simply selects existing furnishings that harmonize to create a unified interior aesthetic. Obviously, Houghton Studio’s clients were wealthy and able to afford the best.
Chateau Laurier National Hotel, Ottawa Canada. / THF121219a
Like most of his contemporaries, Houghton worked in a variety of styles, as demonstrated in the images above—from period revivals as seen in the Chateau Laurier National Hotel, in Ottawa, Canada, to his renderings for “Modern” furniture, done in what we would describe as the Art Deco style, which was synonymous with high-end 1920s taste.
List of Commissions in the Houghton Catalogue. / THF121229b
One of the most interesting pages in the catalogue notes several commissions to design interiors for yachts, which was a specialty of the Houghton Studio. The most important of these was a commission for the Sialia, Henry Ford’s yacht. The Fords purchased the yacht just before World War I, and it was requisitioned for use by the U.S. Navy in 1917. The ship was returned to Henry Ford in 1920. At this point, Sidney Houghton was asked to redesign the interiors.
Henry Ford’s Sialia
Henry Ford’s Yacht, Sialia, Docked at Ford Rouge Plant, Dearborn, Michigan, 1927. /THF140396
According to Ford R. Bryan, the cost of the interiors was approximately $150,000. As seen here, the interiors are comfortable, but relatively simple. During the 1920s, the Fords occasionally used the Sialia, but Henry and Clara Ford preferred other means of travel, usually by large Ford corporate ore carriers, when they traveled to their summer home in Michigan’s upper peninsula. According to the ship’s captain, Perry Stakes, Henry Ford never really liked the Sialia, and he sold it in July of 1927.
Parlor on Sialia, Henry Ford’s Yacht, circa 1925. / THF92100
Bedroom on Sialia, Henry Ford’s Yacht, circa 1925. / THF92098
Following the Sialia commission, the Fords found a kindred spirit in Houghton. The archives contain ample correspondence from the early 1920s, with the Fords asking Houghton to return to Dearborn. Houghton subsequently received a commission to design the interior of the Fords’ Fair Lane railroad car in 1920. Between 1920 and 1926, Houghton was deluged with projects from the Fords, including the redesign of the Fair Lane Estate interiors, design of Henry and Edsel’s offices in the new Ford Engineering Laboratory, interiors for the Dearborn Country Club, as well as interiors for the Henry Ford Hospital addition.
In the next post in this series, we will look closer at several of these projects and present surviving renderings from the Fair Lane remodeling, as well as furniture from the Engineering Laboratory offices.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.