Posts Tagged furnishings
Rookwood and Women Makers
Vase, 1917 / THF176918
This Rookwood Pottery vase from our collection, on view in the Art Pottery of the 20th Century exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, can tell us an unexpected story about women’s work and craft in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
During the late 19th century, ladies of high social standing in America were encouraged to broaden their interests beyond their homes. One of the most acceptable ways to do this was by taking up decorative china painting. Over time, these privileged women created associations with classes in china painting for women of all economic backgrounds. Probably the most important of these women was socialite Maria Longworth Nichols of Cincinnati, Ohio, who went beyond the accepted norm and established her own pottery that she called Rookwood.
Rookwood Pottery, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1900-1906 / THF297612
Beginning in 1880, Nichols hired talented young women—who would not have opportunities elsewhere—as well as men to create innovative ceramic wares in this novel commercial venture. At Rookwood, pioneering glazes and imagery made the Cincinnati-based company famous from coast to coast. One of the most significant innovations at Rookwood was its introduction of the “vellum” glaze in 1904. This signature glaze, seen on the vase at the top of this post, features a light-colored background where pictorial landscapes and flowers could appear almost like a painting.
Even before the development of the “vellum” glaze, competitors noticed Rookwood’s innovations and lured away some of their best potters and decorators. Also, over time, artists left Rookwood and started their own companies. They adopted Rookwood’s distinctive techniques, spreading the look of what was called “Art Pottery” around the United States. So, by the early decades of the 20th century, the pastime of ladies’ china painting evolved into a multi-million-dollar industry. Although Art Pottery flourished in the early 20th century, the arrival of the Great Depression and World War II all but extinguished Americans’ interest in decorative ceramics for the home.
This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.
Ohio, 20th century, 19th century, women's history, THF Connect app, making, Henry Ford Museum, furnishings, decorative arts, by Charles Sable, art
The Office of George Nelson & Co.
In 1947, George Nelson opened his eponymous design office on Lexington Avenue in New York City. George Nelson & Co., as the first iteration of the office was named, was located on the second floor of a narrow building; the ground floor was a health food restaurant. In the introduction to Nelson’s collection of 26 essays called Problems of Design, Museum of Modern Art curator Arthur Drexler recalled that the restaurant had a loyal customer base, even though it “smelled funny.” Drexler observed an “unnerving contrast between the solemnity on the ground floor and that haphazard urbanity on the floor above.” George Nelson’s tendency to do many things simultaneously would have created a sometimes chaotic but always exhilarating environment that perhaps occasionally featured a pungent reminder of its downstairs neighbor.
Over the next four decades, the office would change names, move around New York City, employ many of the best and brightest designers, and complete a dizzying number of projects for a variety of clients. Constant through these changes was George Nelson’s emphasis on the importance of the design process. Even late nights at the office, sometimes saturated with drink, could be productive. Concepts imagined the night before might find their way to the drawing board in the bright light of the morning to be refined, altered, and honed further.
Sometimes, Nelson was more involved with the ideation and later refinement of an idea than with its realization—the office’s staff designers tended to that. A one-time employee of the office, architect and designer Michael Graves, reminisced that Nelson “would come in and touch down his magic dust on somebody and then leave.” While Nelson’s “magic dust”—and the powerful brand that his name symbolized—was vital to the office’s success, Nelson’s own hand in the development of a product or design was sometimes exaggerated. It has taken many years for certain designs to be accurately attributed—and surely there are many more that have not been and may never be. This problem is not unique to Nelson’s office, however, and was often the price designers paid to gain experience and contacts in the field. Hilda Longinotti, the office’s long-time receptionist, reflected on this: “As the years went by, George with all of his intelligence, did not do one thing he should have done and that is make the most talented designers partners in the firm. He gave them titles, but he didn’t give them a piece of the business. As the years went by, they left to form their own offices…”
The hundred-plus people employed by George Nelson over the course of his career—some for a short time and others much longer—include Lance Wyman, Ernest Farmer, Tomoko Miho, Irving Harper, Michael Graves, Don Ervin, Lucia DeRespinis, George Tscherny, and many others. The Henry Ford’s collections feature graphics and products designed by Nelson himself as well as some confirmed to be designed by the office’s staff. Below, we will focus on three of these designers: Irving Harper, George Tscherny, and Tomoko Miho.
For many of the years that George Nelson was Herman Miller’s design director, Irving Harper was the director of design at George Nelson’s office. George Nelson hired Harper in 1947, and Harper did a little bit of everything in his tenure there—industrial design, furniture, and, eventually, graphics. Although he didn’t have much experience in graphic design, Harper quickly excelled. Herman Miller’s sweeping red “M” logo was one of Harper’s first forays into graphic design, and, 75 years later, the logo is still beloved and used by the company. Harper also designed many of the Nelson Office’s notable products, including many of the clocks for Howard Miller and the iconic Marshmallow sofa.
Born in New York City in 1916, Harper trained as an architect at New York’s Cooper Union and Brooklyn College. He soon began designing interiors. At the age of 19, Harper was hired by Gilbert Rohde, Nelson’s predecessor at Herman Miller, to work on projects for the 1939 World’s Fair, including renderings and production drawings. Harper worked for George Nelson from 1947 until 1963, when he left to start his own firm, Harper+George, which primarily designed interiors for commercial clients. Harper began to create incredibly intricate paper sculptures in the early 1960s as a stress relief measure, turning him into a proper sculptor as well as designer. The paper sculptures bridged his active design years into his retirement in 1983, when his sculpting output greatly increased. Harper died in 2015 at his long-time home in Rye, New York.
This 1947 advertisement features Herman Miller’s sweeping new “M” logo, which was designed by Irving Harper in one of his first forays into graphic design. / THF623975
Irving Harper designed this 1961 Herman Miller advertisement for the “Eames Chair Collection.” / THF266918
George Tscherny began working at George Nelson & Co. in 1953. Nelson hired Tscherny specifically to design print advertisements for the office’s largest client, Herman Miller, under the direction of Irving Harper. Nelson reportedly had a hands-off approach. Tscherny recalled, “He had no pressing need to involve himself in my area. That meant I could do almost anything within reason.” Tscherny was able to expand and hone his graphic style, which stresses the inherent nature of objects and is always human-centered—even when a human isn’t visible.
Tscherny, born into a Jewish family in 1924 in Budapest, Hungary, grew up in Berlin, Germany. The rise of the Nazi Party and, specifically, the evening of Kristallnacht (“The Night of the Broken Glass”) on November 10, 1938, led Tscherny to believe “there was no future for us in Germany.” The following month, George and his younger brother Alexander escaped to the Netherlands, where they spent the following years moving between refugee camps and Jewish orphanages. Their parents, Mandel and Bella (Heimann) Tscherny, obtained visas and emigrated to the United States in 1939. It wasn’t until June of 1941 that George and Alexander finally joined their parents in New Jersey, after numerous close calls with the Nazi Party. In 1943, George Tscherny enlisted as a soldier in the U.S. Army to fight in World War II and went back to Europe, using his language skills as an interpreter. After the war, Tscherny used the G.I. Bill to fund his study of graphic design, attending the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York; he would leave just weeks before graduation to work for designer Donald Deskey. In 1953, he was hired by George Nelson.
Although Tscherny only worked for Nelson until 1955, numerous advertisements he designed for Herman Miller during his short tenure became iconic of the era. Tscherny left the office to start his independent design studio, which designed graphics for major corporations. He also taught at the School of the Visual Arts in New York City for over half a century. Tscherny says he attempted to teach his students, as Nelson taught him, “not to have preconceptions, but rather to be receptive to new ideas.” Tscherny, currently 96 years old, lives in New York City with Sonia, his wife of over 70 years.
The famous "Traveling Men" advertisement for Herman Miller was designed by George Tscherny in 1954. / THF624755
George Tscherny’s 1955 “Herman Miller Comes to Dallas” advertisement implies a human presence through the inclusion of a cowboy hat. / THF148287
Tomoko Miho was one of a few women that George Nelson hired to design for his office. Miho is not very well-known today, both due to a societal tendency to ignore contributions of women working in the mid-century period and to her private and reserved nature. Although her name may be unfamiliar, this is not due to a lack of talent—Miho’s skill in graphic design and art direction were extraordinary. Once you identify her clean, minimalist, architectural style, it becomes distinct from the others working in the Nelson office.
Born Tomoko Kawakami in 1931 in Los Angeles, she and her family were held at the Gila River Japanese internment camp in Arizona during World War II. Afterwards, the family moved to Minneapolis, where Tomoko began coursework in art and design. She received a full scholarship to the Art Center School in Los Angeles, where she graduated with a degree in Industrial Design in 1958. She worked as a packaging designer for Harley Earl Associates before moving to New York City and, on the recommendation of George Tscherny, she contacted Irving Harper and was then hired by George Nelson in 1960. As the prominent graphic designer (and later colleague of Miho) John Massey stated, Miho was “a master of the dramatic understatement.” Her work is graceful, clean, and highly structured, while also seeming unrestricted. Her designs are masterfully well-balanced and lend themselves well to their primary purpose—conveying information.
Miho worked for the Nelson office until 1965, when family commitments took her to California, back to New York City, and then to Chicago, where she worked for the Center for Advanced Research and Design (CARD). She designed possibly her best known work while working for CARD—the 1967 "Great Architecture in Chicago" poster. It reflects her sense that Chicago’s architecture is “both solid and ethereal,” as Miho explained. Miho continued to collaborate with designers she met at George Nelson & Co. for years. She also had an incredibly long-lasting relationship with Herman Miller: she began designing for the company during her tenure at George Nelson & Co., continued while she was employed by CARD, and even after starting her own firm, Tomoko Miho Co., Herman Miller remained a client. Miho passed away in 2012 in New York City.
Tomoko Miho featured the Herman Miller logo in this price list, camouflaging it in bold contrasting stripes. This is one document in a suite, all featuring the same design, but in different colorways. / THF64160
The “Library Group” trade literature was designed by Tomoko Miho, circa 1970. / THF147737
Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Europe, New York, 20th century, women's history, immigrants, Herman Miller, furnishings, design, by Katherine White, advertising
George Nelson’s Visionary Design
Product Tag for an Original George Nelson Design Executed by Herman Miller, 1955 / THF298217
George Nelson is one of the giants of American Modern design. Often with such individuals, it is usually sufficient to point to their output—the architecture, products, graphics they designed—as a way to simplify and quantify their impact. While George Nelson’s output was undeniably significant, an accounting of his legacy in this way will always fall short. Nelson’s contributions to Modernism and the field of design are akin to his office’s famous Marshmallow Sofa—a study in how parts relate to the whole.
Born in 1908 to an affluent family in Connecticut, George Nelson was encouraged to cultivate his intellect from a young age. He attended Yale University—more so for its proximity to home and prestige in the eyes of his parents than due to his own desire—and quite literally happened upon the study of architecture by chance. He recalled ducking into the architecture building on Yale’s campus to avoid a sudden rainfall. Student renderings of cemetery gateways hung in the halls. Nelson “fell in love instantly with the whole business of creating designs for cemetery gateways” and decided, “without further question,” to become an architect. He graduated with his B.A. in 1928 and a B.F.A. in 1931.
Marshmallow Love Seat, 1956-1965 / THF134573
Writing on Design
Nelson graduated with his new degree as the Great Depression tightened its grip on the United States. He was offered a teaching job at Yale, but was soon let go. He later considered this lucky, saying “…if you’re lucky, you are not allowed to stay safe. You’re thrown into jeopardy.” After a period of uncertainty in which he threw himself into applications for architectural fellowships in Europe, he was successful in winning the prestigious Rome Prize. This came with an all expenses paid, two-year architectural fellowship in Rome, which he took from 1932–1934. Those years in Rome allowed Nelson to travel throughout Europe, study great architecture, and become acquainted with many of the leading figures in the budding Modernism movement.
Architectural criticism and theory writing became a continuous outlet for Nelson throughout his career, beginning in the early 1930s when he first published drawings and articles in Pencil Points and Architecture magazines. Upon his return to the United States, he took a position with The Architectural Forum in New York City and worked his way up to co-managing editor. Nelson’s career path didn’t continue in a linear fashion, but sprouted offshoots. Soon, he simultaneously continued his journalistic pursuits (and expanded to other publications), designed architectural commissions, and created exhibitions. The work was never about the output, but about the process and the solving of problems in whichever way a circumstance demanded.
LIFE magazine for January 22, 1945 / THF623999
The Storage Wall
While writing a book on the house of the future titled Tomorrow’s House with Architectural Forum colleague Henry Wright, Nelson confronted the problem of household storage inadequacies, among other domestic matters. He explained his method in writing the book, “you will not find a chapter on bedrooms … but a great deal about sleeping.” His storage solution was a masterful rethinking of furniture and architecture in one. He recalled his “aha” moment: “My goodness, if you took those walls and pumped more air into them and they got thicker and thicker until maybe they were 12 inches thick, you would have hundreds and hundreds of running feet of storage.” Nelson’s innovative “storage wall” opened new doors for the furniture industry for years to come. His idea was featured in Architectural Forum in 1944 and then in a generous 1945 spread in Life magazine. It also attracted the attention of D.J. De Pree, the founder of the Herman Miller Furniture Company in Zeeland, Michigan.
LIFE Magazine for January 22, 1945 / THF623998
A Market for Good Design
After the untimely death of Gilbert Rohde, D.J. De Pree began to look for a new director of design. Rohde had successfully set the Herman Miller Furniture Company on the path of Modernism and De Pree was looking to continue that trajectory. Initially, De Pree considered German architect Erich Mendelsohn or industrial designer Russel Wright for the post, but eventually chose George Nelson, sensing a kindred spirit in a perhaps unlikely partnership. De Pree was devoutly religious and a teetotaler; Nelson, always accompanied by the lingering smell of cigarette smoke, questioned everything—especially religion—and loved martinis. Despite these differences, De Pree thought, rightfully, that Nelson was “thinking well ahead of the parade,” and hired him for the job. Like De Pree and Rohde, Nelson was completely invested in continuing Herman Miller’s focus on honesty and quality in Modern design. In the forward to a groundbreaking 1948 catalogue, Nelson outlined the company philosophy:
The attitude that governs Herman Miller’s behavior, as far as I can make out, is compounded of the following set of principles:
What you make is important….
Design is an integral part of the business….
The product must be honest….
You decide what you will make….
There is a market for good design.
Advertisement for Herman Miller Furniture Company, "George Nelson Designs," October 1947 / THF623977
Herman Miller and George Nelson’s decades-long collaboration was fruitful almost immediately. Nelson rethought some of Gilbert Rohde’s furniture and issued lines of his own furniture design. He had proven himself a prescient thought leader in the design world through his writing, but became adept at finding talented people and bringing them together for the greater good of design. D.J. De Pree admitted surprise when Nelson requested to bring on other designers—even before his own contract was formalized. Instead of hoarding the glory (and potential income) for himself, Nelson saw the far-reaching benefits of collaboration with other visionary designers. It was Nelson who brought together the core design team that still shapes Herman Miller’s design today—most notably, Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, and Alexander Girard.
A tendency towards collaboration was not isolated to Nelson’s work at Herman Miller. In his personal life, he counted architect Minoru Yamasaki and architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller among his close friends. And those that he employed in his eponymous design office (which had many clients, although Herman Miller was certainly the largest account for many years) were the best of the best too. These staff designers—Irving Harper, Tomoko Miho, Lance Wyman, and Don Ervin, to name just a few—maintained the constant hum of the office. They diligently continued to ideate, design, and make for the office’s clients. Sometimes they executed their own concepts, and other times the staff designers brought their metaphorical and literal pens to paper for some of Nelson’s lofty visions.
Nelson has faced fair criticism of taking more credit than was due for some of the designs that came from his office. He positioned himself as a powerful brand—and many of those who worked under him gained valuable experience, but perhaps never the full realization of their efforts in the public sphere.
Trade Card for Herman Miller, “Come and See the New Designs at the Herman Miller Showroom,” circa 1955 / THF215327
George Nelson actively designed for Herman Miller until the early 1970s and continued designing products, exhibits, interiors, graphics, and more with his own firm until 1984. He lectured and wrote on design theory and practice until his death in 1986, influencing and inspiring generations of designers. George Nelson’s contributions to design are much greater than his output—the products, writings, structures, and graphics he produced. He may have been more concerned with principles and processes than about the tangible result—but his loftier focus is what made his tangible designs so effective. Nelson’s ideas and ideals shaped the Modernist design movement and his influence can still be felt, reverberating through the halls of design offices and school halls alike.
Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
20th century, Michigan, New York, home life, Herman Miller, furnishings, design, by Katherine White
"American Sports, Base Ball, Striker & Catcher" Plate, circa 1850 / THF135816
|"On Saturday afternoon, Sept. 10, at the farm of Louis Bradley, might have been seen a small gathering of people. They came to see the final game between the Lah-da-dahs, of Waterford, and the White Lakes of Webster neighborhood." |
–Pontiac Bill Poster, September 14, 1887
In the 1880s, many Michigan towns supported baseball teams, including Waterford, in Oakland County, but the game's history goes back further. The game of base ball (as it was often spelled into the 1890s) had its origins in a number of children's games, but especially a British game called "Rounders." Rounders rules called for the game to be played on a diamond, with a striker (batter) who faced a feeder (pitcher).
The American game of base ball gained in popularity in the mid-1800s, so much so that English ceramic makers produced dishes such as the "Base Ball" plate above, depicting a "Striker & Catcher," to appeal to American consumers. American interest in base ball in the late 1800s is evident in the production and marketing of such a plate.
Americans purchased these English-made ceramics to celebrate their national game, but base ball did not have all the regulations we know in modern baseball today. Until the 1880s, rules stated that the pitcher had to deliver the ball underhanded with a straight arm. The batter could call for a high or low pitch. A high pitch was considered one between the belt and shoulders, and a low pitch was to be delivered between the belt and knees, a range close to the modern strike zone. Balls and strikes were usually not called until the 1870s.
Some rules called for home plate to be made of marble or stone, but there was no batter's box, only a line that bisected the plate. Consequently, today's historic base ball umpires will frequently signal the start of a game by calling, "Striker to the line!" Early rules discouraged, and often forbade, players being paid.
You can browse artifacts related to both the early and more modern forms of baseball in our Digital Collections. Or, if you want to see vintage base ball firsthand, check out the schedule for the Greenfield Village Lah-De-Dahs, who borrowed the name of the old Waterford team. The Village nine suit up to play teams from Ohio and Michigan throughout the summer as a part of Historic Base Ball in Greenfield Village. Though the song "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" was not written until 1908, you might hear the band play it. If you wish, you can sing along and cheer on the base ball strikers for the Lah-De-Dahs.
This post was adapted from the July 2000 entry in our former Pic of the Month series.
Europe, Michigan, 19th century, 1880s, 1850s, sports, home life, Historic Base Ball, Greenfield Village, furnishings, events, decorative arts, baseball
Arts and Crafts Furniture Making in West Michigan: The Charles Limbert Company of Grand Rapids and Holland
The Arts and Crafts Movement was a reaction against ornate and what it considered “overwrought” decoration. Led by the British designer, philosopher, and social reformer William Morris (1838–1896), the movement sought to redirect public taste toward simpler esthetics. He also sought to reform industry and politics. Members of the movement used the term “arts and crafts” because they worked to reunify the fine arts (painting, sculpture, and architecture) with the crafts (such as metalwork, ceramics, and textiles) that had been demoted to second-class status with the coming of the Industrial Revolution.
Morris created the first interior design firm, Morris and Company, in London in the 1860s. His idea was to reform society through the home. The ideas of the Arts and Crafts Movement were widely disseminated, and its influence began to be felt in the United States by the 1880s and 1890s. By the turn of the 20th century, America had its own Arts and Crafts tastemaker, Gustav Stickley, who echoed many of the arguments put forth by William Morris. Stickley produced furniture and published an influential magazine called The Craftsman.
Armchair from "Turkish" Parlor Set, 1885-1895 / THF154405
Morris Chair, 1912-1916, Made by Gustav Stickley / THF159902
Comparing Stickley’s “Morris” armchair with a “Turkish” style late Victorian armchair clearly shows the distinction between the two. The Stickley chair is very rectilinear, with the solid oak structure exposed, where the “Turkish” style armchair is covered with lavish upholstery and highly decorative tassels and swags. Both are intended to be comfortable seating, but the Stickley chair has a mission—to reform taste. In fact, much American Arts and Crafts furniture is described as “Mission” furniture.
Grand Rapids, Michigan, began to emerge as a furniture-making center long before the Arts and Crafts Movement evolved in America. Beginning in the 1870s, and certainly by the 1880s, Grand Rapids became the center of furniture-making in America. There were an estimated 40 different companies producing furniture in the city by 1900. Two of the most interesting were the Stickley Brothers Company and the Charles Limbert Company.
Slant-Front Desk, 1910-1920, Made by Stickley Brothers Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan / THF160413
The Stickley Brothers Company, headquartered in Grand Rapids, was one of three Stickley family furniture firms. The others were headed by older brother Gustav, called “Craftsman Furniture,” and located in Eastwood, New York, now part of Syracuse. Gustav was the most famous of the Stickley brothers because of his Craftsman magazine. Two younger brothers formed the L. and J.G. (Leopold and John George) Stickley Furniture Company in Fayetteville, New York. This firm also produced important Arts and Crafts Furniture. Ironically, the Grand Rapids enterprise was the first chronologically, with Gustav, Leopold, and John George departing over time to create their own companies.
Pages from Limbert Trade Catalogue, about 1910 / THF610595, THF610593, and THF610594
Charles Limbert’s company began in 1889 as a typical Victorian furniture maker. With the rise of the Stickley Brothers firm in the 1890s, Limbert began to hire designers knowledgeable in the most current trends in order to compete. From 1900 to 1910, Limbert became one of the most varied in production of any of the Arts and Crafts furniture makers. Their sales dramatically increased, and in 1910 they added a second factory in Holland, Michigan. The Henry Ford is fortunate to have a broad range of Limbert furniture in our collection, as well as a detailed trade catalogue dating to the height of the firm’s production, around 1910.
Limbert Dresser with Mirror, 1905-1915 / THF159601
This dresser with mirror is typical of the standard types of Limbert’s production, a well-made and well-proportioned chest of drawers. It is typically Arts and Crafts, made of oak and expressing its method of construction via visible structural elements, like the stretchers or struts holding the legs together.
Limbert Library Table, 1905-1915 / THF159607
This library table, which could also be used in a parlor or living room, is a quintessential form in Arts and Crafts furniture making. Limbert, however, provides several unique features for how this table may be used.
Where other furniture makers would place a drawer along the long side of the table, Limbert’s designers added an ingenious pull-out writing surface, transforming it into a desk. / THF159606
The designers also hinged the writing surface, allowing for storage space in what otherwise would have been a simple drawer. / THF159605
Pages from Limbert Trade Catalogue, about 1910 / THF610527, THF610536
One of the interesting things about Limbert’s marketing strategy was their interest in linking themselves with the Dutch origins of many in western Michigan, as seen in these pages from their 1910 catalogue.
Tabouret, 1905-1915 / THF185486
With the benefit of historical perspective, we can see that Limbert’s designers were looking at a variety of sources, some highly original. This small table, or tabouret, is an example of a design unique to the Limbert shop, as it lacks the angular forms typical in most Arts and Crafts furniture.
Page from Limbert 1910 Catalogue Showing Tabourets / THF610591
Looking at the catalogue, we can see that the tabouret was sold in a variety of sizes.
Dining Room from Limbert 1910 Catalogue / THF610531
This elaborate illustration from the 1910 catalogue shows the ideal dining room with an adjacent breakfast nook. While many of the furnishings are standard Arts and Crafts designs that could have been made by many American makers, the unconvential dining room chairs are unique to Limbert. Specifically, the chair backs show a solid central splat vertical element and feature open squares along the top. This may derive from contemporary English or German sources, which were available to Limbert’s staff through design magazines.
Bedroom and Sleeping Porch from Limbert 1910 Catalogue / THF610535
A bedroom with an adjacent sleeping porch was very popular in the era before air conditioning. It was considered healthy to sleep surrounded by fresh air when diseases like tuberculosis were common. The furniture is typical for Arts and Crafts, but the bright blue walls are a departure from the earth tones which were promoted by tastemakers like Gustav Stickley and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Attic Bedroom from Limbert 1910 Catalogue / THF610534
The room shown above was probably intended for an older child about ready to head off to college—note the Michigan pennant hanging above the bed. The use of an attic space as a bedroom was unusual. The library table mentioned earlier is pushed up against the back wall.
The Arts and Crafts period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was one of the most inventive in the history of American decorative arts. Within that period, one of the most creative of American firms was the Charles Limbert Company, as these image and objects demonstrate. At The Henry Ford, we are fortunate to hold these collections and pleased to be able to share them.
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.
design, Michigan, home life, furnishings, decorative arts, by Charles Sable
The Webster Dining Room Reimagined: An Informal Family Dinner
With Greenfield Village reopening soon, you’ll find something new at the Noah Webster Home!
We have reinstalled the formerly sparsely furnished Webster dining room to better reflect a more active family life that took place in the Webster household at the time of our interpretation: 1835.
Noah and Rebecca Webster moved to their New Haven, Connecticut, home in their later years to be near family and friends, as well as the library at nearby Yale College. This painting of Noah dates from about this time.
The Websters moved into their comfortable, newly-built home on Temple Street in New Haven in 1823. This portrait shows Rebecca Webster from about this time as well.
New research and evolving historical perspective often lead us to reinterpret Greenfield Village buildings. So, furnishings change to reflect these richer or more accurate stories. This is what the Webster dining room looked like in 1947.
In 1962, the Webster house was refurnished to showcase fine furnishings in period room-like settings—rather than reflecting a household whose elderly inhabitants started housekeeping decades before.
In 1989, after meticulous research on the house and on the Webster family, the home was beautifully transformed, and its furnishings more closely reflected the Webster family’s lives.
You could imagine the Websters living there. This is Rebecca Webster’s dressing room.
Yet the dining room was sparsely furnished. The 1989 reinstallation suggested that the Websters were “in retirement” and “withdrawn from society,” and didn’t need or use this room much.
The dining room was presented as a seldom-used space in the Webster home during the mid-1830s. This detail showed boots being cleaned in the otherwise unused room.
Webster family correspondence and other documents paint a picture of a household that included not only family activities, but more public ones as well, during the 1830s and beyond.
Daughter Julia Goodrich and her family lived down the street and were frequent visitors. The Webster house appears at far right in this photo of Temple Street taken in the 1920s.
Webster children and grandchildren who lived farther away came for extended visits. Daughter Eliza Jones and her family traveled from their Bridgeport, Connecticut, home for visits.
At times, some Webster family members even joined the household temporarily. They could stay in a guest room in the Webster home.
Webster’s Yale-attending grandsons and their classmates stopped in for visits and came to gatherings. This print shows Yale College—located not far from the Webster home—during this time.
The Webster family home was also Noah’s “office.” He had moved his study upstairs in October 1834, met there with business associates and students.
Guests—including visiting clergymen, publishing associates, Yale faculty, and political leaders—would have called at the house or would have been invited to gatherings in the home. This is the Webster parlor.
To help reflect the active family life that took place in the Webster household in 1835, the new dining room vignette suggests members of the extended Webster family casually gathering for a meal.
The room’s arrangement is deliberately informal, with mismatched chairs. Hepplewhite chairs that are part of the dining room set are supplemented by others assembled for this family meal.
A high chair is provided for the youngest Webster grandchild.
The grandchildren’s domino game was quickly set aside as the table was set and three generations of the family began to gather.
The dining room furnishings, like those in the rest of the home, reflect a household whose elderly inhabitants started housekeeping decades before. The Websters would have owned most of their furniture, tableware, candlesticks, and other items for decades. The Connecticut-made clock on the mantel would have been a bit newer, since it dates from 1825–1835.
But the Hepplewhite style chairs—no longer in fashion—would have been purchased more than 30 years before.
The early 1800s Chinese export dishes would have likely been bought decades before. Quite fine and fashionable when new, the sturdy dishes would have survived to be used at everyday meals and for family gatherings many years later.
The Websters would have acquired other furnishings more recently--including newly available whale oil lamps, which provided brighter lighting than candles. In coastal New Haven, whale oil was readily available.
Stylish curtains of New England factory-made roller-printed cotton fabric are gracefully draped over glass curtain tiebacks and decoratively arranged.
Do stop by the Noah Webster Home when Greenfield Village opens this spring and see what the Websters are having for dinner as they “gather” with their children and grandchildren! And for even more Village building makeover stories, see also this recent post from Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life Donna Braden.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life and Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.
Connecticut, 19th century, 1830s, 21st century, 2020s, Noah Webster Home, home life, Greenfield Village history, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, furnishings, food, by Jeanine Head Miller, by Charles Sable, #THFCuratorChat, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford
"Sampling" the Past: Fabrics from America's Textile Mills
In 2017, The Henry Ford acquired a significant collection of materials from the American Textile History Museum (ATHM) when financial challenges forced that organization to close its doors. Founded in 1960, ATHM was located in Lowell, Massachusetts, a city key to the story of the Industrial Revolution and to the American textile industry. For decades, ATHM gathered and interpreted a superb collection of textile machinery and tools, clothing and textiles, and an extensive collection of archival materials. The Henry Ford was among the many museums, libraries, and other organizations to which ATHM's collections were transferred.
The Henry Ford acquired textile machinery, clothing, and textiles, as well as archival material that includes approximately 3,000 cubic feet of printed materials and fabric samples from various textile manufacturers, dating from the early 1800s into the mid-to-late 1900s. As part of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, The Henry Ford has digitized many sample books, as well as product literature, from the archival material within the ATHM collection.
So, what is a sample book? Textile manufacturing companies – commonly referred to as mills or print works – kept a record of fabrics produced by the company within a given year or season. These records typically consist of a fabric sample attached to a blank page in a bound book, and are often accompanied by information including pattern name, inventory number, dyestuffs, and in a few cases, the retail company for which the fabric was made.
The pages of these books offer a rich look at the broad range of fabrics produced by an increasingly mechanized textile industry, allowing researchers to see the evolution in textile design, materials, and manufacturing techniques. They also allow a glimpse into the various methods of recordkeeping among the many companies represented in the collection. Finally, the books—and the fabric samples within them—provide us with a broad view into the rich color palate of American textiles of the 1800s and 1900s. This is especially helpful for exploring clothing and textiles in the era before widespread color photography, where our understanding of the period is dulled by black-and-white depictions. The sample books are strikingly beautiful, offering an intriguing glimpse of the evolution of styles and patterns over time.
In addition to the sample books, we had the opportunity to digitize several examples of product literature from the 1900s, including catalogs and brochures. The product literature was used for marketing and sales, rather than as a record of production. These materials offer insight into the fabric and designs available for clothing or domestic use during the 1900s.
Have I piqued your interest? Below are a few favorite items I’ve come across in this collection.
Cocheco Manufacturing Company (Dover, New Hampshire & Lawrence, Massachusetts)
Fabric Samples from the Notebook of Washington Anderton, Color Mixer for Cocheco Print Works, 1876-1877 / THF670738, THF670787, THF670757
Fabric Samples from the Notebook of Washington Anderton, Color Mixer for Cocheco Print Works, November to December 1877 / THF670668, THF670707, THF670697
Sample Book, January 9, 1880 to April 22, 1880 / THF600226
Hamilton Manufacturing Company (Lowell, Massachusetts)
Sample Book, April 9, 1900 to May 27, 1901 / THF600027, THF600141, THF600167
Lancaster Mills (Clinton, Massachusetts)
Sample Book, "36 Inch Klinton Fancies," Fall 1927 / THF299907, THF299924
Sample Book, "Glenkirk," Spring 1928 / THF299970, THF299971
Hellwig Silk Dyeing Company (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Sample Book, "Indanthrene Colors," 1900-1920 / THF299990
Montgomery Ward & Co. (Chicago, Illinois)
Suit Catalog, "Made to Measure All Wool Suits," 1932 / THF600534
I.V. Sedler Company, Inc. (Cincinnati, Ohio)
Catalog, "The Nation's Stylists Present Sedler Frocks," 1934 / THF600502
Carlton Mills, Inc. (New York, New York)
Sales Catalog for Men's Fashion, 1940-1950 / THF670587
Harford Frocks, Inc. (Cincinnati, Ohio)
"Frocks by Harford Frocks, Inc.," 1949 / THF600604
Sears, Roebuck and Company (Chicago, Illinois)
"Sears Decorating Made Easy," 1964 / THF600561
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford for sharing her expertise of the textile industry and for reviewing this content.
20th century, 19th century, manufacturing, furnishings, fashion, entrepreneurship, by Samantha Johnson
“The Larkin Idea”
Trade Card for the Larkin Soap Company, 1900 / THF224516
As part of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, we had the opportunity to delve into the history of the Larkin Company. What began as a small soap manufacturing business in 1875 became one of the nation’s leading mail-order businesses by 1900. This post highlights the Larkin Company’s rise to popularity under the multi-faceted, ingenious marketing strategy known as “The Larkin Idea."
While the Larkin Company sold its products throughout the country, the company had special appeal for rural customers, offering a broader range of product choices than stores in nearby villages and towns. The company would eventually develop a distribution system, contracting with local deliverymen to deliver Larkin products right to customers’ doorsteps – rather than customers having to pick them up in town. In the early 21st century, people today welcome this same opportunity for conveniently delivered goods!
Trade Card for “Boraxine” Soap, J.D. Larkin & Co., 1882 / THF296340
In 1875, having worked in the soap business for more than a decade, John D. Larkin created his own soap company in Buffalo, New York, called J.D. Larkin, Manufacturer of Plain and Fancy Soaps. This would later become known as the Larkin Company. The first product, made for laundry use, was a yellow bar known as Sweet Home Soap. Boraxine, a flaked laundry soap, quickly followed, and continued to be a signature item in product lists throughout the company’s history.
Boraxine Soap Powder, 1925-1940 / THF155045
The first salesman for the company was Larkin’s brother-in-law, Elbert Hubbard. Hubbard was a skilled promoter and successful salesman, devising advertising strategies and boosting sales. In 1878, Hubbard was made a partner in the business, resulting in the company’s name change to J.D. Larkin & Company. With this partnership, Larkin oversaw the manufacturing of the products and Hubbard was placed in charge of advertising and promotion. One of the first strategies Hubbard adopted was offering a chromolithograph (color print) as a premium, or free giveaway, in each box of Boraxine. By 1883 – after additional products were added to Larkin’s line – Hubbard began offering finer premiums, such as a Japanese silk handkerchief in each box of “Elite” Toilet Soap.
Back of a Trade Card for J.D. Larkin & Co.’s “Elite” Toilet Soap, 1882 / THF296327
After years of “slinging soap,” Hubbard noted that direct sales to housewives were more profitable than selling to local merchants. The company was doing quite well – having distributors in every state east of the Rocky Mountains in its first decade – but Larkin and Hubbard believed that the company had even greater potential. In order to maximize profits, the company decided to eliminate all middlemen (including the sales force), thus entering the mail-order industry. The mail-order business was not new – Montgomery Ward & Company had made this popular a decade earlier. But in 1885, Hubbard developed a plan, called “The Larkin Idea,” that offered giveaways with the purchase of particular items from the company’s mail-order catalogs.
Page advertising Rugs as Larkin Premiums, in Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Plan: Factory-to-Family,” Fall and Winter 1917-1918 / THF298153
“The Larkin Idea” was simple: In cutting out all middlemen and selling Larkin products directly to housewives, the money that would have gone to the payroll of the middlemen would instead be used to create desirable premiums that would be given to customers with the purchase of Larkin products. This idea was encapsulated by the slogan, “Factory-to-Family,” and the tagline of “The Larkin Idea” became, “Save All Cost Which Adds No Value.”
Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Factory-To-Family Plan,” Spring and Summer, 1915 / THF297907
The first iteration of “The Larkin Idea” came in 1886 with the introduction of a Combination Box. By this time, the company was offering nine different soap products. At first, the Combination Box sold for $6, but a few years later, a $10 option emerged, offering enough products to last a family the entire year. The $10 Combination Boxes quickly gained popularity as customers could receive 142 products – 100 of those being Sweet Home Soap – and a free premium worth $10. Larkin also introduced a 30-day policy in which customers had 30 days to try a product before paying for it. This gave peace of mind to customers who wanted to try a product, risk-free, and also developed trust between the company and consumer. The public embraced “The Larkin Idea” with enthusiasm, ordering nearly 91,000 Combination Boxes a year!
Advertisement for Larkin Premiums, “A Practical Plan of Saving: The Larkin Idea Factory-to-Family Dealing,” 1906. / THF298080
By 1892, the company changed its name once more, to Larkin Soap Manufacturing Company. As the popularity of the Combination Boxes grew, Larkin sought to expand its product and premium offerings. In 1897, Larkin offered 16 products – including 14 different soaps, a cold cream, and tooth powder – and that number increased every year. This led to the company eventually dropping “soap” from its name to become the Larkin Company in 1904.
|Did You Know?|
|After leaving the Larkin Company, Elbert Hubbard would go on to found the Roycroft community of East Aurora, New York, in the mid-1890s. At the Roycroft community, hundreds of artisans came to live and work as part of an Arts and Crafts utopian community. The Arts and Crafts movement encouraged quality craftsmanship of handcrafted works of simple form as a reaction to poorly made factory produced goods. With his marketing prowess and passion, Hubbard led the Roycrofters to become one of the most successful communities of the Arts and Crafts movement in America. Explore more on the Arts and Crafts movement on our blog and in this Expert Set.|
With the success of the Combination Box and the increasing number of customers nationwide, the company introduced another facet of “The Larkin Idea,” which would prove to be invaluable: Larkin Clubs. Women across the country were encouraged to become Larkin Secretaries, and as such they would gather friends and family to purchase products together. A Club-of-Ten was encouraged to have all members buy $1 worth of products each month, and a different member of the club would receive a premium of their choice every month.
Advertisement for a Larkin Club-of-Ten in the Trade Catalog, “A Practical Plan of Saving: The Larkin Idea Factory-to-Family Dealing,” 1906. / THF298079
This Larkin Company infant swing/bed, was given to a woman by her sister, who sold Larkin products. (Gift of Ellen J. Adams) / THF174549
Women found a sense of pride in their participation in the clubs and enjoyed the social aspect of monthly meetings. At its peak, there were 90,000 Larkin Secretaries around the country. The Larkin Clubs were such a tremendous promotional force that the company stopped selling Combination Boxes in order to focus on its ever-increasing product and premium offerings. By 1905, the company began offering teas, spices, and additional foodstuffs among its products. Five years later, the company had added paints and varnishes, as well as rugs, clothing, and other textiles to its product line – along with 1,700 premiums to choose from, ranging from children’s toys to clothing to furniture. In 1915, the catalog featured 700 Larkin products spread over 33 pages, and offered 131 pages of premiums. One of the company’s advertising campaigns involved the idea that customers could furnish their entire house with Larkin products. This catalog for Larkin Wallpaper is an example of this idea in action.
Page showing a variety of Larkin products from the Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Home-Helper,” circa 1910 / THF297831
Larkin Premiums advertised in the publication, “My Larkin Clubs Earned These for Me,” circa 1912 / THF298076
Page from Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The World’s Greatest Premium Values,” Fall and Winter 1930. The catalog from 1930 included one of the more unusual premiums Larkin offered - Hartz Mountain Canaries (guaranteed to sing) or a pair of mated Love Birds. Click here to view the 1930 catalog! / THF298067
As “The Larkin Idea” continued to gain popularity, the Larkin Company sought to bring those companies that produced the premiums under the Larkin umbrella. At its height, Larkin had over 30 subsidiary companies, and had furnished seed money to establish such businesses as the Barcolo Manufacturing Company, to produce furniture, and Buffalo Pottery to produce pottery and kitchenware. Since 1896, the company had begun expanding its manufacturing complex. This process continued through 1912, with 21 new structures built to accommodate the rapidly growing product and premiums list.
Deldare Candlestick, produced by Buffalo Pottery, 1911 / THF176916
Page from Larkin Trade Catalog, “Product and Premium List,” January 1908. The Larkin Administration Building, completed in 1906 in Buffalo, was designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. / THF297783
Beginning in 1905, the company established branches and warehouses – first in Cleveland, and then in Boston, Chicago, New York City, Peoria and Philadelphia. With this expansion, Larkin was able to better serve its customers across the country. Despite experiencing significant growth, by 1918 the company found it had a surplus of food products far exceeding demand. Unable to move the product fast enough through mail order or the Secretary system, Larkin created retail establishments called “Larkin Economy Stores” as a way to sell these products. By 1922, there were 103 stores in Buffalo and northwestern New York, as well as others near the additional branches.
Back cover from Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “Product and Premium List,” January 1908 / THF297811
“The Larkin Idea” had taken the company to significant heights. By the mid-1920s, however, the company was beginning to falter for a number of reasons. National chains like A&P grocery stores and Woolworth’s presented stiff competition. Automobiles made going shopping easier, causing mail-order businesses to become less popular. Perhaps the greatest influence in Larkin’s demise was World War I, which had brought many Larkin Secretaries out of their homes and into the workforce, weakening the Larkin sales structure. The crippling economy during the Great Depression also impacted the company.
Between 1924 and 1926, all of the company’s top leadership either retired or passed away, including Larkin himself. Having failed to pass along knowledge and nurture younger leadership, the company was left with little expertise, leading to the company’s gradual closing.
Cover for Larkin Company Trade Catalog, “The Larkin Plan, Factory-To-Family,” Fall & Winter, 1917-1918 / THF298101
In 1939, the decision was made to stop manufacturing soap products, and two years later the manufacture of all products and premiums ceased as well. With an abundance of remaining inventory of both products and premiums, the Larkin Company was still able to fill orders until 1962.
What had started as a small soap manufacturing company became prominent enough to hold its own despite the tremendous popularity of mass-marketers, like Sears, Roebuck and Company, and Montgomery Ward & Company. Through innovative marketing strategies and an entrepreneurial spirit, the Larkin Company experienced significant growth in a short period of time, finding its way into households across America.
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. Special thanks to Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford, for sharing her knowledge and for reviewing this content.
New York, 20th century, 19th century, shopping, home life, furnishings, entrepreneurship, by Samantha Johnson
American homes in the Victorian period were designed to showcase their owners’ good taste. This is the Wright home in Greenfield Village, where brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright grew up in the 1880s and 1890s.
As the “best” room, parlors were meant to show the family’s good taste to honored guests, so decoration was carefully arranged. This photo, probably taken by Katharine Wright, sister to Orville and Wilbur, documents the room in the 1890s.
The Firestone Farmhouse, where Harvey Firestone was raised, is also in Greenfield Village. Here is the parlor as curators interpreted it to the mid-1880s. Notice the conscious profusion of pattern, ornament, and what we would call clutter.
The family portrait shows just how carefully objects were placed. Even the people seem arranged as if they were objects. In the Victorian mindset, materialism and display were utmost.
In this ostentatious, high-style interior from Brooklyn, New York, we see the heights of materialism and conspicuous consumption.
This high-style parlor cabinet, made in New York, was meant to impress. Composed of design elements from many historical periods, it truly is a jumble.
This music or print stand was made for either a parlor or a library and gives us a sense of just how particular Victorians could get with specific types of furniture.
Victorians loved mixing and matching different styles, even within a single object, like this one. The most important thing was decoration, and the more the better.
Victorians also loved to mix exotic materials into their rooms. During the 1880s, there was a craze for furniture made from animal horns. This chair is part of a set.
Dramatic changes in taste came through the work of English reformer, William Morris. Morris sought to change society by creating the first interior design firm, Morris & Company. Probably his most important design was this reclining chair.
THF159903, THF159902, THF159906
Morris despised “overwrought” decoration. He wanted to return to the simple design of the pre-industrial world. He wanted to reunite the arts with the crafts, destroyed by industrialization. This came to be called the "Arts and Crafts" movement. Ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement were adopted by American tastemakers in the 1890s. Gustav Stickley published a popular magazine called The Craftsman, and marketed a line of furniture, including his version of Morris’ chair.
Stickley advocated simpler, less fussy interiors, with multi-purpose rooms, for less formal living. The concept of the living room was born on the pages of Stickley’s The Craftsman magazine.
This brochure for wallpaper shows the most up-to-date Arts and Crafts interior available to Americans in 1912. As the title says: "A Well Decorated Home is a Potent Aid to Contentment & Happiness." The hall flows into the living room.
Stickley also promoted the idea of the bungalow, or Craftsman house, much less formal and, he argued, more comfortable than the Victorian house.
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright took these ideas further with his Prairie houses, where rooms flowed into one another, and exteriors took their cues from the surrounding landscape. This is an unexecuted design for Henry Ford’s Fair Lane Home.
This library table displays the simple form and visible construction techniques emblematic of Arts and Crafts furniture. It could be used in a living room as a decorative table or as a desk.
Textiles were an integral part of the Arts and Crafts interior. Designers emphasized the use of stylized botanical motifs, such as roses, which harmonized with furniture, ceramics, and artwork. The ideal was to create a unified interior environment.
This tile was intended to be a part of a larger composition, perhaps lining a fireplace, where the turtles would follow in a line from head to tail. The effect was intended to harmonize with an Arts and Crafts interior environment.
Detroit's Pewabic Pottery was founded in 1903 as part of the American Arts and Crafts movement. This vase represents naturalistic leaves in high relief from the surface of the vase. The matte glaze is typical of Arts and Crafts pottery.
After World War I, interest in the Arts and Crafts waned, as Americans looked toward other styles like the Colonial Revival and new Art Deco for their homes. However, the concept of the multi-purpose living room persisted.
Even in high-style interiors, the open concept living room continued.
In the post-World War II era, most American homes featured a comfortable living room. In this Christmas 1962 snapshot, note the Victorian rocking chair on the right and the recliner, an updated version of the “Morris” Chair, at the left.
In this La-Z-Boy ad from the 1980s, we can see the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement.
This has been a whirlwind tour of American interiors through the 19th and 20th centuries. If you’d like to learn more about the Arts and Crafts movement, check out this Expert Set and other artifacts within our Digital Collections.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.
20th century, 19th century, home life, furnishings, design, decorative arts, by Charles Sable, #THFCuratorChat
Gilbert Rohde and D.J. De Pree: The Partnership that Modernized the Herman Miller Furniture Company
Brochure for Chicago Merchandise Mart Exhibit, "Herman Miller Modern for Your Home," 1935-1940 (THF229429)
West Michigan is known for its furniture. Furniture factories-turned-apartment or office buildings can be seen throughout Grand Rapids and its surroundings—some with company names like Baker Furniture, John Widdicomb Co., and Sligh Furniture still visible, painted on the brick exterior. While fewer in numbers today than in 1910, West Michigan still boasts numerous major furniture manufacturers. One of these, the Herman Miller Furniture Company in Zeeland, is known around the world for its long history of producing high quality modern furniture—but the Herman Miller name was not always synonymous with “modern.”
A young man named Dirk Jan (D.J.) De Pree began working as a clerk at the Zeeland-based Michigan Star Furniture Company in 1909, after graduating from high school. It was a small company and De Pree excelled, partly due to his appetite for reading books about business, accounting, and efficiency. Just a decade after starting with the company, he was promoted to president. In 1923, De Pree convinced his father-in-law, Herman Miller, to go in with him to purchase the majority of the company’s shares. The furniture company was renamed the Herman Miller Furniture Company in honor of De Pree’s father-in-law’s contribution, although Miller was never involved in its operation. Renamed, rebranded, and under new ownership, D.J. De Pree pushed a new culture of quality and good design that, he hoped, would help the company stand out amongst a competitive and crowded West Michigan furniture industry.
Dressing Table, ca. 1933 (Object ID: 89.177.112), Image copyright: Herman Miller, Inc.
At the time, many West Michigan furniture companies were producing stylistically similar pieces that were essentially reproductions of historic forms, especially Colonial and European Revivals. Most of the manufacturers “designed” furniture by copying from books or authentic vintage furniture found in museums. The best designers were known to be the most faithful copyists. The Herman Miller Furniture Company manufactured primarily reproduction furniture until the early 1930s. Their furniture lines were typically very ornate and sold in large suites—and following in the footsteps of other West Michigan companies, Herman Miller released new lines with each quarterly furniture market, despite the undue pressure this placed upon them.
As the Great Depression crippled industry across America in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Herman Miller Furniture Company struggled to survive. With bankruptcy on the horizon, D.J. De Pree reflected on the shortcomings of the furniture industry and issues within the company. A devoutly religious man, he also prayed. Whether by divine intervention or regular old coincidence, Gilbert Rohde—a young designer that would leave an indelible mark on the Herman Miller Furniture Company—walked into the company’s Grand Rapids showroom in July of 1930, bringing with him the message of Modernism.
The Herman Miller Furniture Company, Makers of Fine Furniture, Zeeland, Michigan, 1933 (Left: THF64292, Right: THF64290). Herman Miller continued to produce historic revival furniture, like the above Chippendale bedroom suite, even while embracing the more modern Gilbert Rohde lines, like the above No. 3321 Dining Room Group.
Born in New York City to German immigrants in 1894, Gilbert Rohde (born Gustav Rohde) showed aptitude for drawing at a young age—he claimed to have drawn an identifiable horse by the age of two-years-old! He was admitted to Stuyvesant High School in 1909, which was reserved for gifted young men. There, he designed covers for the school’s literary magazine, won drawing contents, and began to experiment with furniture design. While he had aspirations (and demonstrated aptitude) to become an architect, he began working as an illustrator and later, a commercial artist. He was successful in this venture for years and learned invaluable lessons about advertising and marketing which would help him—and his future clients—tremendously in the years to come. With determination to become a furniture designer, in 1927 Rohde departed on a months-long European tour of sites associated with the modern design movement. Among his stops, he visited the Bauhaus design school in Germany and the Parisian design studios that featured the modernist ideas exhibited in the breakthrough Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925. Returning to the United States months later, he began designing furniture with a clear European modern influence and soon began to focus on designing mass-produced furniture for industry, namely for the Heywood-Wakefield Company of Massachusetts.
Dresser, 1933-1937 (THF156178). An early example of Rohde-designed furniture manufactured by Herman Miller, this dresser was designed for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair’s “Design for Living Home.” The house and its furniture garnered broad public acclaim, benefitting the budding Rohde and Herman Miller partnership.
By 1930, Rohde was looking for more clients. He visited the Herman Miller showroom in Grand Rapids, Michigan—at the end of a long day of denials by other manufacturers—and met D.J. De Pree. Rohde argued that modern furniture was the future and told him, “I know how people live and I know how they are going to live.” This confidence, despite few years of actual furniture design, convinced De Pree to give Rohde a chance at designing a line for Herman Miller. Further, Rohde was willing to work on a royalty arrangement with a small consultation fee instead of all cash up front. In combination with Herman Miller’s already-precarious financial situation, these factors helped to offset some of the risk in producing this forward-thinking furniture. Herman Miller began selling Rohde’s first design, an unadorned, modern bedroom suite in 1932, but still played it safe by continuing to sell historic revival lines alongside Rohde’s modern furniture. As design historian Ralph Caplan notes, in those early years, Herman Miller was “like a company unsure of what it wanted to be when it grew up.” But Rohde’s furniture sold. By the early 1940s, Rohde’s modern lines made up the vast majority of Herman Miller’s output.
Left: Coffee Table, 1940-1942 (THF35998), Right: Rohde Sideboard, 1941-1942 (THF83268). Gilbert Rohde admired the Surrealist Art Movement. In his early 1940s Paldao Group, the forms and materials pay homage to the work of the Surrealists—and were the first biomorphic forms used in furniture manufactured in the United States.
Tragically, Rohde’s tenure at Herman Miller was cut short by his untimely death at the age of 50 in 1944, but his impact is lasting. Rohde’s emphasis on simplicity and functionality of design meant the materials and the manufacturing had to be of the highest quality—this honesty of design and emphasis on quality appealed to De Pree’s Christian values. It remains a hallmark of Herman Miller’s furniture to this day and undoubtedly contributed to the longevity of Rohde’s furniture sales. Sales of Rohde’s furniture did not slow the season after it was introduced, like many of the historic reproductions. The Laurel Line, Rohde’s first coordinated living, dining, and sleeping group, remained in production almost his entire tenure with Herman Miller. D.J. De Pree recounted that his lines often sold for 5-10 years instead of the 1-3 that was typical of the historic reproduction styles. Rohde’s design work for Herman Miller extended far beyond furniture and into advertising, catalogues, and showrooms, and he advised on the manufacture of his furniture too. This expansion of the designer’s role and the creative freedom allowed by D.J. De Pree came to define Herman Miller’s relationship with designers and then the company itself.
Rohde Modular Desk, 1934-1941 (THF159907). This Laurel Group desk was part of one of Rohde’s early—and most successful—lines for Herman Miller. It was part of a coordinated modular line, which meant that new pieces would be added regularly over years. This was in opposition to the new lines for each quarterly furniture market approach that D.J. De Pree counted as an “evil” of the furniture industry.
Cover and interior page from Catalog for Herman Miller Furniture, "20th Century Modern Furniture Designed by Gilbert Rohde," 1934 (left: THF229409, right: THF229411). Gilbert Rohde expanded the role of the designer during his tenure at Herman Miller. In this 1934 catalogue, he was educator as well as designer, explaining to the consumer that “Every age has had its modern furniture…When Queen Elizabeth furnished her castles, she did not order her craftsmen to imitate an Egyptian temple…”
Gilbert Rohde and D.J. De Pree transformed the Herman Miller Furniture Company—from one manufacturing reproductions at the brink of bankruptcy, to one revolutionizing the world of modern furniture. George Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Girard and countless others were able to make incredible leaps in the name of modernism, largely due to the culture and partnership developed by Gilbert Rohde and D.J. De Pree. In George Nelson’s words, “we really stood on Rohde’s shoulders.”
Katherine White is an Associate Curator at The Henry Ford.
20th century, Michigan, Herman Miller, furnishings, design, by Katherine White