Patricia Urquiola

I adore deflating the pretensions of many contemporary designers, mostly because I love being the kid who cries out that the king has plastic sofa covers. The truth stings, and feelings can be hurt; but it’s the sort of hurt that the doctor gives when administering a cure (if I may be so bold). No one is doing anyone any favors by permitting bad design to perpetuate via insincere praise, thereby letting the gangrene spread throughout. – And, in some cases, we are plainly just being defrauded, so the more hurt we administer to the scam-ARTIST, the better. Good riddance, scumbags!

In tossing out all that useless sand and dross, we uncover the true nuggets of gold. And, Ms. Patricia Urquiola is one such lovely dollop of sterling 24 carat gold. She distinguishes herself not just by the quality of her work, but by the dependable prolificacy of her work. Too many ‘one hit wonders’ in the design world! Rarely, do we see designers whose output impresses time and again, year after year.

Ms. Urquiola’s talents were manifest and recognized from the get-go, as she was appointed assistant professor by her own teachers immediately upon graduation, and not just any old teachers, but those among of the giants of Spanish & Italian design, including Achille Castiglioni and Eugenio Bettinelli. One of her first professional jobs was a joint project with Vico Magistretti. Her academic and professional pedigree had already become quite prodigious before she had even really got started making a name for herself. From about 2001 onward, she has produced one Homeric home-run after another, and in 2011, she shows no signs of slowing down. A true force of nature, this woman!

Two things I like most about Ms. Urquiola’s works. First, she correctly utilizes an existing design idiom and grammar through which to express her creativity. Neophyte designers (and older, dumbshit designers) typically make the (narcissistic) mistake of thinking the world of design was born anew the second they turned their attention to it, and so they crap out meaningless rubbish, usually laughable extremisms of some sort. The mistake is to think that creativity doesn’t depend on a bedrock of convention. You can’t be creative with meaning itself, for all you’d yield is nonsense. The truly significant designers always begin with the humble realization that they are about to join a venerable and ancient conversation, and they choose their words carefully. Many of Ms. Urquiola’s pieces draw most obviously on the design vernacular of the 1950′s – 1970s, and less obviously on much older design idolects. The results make for a fantastically innovative coup! – Moreover, because we ‘get’ her pieces, we therefore know how to integrate them into an existing interior design scheme. Her pieces are actually useful and enjoyable!

The second thing I love about Ms. Urquiola’s works are the bright, happy, unbearable-lightness-of-being feelings they bring. Not ironic! Not self-consciously self-possessed! Just easy-going and cheerful. What a fucking refreshing breeze into an otherwise stifling world of snarky, humorless, finger-sniffing killjoy designer-’artists.’ Thank you, Patricia! Thank you! Great design, playful buoyancy, and even an occasional peppering of sensualism, all delivered with dignified execution and prudence in measure.

Biknit: Alice-in-Wonderland-ish tiny craft project re-proportioned into a comfy chaise. The standout feature is the cloud of uber-puffy braids, but the tinted fat-wireframe and hearth-warming wood sleigh base add importantly

wood: primeval forest, natural, hearth & home, folksy, craftsy, elemental, warmth, polychromatic,

Posted in designer | Leave a comment

Trashion Design – An unrecoverable waste of time

‘Trashion’ is a heretofore coined and established word, with gazillions of eco-green sites making full employment of it. I’ve already posted my screed on ‘green’ design (read here). You can Google ‘trashion chair’ or ‘recycled material chair’ and you’ll get bottomless results of furniture jerrybuilt from supposedly recycled: corks, bottle caps, plastic bags, canvas bags, rope, road signs, skis, skateboards, CD’s, clothing, furs, plushie toys, pvc pipe, rolled up newspapers, etc., etc..

Recipe: Take a generous helping of ‘trash’ (though you can cut-up brand-new stuff and pretend it’s trash in order to tell a noble lie and prove a point (because where else are you going to get 500 of exactly the same kind of ‘trash’ uniform and clean enough to present?). Next, find some overused pre-existing furniture design that strikes the right balance between platitudinous & pretentious, such as Breuer’s ‘Wassily’ chair. Third, replace whatever elements you can in the original with the ‘trash’ you’ve collected. Finally, strike a pose and feel really, really good about the way your tokenism and unoriginality has ‘saved the planet.’ Expect mild applause from other insecure people looking for approval from one another. If no applause is forthcoming, then the usual self-congratulations will do.

I mock all but the man who did it first (not counting the countless poor peasants who built their furniture from recycled materials out of necessity and without the thought of reducing their carbon footprint or approbation from the eco-design community), and that originator of the idea was Gaetano Pesce, the Italian ‘madman’ of design who pushed the envelope in his daring design explorations. Contemporary design owes him a great debt, and he is rightly admired for his hands-on experimentalism and free-thought. In the early 70′s, he was melting down plastic and playing with its plasticine properties, with some very unique results. In the late 70′s, he was forming chairs from discarded clothes.

Then, in the 80′s and 90′s, the recycled materials schtick was repeated again and again, with subtle variations and increasing iterations, each design-hack vying with the next, trying to squeeze out some new, not-yet-done twist on a twist on an increasingly tired theme, until the hair was split so many times in so many ways, only splitting atoms would be next. So, at this point, nearly 40 years after the original point was made, why is anyone *still* giving a crap about it, let alone trying to make us believe it’s new-worthy? Is it amnesia or some other form of brain damage? Is it willful ignorance of the last 40 years of identical gimmickry? Is it a zombie-like reprise of movement that persists long after the design-soul is dead? … hard to say… But, those who keep producing the same gag over and over again should, at this point in time, solely be the subject of interest to neurologists or theologians, not to designers.

Please, when encountering these ghouls, do not make eye-contact, just ignore. Make no encouraging signs whatsoever! If necessary, politely tell them they are urgently needed for consult by the Nobel committee, South Pole chapter, and to leave the country immediately. Place requisite ‘kick me’ sign on the back when sending the fool off on his errand.

Posted in designer | Leave a comment

Edward J. Wormley

“Boy Named Sue” is a J.Cash song about a fictional guy who overcompensates for a really dorky name. Poor little Edward was a non-fictional kid who got polio at 14 months that left him with a lifelong limp and a somewhat squabby frame, but perhaps nearly as awful must have been getting teased about his surname WORMLEY. — Yet, like Sue in the J.Cash song, little Edward greatly overcompensated for his name, and he ought to have thanked his dad for the gravel in his design gut and the spit in his design eye. The name ‘Wormley’ is now a proud appellation, and when associated with a piece of furniture, commands enormous respect (and loads of cash).

In one of those made-for-TV plot/career arcs, he rose from obscurity to fame on nothing but Horatio Alger-esque bootstrapping, enjoyed a plateau of prominence at the pinnacle of the golden 50′s furniture biz, then faded back to obscurity again, only to be re-discovered and re-exalted very late in life in his 80s, though his status as legendary designer has not become unassailable until quite recently, long after his passing in 1995.

Despite the claptrap twaddle from Modernists about the paramount functionality objective and designing for ‘real’ everyday people in ‘real’ everyday homes, Corbie and the gods of Bauhaus couldn’t have epic-failed any more awfully than they did in achieving these (perhaps) noble goals. Wormley, however, actually walked the walk, and didn’t even bother talking the talk. As Wormley himself points out in a 1987 interview (by Ray Smith for Interior Design):

“I wanted to make furniture that would agree with other people’s furniture, or with antiques, or that other designers or decorators would put together and mix in their own ways. Not in the way that I said it had to be. Not two Mies chairs with a Mies coffee table in front of them.” {oh, snap @Mies!}

Wormley was a worker, not an intellectualizer, a do-er, not a would-a/could-a/should-a prattler. This is what I love about him. He investigated real problems and found authentic design solutions, and he actually unashamedly cared about the business side of things, too. Being an artist didn’t somehow preclude his being a good businessman as well, as if artistic excellence requires swearing an oath of allegiance to Marxism, poverty, and being dumb at mathematics.

Perhaps this pragmatic approach, besides being characteristically American, also sprung from his humble origins. Not blessed to belong to some aristocratic coterie or to have artistic pedigree, he simply pursued his love of design in the only pedestrian ways he knew how. As a teenager still in high school, he enrolled in correspondence courses with the New York School of Interior Design. Upon graduation, he attended art school at the Art Institute of Chicago, but felt too constrained and uncomfortable with the ‘art world’ and the pedantic approach. He was compelled to DO design, not just keep endlessly learning it. So, he gathered together a portfolio of his best work (mostly from high school) and pounded pavement until he was hired, after his first interview, at Marshall Field & Company (a department store) where, for the next three years, he did interior design work for the store’s customers. During this time, he designed a collection of English retro-18th century style furniture, which was produced for the store by Berkey & Gay manufacturing company (of Grand Rapids), an association that soon led to his acquaintance with the Dunbar company, a relationship that would last 37 years.

Unlike the Modernists, Wormley didn’t eschew the historical. Unlike the Modernists who vainly believed they could dispose of history and start tabula rasa with themselves as the progenitors of a new epoch, Wormley recognized that history has a way of writing (or erasing) YOU, not vice versa. Wormley realized correctly that (i) history can’t be escaped, (ii) it is best embraced as an evolutionary point of reference and departure for one’s own work, and (iii) historical (or historico-complementary) design elements are WHAT NORMAL PEOPLE NEEDED in their normal interior environments (the fact of the matter was that just about everyone in pre-WWII America had homes that were modeled in some fashion after early American or English styles). Thus, he steeped himself in design history and made careful studies on his trips to Europe. In the mid-1930s, ‘Swedish Modern’ (a misnomer to be explained in a future posting) began to exert itself in the American design world, and Wormley set about designing with an eye to this new movement. However, (like the Scandinavians themselves) he never cut the tether to history, and continued to integrate historical elements into his designs. Among other things, this made it possible for normal people to assimilate gradually the new look into their existing interiors. — For this reason, Wormley has been wrongly called a ‘Transitional’ designer, as if he was bridging a link between the past and the Modern, a misconception perhaps exacerbated by Wormley’s own idiomatic use of the term. However, Wormley rejects the miscast:

“A lot of people just assumed, if they were Bauhaus minded, that everything I did was Transitional. It was a judgment I didn’t always agree with.”

Among his most famous designs are a klismos inspired chair (produced by Dunbar in 1939), based on a life-sized marble sculpture in the front row of the Theater of Dionysus at the foot of the Acropolis in Greece, several Biedermeier inspired pieces, a Riemerschmid-inspired chair, American Arts & Crafts inspired pieces, and so on. Some of his work was more squarely historical, and some was more ‘modern’ (lower-case ‘m’) in execution. It is wrong to gerrymander his artistic corpus and try to make him something he was not. His work was, thus, paleo-post-modern, to coin a term. He deliberately brought together historical elements and modern elements and wove them together in an entirely original and beautiful manner. Unlike the post-modernists of the late 70s and 80s though, he was not (thankfully) ironic or irreverent (read: puerile) about it. He was respectful and earnest, two sorely-missed characteristics of people and things from the midcentury era that made the better designs of that time both transcendent and sublime.

The Wormley vs. Modernists contrast brings up a deeper, philosophical question: Ought the designer’s work aim towards the ‘bottom’ (a loaded word) and provide a realistic means for normal people to improve their actual environments, or ought the designer aim for the ‘top’ (a loaded word) and show an ideal (detached from the dirty details of actual life) for normal people to strive towards asymptotically, such that it will never be practically achieved by anyone? — Clearly, Wormley thought the former, and I think he was right. {discuss amongst yourselves and post comments below}

One final note: He had a friendly rivalry with T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, who trended in a very similar direction as Wormley, especially with respect to the (non-ironic) modern/historical blending and the fundamental focus on people’s actual interior design circumstances. But, apparently, Wormley was somewhat tormented by all the glory-hallelujah fanfare surrounding Charles Eames, about whom Wormley intimated was an ‘over-intellectualizer’ with meager artistic output. One could see how vexing this would have been, with Wormley’s amazing volume and variety of quality designs improving the lives of millions while yet Eames received all the art-critic trophies, having produced only a smattering of pieces along a tight bandwidth of style. It’s a recurrent tragic theme, in the art world especially.

Well, BOOOOO to limelight hoarders! Step the f*ck aside! Wormley’s day has come! Let’s duly admire and emulate his well-deserving, perspicuous artistic principles and loudly applaud his prodigious, unflagging output of dazzling designs!

Smith, C. Ray. “Edward Wormley. ” Interior Design. 58 (Jan 1987): 250(4).
Gura, Judith, “Rediscovering Wormley.” Interior Design, Feb 1997: 22.

Posted in designer | Leave a comment

Powell & Evans – The Craft Factory

Phillip Powell and Paul Evans formed an unlikely team, working in an unlikely locale out of an unlikely workshop and driven by unlikely motives. How many unlikely’s was that? Answer: too damn many not to be astounded. Yet, such was the topsy-turvey logic that somehow worked magic during the freewheeling 1960s and 70s. The unlikely locale was New Hope, Pennsylvania, though having George Nakashima as a nearby neighbor certainly didn’t hurt. But, whereas Nakashima was reflecting bucolic tranqulity in his works, the Powell and Evans team produced edgy, brutalist-tinged designs that one would more naturally expect to emerge from the gritty, industrial graveyards at the smokey outskirts of New York City, not a quaint rural hamlet. The unlikely pairing of motives were Powell’s carefree artistic aims coupled with Evan’s wheeling-dealing entrepreneurship, which led to the formation of what has been described as the ‘craft factory.’ Though, it must be conceded that Powell did have a certain knack for success, whether pursued wittingly or not. Sometime around the age of 26, just after WWII, Powell moved to New Hope and, though he had a degree in engineering from Drexel, opted instead to restore antiques and build furniture, primarily from rejected wood (mostly wood rejected by Nakashima!). He had had a taste of the conventional furniture business when he had contracted to fulfill an order from Macy’s for 1000 children’s footstools, but that experience had soured him permanently on mass production. Yet, ironically, his little shop, which sold a mix of contemporary furniture (mostly from Herman Miller & Knoll), restored antiques, and Powell’s own very unique one-off pieces, turned out to be something of a commercial triumph. And, this prosperity afforded him the luxury of devoting more serious time to designing and crafting his own pieces.

Around 1951, Paul Evans happened into Powell’s shop. Evans was 12 years Powell’s junior, but had already begun to establish himself in the art world, initially as a silversmith. Some years earlier, his work had caught the eye of wealthy patron Aileen Vanderbilt Webb who at first secured him a scholarship to Cranbrook Academy (a hotspot for designers like Charles & Ray Eames, Harry Bertoia, Florence Knoll, etc.)). However, before completing his degree, Evans left the school to take a position as a silversmith at the working history museum in Sturbridge Village, Mass., also funded by Vanderbilt Webb, where he produced notable prize-winning works. However, by 1951, he decided to re-enrolled at a different school, the School for American Craftsmen in Rochester, New York, and it was along the way driving to this new school that Evans chanced to pass through New Hope and wander into Powell’s shop. He was bowled over by Powell’s audacious designs and, true to his deal-making nature, negotiated placing his own pieces in Powell’s shop. The two immediately hit it off, and a friendship and business/artistic partnership was born. Evans’ pit-stop in New Haven turned into a permanent residency, and his school plans again perished prematurely.

Powell and Evans each had a similar approach to their designs, though Powell’s medium was wood while Evans, metal. Powell didn’t coerce the wood to conform to his preconceived design, but rather allowed the natural contour and grain of the wood to dictate the ultimate form. Moreover, he amplified these natural features of the wood, rather than mute or tame them. In a similar fashion, Evans made no attempt to hide or smooth out his metalwork, but instead accentuated the unfinished, roughhewn aspects, allowing the full breadth of the raging, tempestuous energy of the welding and hammering and twisting and cutting of metal come shining though. Though Evans eschewed the label of ‘brutalism,’ his (early) work certainly evoked a raw, chaotic fury of snaggy, jagged forms, texturally like a post-apocalytpic smoking nuclear wreck-heap. On the other hand, the gestalt view of his pieces doesn’t strike one as angry, but quite the opposite: an elementary innocence of morphological expression, with lines, shapes, and figures that look like the sillhouette of a toddler’s dreamscape.

Powell encouraged Evans to branch out and attempt a wider range of metalwork, including larger pieces, and this led to a collaboration on joint works of walnut & steel. –Here’s a funny thing, though: The collaboration also involved a third person, a young local machinist Dorsey Reading, who performed the actual metalwork that Evans only directed. Evans, it turns out, had some psychological hangups about getting his hands dirty, and such squeamishness made it impossible to touch the stuff personally. Nevertheless, in yet another unlikely twist, the arrangment worked out beautifully.

After a few years of perfecting their design/working process and techniques, Powell & Evans finally received a series of breaks that propelled them to fame. First was Bud Mesberg’s taking an interest in their work and commissioning 6 coffee tables for his influential New York store, Directional (which also carried works by Vladimir Kagan, Paul McCobb, and Kip Stewart). Those six sold in less than a week, and thus kicked off a long relationship with Directional. Then, in 1961 Powell & Evans had a two-man show at America House (another Vanderbilt-Webb funded entity), which received a great deal of applause from the design world and rave reviews by critics. After their pieces started appearing in national magazines, like Interior Design, they attracted demand from discerning collectors and celebrities, including (oddly) Sheri Lewis (yes, of Lamb Chop the puppet fame) who orded more than 30 pieces from them. — Powell & Evans were in their heyday, combining double-barrel charm with artistic mastery. No one was safe.

However, the magic of paradoxes that somehow made sense and harmony from all those ‘unlikely’s’ of the early days gradually came to unravel. Powell was less interested in cash and more in bespoke art and travel. His preferential MO was working a concentrated burst of intense artistic creation on one-off pieces to suit his specific clients, followed by a leisurely globe trot, returning only to work long enough to recharge his bank account before taking off again. Evans the entrepreneur, on the other hand, saw more lucrative opportunities in producing collections for Directional, rather than working with individual clients, and so evolved his techniques (adapting some from the shipbuilding industry) in the direction of large-scale production, eventually opening a 30,000 sq/ft facility in Plumsteadville, PA. — By the 1970s, this progression towards large-scale production led to a very different look, one that would become signature for him: the sleek, shiny Cityscape collection, which beautifully captured the glam and glitz of the disco era. At the height of production, Evans was delivering nearly 400 pieces a week to New York City.

In 1981, Evans dissolved his relationship with Directional and opened his own large, computerized and very expensive showroom in NYC, displaying even more labor-intensive pieces involving motorized components. However, the showroom and production facility, together with changing tastes and diminishing sales, proved to be more debt than he could handle. By 1987, at 56, he was forced to hang up his hat and retire. On the very day of his retirement, March 6, he borrowed his son’s car and drove with his second wife to their Nantucket vacation home. The next morning, March 7, having a cup of coffee on the lawn, he died of a heart attack. The ghost of Paul Evans would no doubt have been thrilled that his death instantly galvanized the market for his work, transforming them into hotly sought-after collector’s pieces. Clearly, a life of retirement, without the thrill of turning a dollar and creating art, was just not worth the bother to Evans.

Powell, meanwhile, lived the leisurely life to the ripe old age of 88, continuing intermittently to make individual pieces for individual clients and traveling as much as possible to Europe, finding enormous amusement at his former works’ fetching 10 to 20 times their original prices at auctions. As he grew older, Powell spent the bulk of his remaining artistic energies, however, on his own home (which he called ‘studio tower’), and not on commercial endeavors, enjoying exclusivel for himself his own handiwork.

Hard to say who got the last laugh in the odd couple pairing of Evans & Powell. But, suffice to say their strange tale and wonderful designs.


*Thanks to Todd Merrill’s book Modern Americana for biographical background and pictures; thanks to for pictures.
Posted in designer | Leave a comment

Poul Kjaerholm & Upsidedown Cathedrals

OK, OK, yes, I beat Modernism about the face and head with it’s own hypocrisy, arrogance, gutlessness, and intellectual laziness, but on rare occasions, some very pretty examples manage to seduce me into contradicting myself. In the case of Poul Kjaerholm, I’ll still try to argue he’s ideologically not quite in sync with the blustering blowhards of Bauhaus, but there’s no denying his iconic works look like they were stolen out of the Platonic empyrean of pure mathematical forms, the place *every* good Modernist hopes to go after s/he dies.

Born in 1929, Poul Kjaerholm graduated in 1952 from the Department of Furniture Design at what was then called the School of Arts, Crafts and Design in Copenhagen. His 1951 *senior*project* – the PK-25 – became a world-wide sensation, and continues to be one of his most iconic works. It presented a strong counterpoint to the soft, gentle, wooden curves that had become the standard idiom of Danish design, instead boldly asserting itself in a new, angular, reductionist idiom.

In his 1951 senior project (PK25), Kjaerholm conquered considerable technical difficulties in realizing this chair, making the construction itself seemingly vanish without a trace behind the eye-pleasing switchbacks and bifurcations of the gleaming metallic laser beams comprising the frame.

But for the humanizing element of the natural fiber halyard, the overarching and dominant structure of the cut spring-steel chair appears more like carefully split & articulated laser beams than a seating frame. It is very nearly pure, architectural diagrammatics. –However, there are two features of the piece which, I argue, steer it away from Modernism: (i) a characteristic Danish refinement and humility of form, which has a (thin) tether to history & tradition, and (ii) those dainty little feet, like you’d expect at the end of baby grasshopper legs, far too adorable to belong in the same categorical grouping with the designs of those puffed-up, self-important dogmatists in Corbie’s mom’s basement.

After such success out of the gate, Kjaerholm certainly didn’t rest on his laurels, but was soon hired back to the same school as a professor, where he embarked on a 20 year career as teacher and international designer. In 1958, he won the legendary Lunning Prize, and in 1960, he was commissioned to design Denmark’s pavilion at the 17th Triennial in Milan. Influenced by his contemporary and friend Charles Eames, as well as by the Dutch De Stijl movement, and yes, some of the twit-headed Bauhaus crowd, like Mies and Breuer, he experimented with some different materials and styles throughout his career. However, his most representative pieces still exhibit the same mathematical elegance revealed in his first piece and perfected in later works. Especially in these, Kjaerholm effortlessly wields a baton, ruthlessly orchestrating the design vectors of proportion, rhythm, and light, producing a subdued sonata of sublime economy of form.

Ulf Hard af Segerstad, a colleague of Kjaerholm, once remarked on Kjaerholm’s perfectionism, calling his furniture ‘upside-down cathedrals,’ meaning the structural details, at which Kjaerholm most painstakingly toiled in refining to sheer infallibility, remain utterly inconspicuous, just as the magnificent roof details of Gothic cathedrals are ever unseen by mortals, but only there for ‘the greater glory of God.’ — It is exactly this unpretentious modesty of design that exempts Kjaerholm from Modernism, me thinks. Of course, it is easier to conjecture this modesty knowing that Kjaerholm was, as a person, a soft-spoken, self-effacing, kindly professor (not a self-congratulatory manifesto-writer). He was also deeply rooted in his Danish heritage and considered himself a craftsman first, leaving terms like ‘designer’ or ‘architect’ for others to apply.

And indeed, others have applied these terms, especially ‘architectural’ to his work. While in the earlier part of his career, he did try out more ‘sculptural’ designs (like the Eames-inspired laminate chair of 1952), adopting forms that push out and penetrate the space around them, his later works became almost exclusively ‘architectural,’ not only in the self-contained sense, wherein the design embodies a coordinated equilibrium between the vertical and horizontal planes and sensitivity to structural tectonics, but also in the integrative contextual sense, wherein the piece includes and accentuates the room in which it stands. It is this last aspect that makes Kjaerholm’s pieces really amazing, like retroviruses that, once inserted into the host architecture, edit themselves into the host’s DNA, becoming an ineluctable constituent of the overall architectural totality.

Kjaerholm’s works represent an upper limit in minimalist design. Going any further would only yield ‘performance art’ pieces, a.k.a. ‘jackassery,’ and not authentic *furniture* that people actually use and enjoy. If we imagine the entire universe of design possibility as forming a ‘possibility space,’ then these sorts of minimalist works occupy one region of that space. Kjaerholm did a gorgeous job of fleshing out these possibilities. Someone had to do it, and aren’t we lucky it was him? Let us be jealous that it wasn’t any of us, but let’s accept that it’s sufficiently done now. The vast, cavernous majority of this possibility space remains opaque to us, yet unexplored and unrealized. Young designers, this is where you are needed, where you ought make a name for yourself. Pay homage to the great Kjaerholm, and do not waste your talent being a suckup copycat.

Some more lovely examples of Professor Kjaerholm’s artistry:

This 1953 steel-wire chair appears as an artifact from a topological multi-vector plot-graph TRON-world landscape; it is a continually folded plane, undulating concavity & convexity in a sexy strip-tease of pure essentialism. One has to wonder how much Bertoia and Platner were inspired by this chair.

This 1961 tripod-base chair exhibits a strong columnar effect, dramatized at the junction of those sweeping, organic, curved lines against the foil of the chair.


The PK11 chair emerges as if deduced like a lemma from of the axiomatics of the table, as if Kjaerholm had coded a complex proof into furniture.

1961 PK41 folding stool: A dramatic spatial reduction of an ancient Greek stool, the twists in the legs at once rigorously utilitarian and yet playfully impish with graduating reflective light and candor of form.

1955 PK22 chair: Based on the ancient Greek Klismos chair, this piece meticulously modulates a subtle concave curve in the back with a muted convex curve in the seat, underpinned in contrast by a pronounced subjascent double arch. As with the the PK25, only the elfin feet provide relief from the stern intensity of the rest of the piece. Another beautiful example of originality informed by the idiom of tradition.

1965 PK 24 chaise) PK described as “the equally valid, equilibrium principle” — organically curve plane hovers freely in the room while it just tangents the horizontal and vertical in equilibrium. the minimal base supports the curved plane with an almost invisible fingertip touch and the transition is conveyed by a thin steel friction strip. the effect of the contrast between the powerful curved plane and the modest right-angled support is unexcelled. PK demonstrated here what a few but well-calculated effects can achieve. the rudimentary frame creates a monumental effect in the supple upper part.

Arguably his 'signature' piece, the PK24 Kjaerholm described as "the equally valid, equilibrium principle"

Kjaerholm here achieves an amazing synthesis of organic progression of force, which is transferred to the steel like a vibration through the ether, until the movement is collected in a comfortable spring-form, which delivers this force with a warm

PK27 chair, 1970: This chair softens the usual rigor, adopting wood and a more relaxed, if not funky-esque, vibe.

PK22 easy chair: a tip of the hat to the standard Danish idiom, Kjaerholm here presents his own flavor of the now classic Danish midcentury type.

PK0 moulded plywood chair, 1952: A man-crush love sonnet to Charles Eames, this shell chair presents an even more organic and sculptural rendition, 180 degrees from what would become Kjaerholm's oeuvre.

**Thanks to Michael A. Sheridan for his fine book Poul Kjaerholm, and to for pictures.
Posted in designer | Leave a comment

Charles Hollis Jones- Mr. Lucite

Most over-referred to line in a movie: Mr.McGuire to young Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate (1967): “I just want to say one word to you – just one word… plastics. There is a great future in plastics. Think about it.” Braddock of course spurns this advice, but does so at his own peril. It turns out to be great advice, even for uber-coolio mod designers. Charles Hollis Jones, born in 1945, had the good fortune to be born at just a time when new types of plastics were being introduced, and had the good sense to explore it as a new artistic medium, riding its physical properties whither it would go, exploring new boundaries. Initially, at the artistically precocious age of 16, Hollis was attracted to glass, but found it too limiting: Says Hollis: “I really fell in love with glass, but it couldn’t do what I wanted it to do.” His artistic vision stipulated that transparent geometrical volumes sustain structural tectonic integrity, in ways that would shatter glass.

Sometimes, certain people have the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time, and sometimes, certain people have the good fortune to recognize what other people have been missing under their noses all along. Jones had a little of both. Acrylic was invented 15 years before Jones was born, in 1930, by British chemist William Chalmers, in what was soon known to the rest of the world as ‘plastic’ or ‘Plexiglas.’ In 1936, DuPont patents its special formulation of acrylic resin, dubbed Lucite. In World War II, acrylic was put to good use in aircraft canopies, nose cones, and gunner turrets. Other than this, it had come to ill-repute from the purveyers of cheeze, who used clear acrylics to make cheap jewelry and goofy desktop novelties. As art historian Jeffrey Meikle put it, acrylic artifacts ‘reflected a stylish frivolity.’ So, between its associations with wartime utility and peacetime kitsch, acrylics were passed over by serious artists and designers.

Jones was born in rural Indiana, and hit the ground running, designing and building his own toys, including a bicycle out of coffee cans and discarded parts. At 14, he designed and built his first piece of furniture, a cabinet for his father’s office. Sure, lots of kids fancy
themselves to have design skills, drawing cars, and tinkering with rubbish, but how many go straight from Ma and Pa Kettle’s kitchen in rural Indiana to land a job at 16 with the prestigious Roide Enterprises company in Los Angeles? Jones is one of those prodigies that you just can’t help but love to hate, not ever seemingly to struggle or claw his way to the top, but rather just waltz into the dream jobs every designer wishes for, as if it were written into the Declaration of Independence that he should have it. At Roide Enterprises, Jones was something of a design ‘proof-reader’ for other designer’s works, his self-described job to remove the ‘frou-frou’ and ‘clean up’ designs that weren’t selling well. Two years later, at his boss’ suggestion, he went to work for Hudson-Rissman, a chic West Hollywood design showroom. In *six* months, Jones went from delivery boy to head of the design department, though his work there and the store’s focus was mostly limited to small pieces and accessories.

During this time, he was offered a full scholarship to Indiana University, yet he turned it down in favor of self-education, devouring his way through all three libraries at UCLA. In his words: “I was after knowledge!” – though some years later, he did opt for a more formal education when, with the full financial support of Hudson-Rissman, he attended night classes at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles.

Through the next seven years, Jone’s made acrylic and Lucite his signature medium, reversing perception of Lucite pieces from kitsch to cool, and building a client list that would make Walter Gropius cry hot tears of shame: celebrities like Lucille Ball, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra (to name just a few), as well as some of the twentieth century’s most important interior designers and architects, like Paul Laszlo, Arthur Elrod, Hal Broderick, Steve Chase, and John Woolf.

Finally, in 1970, after having fully established himself in the design world, Jones struck out on his own, opening his own showroom at the Pacific Design Center, and freed from the limitations at Hudson-Rissman, finally was able to work on larger scale pieces. Says Jones: “I liked art you could bump into, not that you looked at on a shelf. I wanted to make big furniture!” — In his experimental explorations, he pioneered techniques for joining large Lucite castings in perfectly transparent and seamless joints. Where metal frames are employed, Jones developed a proprietary technique to join metal and Lucite without screws or fasteners spoiling the integrity of the design. By virtue of these techniques, as well as Lucite’s structural and physical properties (such as ‘transmissivity’ – not reflecting light (like glass does) but absorbing it, thereby rendering his pieces ever more ethereal), Jones has been able to create improbable pieces that not only attain aesthetically impressive forms, but which also refract and radiate light, lensing an interior, as if folding in space upon itself.

Throughout his career, Jones has received countless awards and accolades, including most recently the 2007 nomination for the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. Currently, he is still very much the busy designer, having recently rolled out a new line of designs, the Nouveau Vu line, which recalls the nature-inspired Art Nouveau era designs. He laughingly admits: “I didn’t even know how to make it when I first designed it!” a familiar and favorite position he has placed himself in throughout these many years.

While some have tried to trace his hallmark, more geometrical designs to Bauaus influences (or even art deco), he eschews such attempts. He warmly embraces his rural, Indiana roots, reporting his greater influences came instead from the geometry to be found in his mother’s quilts, as well as in the post-WWII “pattern house” architecture produced by his father’s lumber yard. These more homely and yet richer, more genuine, and more profound sources for his design inspirations, that sprung from childhood memories and his first authentic contacts with the forms and colors, are the true mainspring behind his success.

Thanks to Julie Iovine and Todd Merrill, authors of Modern Americana (for historical info and pictures), as well as to (for pictures).

Posted in designer | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Discovering Carlo Mollino

Carlo Mollino is said to have said: “Everything is permissible as long as it is fantastic.” What lovely nuttiness!

Mollino was fiercely individualistic and nonconformist, a true iconoclast and a fearless, swashbuckling, fire-eating boundary-breaker. Like DaVinci on crank, Mollino was a designer, architect, engineer, race car driver, stunt flier, photographer (preferred nudes), fashion designer, stage designer, writer, dabbler in the occult, and all-around artistic nose-tweaker, chain-yanker, and eye-poker. A curse on anyone who would try to place him in any category or school of art, especially the Modernist camp. – One moron (name unmentioned) whom I read tried to cast him as a modernist because he took pains to consider the functional aspects of his furniture design. Well, by that criterion, everyone BUT the Modernists could be call “Modernists” since Bauhaus et al furniture is notoriously uncomfortable and mal-functional. Vitruvius (1st century BC) required attention to function (aka ‘utility’ (along with: aesthetics and ‘firmness’ (well-built-edness))), so one could hardly claim to call Mollino a Modernist because he followed ancient Vitruvian prescripts, especially in light of his more ardent attention paid to design aesthetics, and how wildly eccentric and peculiar those Mollino aesthetics could be! — If anything, he had more in common with the Jugendstil and Secession camps, in his preference for high craftsmanship and handmade nuance individuating each piece, in stark contrast to the gospel of mass-production rubber-stamp furniture evangelized by the Modernist.

Because he did not cram himself into the pigeon-hole of an ephemeral artistic fad, his designs remain even today fresh, unanticipated, and thrilling, though no longer ‘scandalous’ as they were to his contemporaries. Sure, he had his influences, from historical Roman/Italian architecture to ancient Egyptian design/architecture to Dadaism to Surrealism to second-Futurism, and beyond. But, his work was entirely his own, without precedent.

Born May 6, 1905 to a wealthy & austere father (Eugenio), who himself was an engineer/architect, and mother (Iolanda), who also certainly had high expectations for her son, being herself the daughter of one of Italy’s most famous generals, Carlo was forever haunted by a parental (especially paternal) lack of confidence in him, which pushed him inexorably to overcompensate in his achievements. He early on (in elementary school) showed prodigious ability in art, and lost himself, as a child, in his father’s study, frenetically delving from one book to the next, from adventure stories to engineering drawings to musical notation (which he appreciated on a purely visual level) to theoretical works. The experimenter’s restless lust for knowledge combined with the young artist’s fertile, precocious and inventive powers, gave rise in Mollino to an irrepressible artistic expressiveness, yielding such authenticity that his works never cease to astonish, as opposed to the increasingly stale forms from the ‘sacred halls’ of the Bauhaus.

On the other hand, such extreme individualism leaves no heirs. Mollino has become a richly endowed open/closed set of parentheses within design history. That being said, his iconoclastic *style* has been (attempted to be) repeated again and again by those who wish to trailblaze new paths through the design wilderness. Let us, though, take careful stock of his rootedness in the design past. {Here’s where I start to editorialize:} We are warned by historians that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. This is true for designers as well. A hallmark of ignorance (willful or not) is endlessly re-inventing the wheel, parading out tired design cliches as if they were new. Such ignorance includes *especially* those who are only aware of the recent trends. It’s like the 12 year-old who shops punk-wear at Hot Topics and thinks they are sporting a rebellious look that their parents didn’t already live through in the 1970s. Much of the pablum that gets cranked out of the contemporary design scene is that same re-tread of been-there.

Mollino teaches us that the *true* rebel, the *true* iconoclast, is the one that fluently speaks the language of the past, draws upon the rich conceptual resources of that ancient deposit of human creativity, then, against that clearly defined historical backdrop, creates a *genuinely* new design, which represents a *progression* in design history, and not a *digression” (or worse: a diarrhea squirt of nonsense masked as ‘avant-garde’).

Posted in designer | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment