Where’s My Space Age

Originally posted June 3, 2010 on

I got around to perusing a design book this week that was on my summer reading list. Published in 2003, it’s called “Where’s My Space Age,” by Sean Topham. Subtitled “The Rise and Fall of Futuristic Design,” it traces the roots of the Space Age to WWII rocketry (Werner von Braun et al) and Cold War technological competition, though after a chapter on space flight it brings the disquisition down to earth with a long section on the impact of space-mania on 1960’s living environments.

Rather than a book review, this is a book reaction, and that reaction is visceral. Topham sets the stage for his book with a comment from a 12-year-old boy on the eve of the lunar landing in 1969. I was ten at that moment, and so was a child when manned space flight went from dream to reality. Part of Topham’s argument has to do with a child’s sense of wonderment representing a broader cultural reaction to the exploration of space-he suggests the idea of a fresh start several times, and notes that space travel entered the home first in the form of children’s toys.

It is hard for someone my age to look back at the imagery of the early postwar space age without a tinge of nostalgia, but look back we must because Topham argues, rightly, how important visual information was in disseminating ideas about space travel. From Arthur Clarke’s 1951 “The Exploration of Space” on, a succession of images prepared people for the coming conquest of space. Confidence, swagger, and technical mastery were suggested graphically, and awe was elicited with photos of rocket launches and breathtaking views from space. Shown here is a rendering from Clarke’s factual rather than fictional account, and a shot of the jammed nose cone on Gemini 9.

This visual component was brought home, literally, by architects and designers during the 1960’s. For Topham, the futuristic “look” of the 60’s was deeply influenced by themes and imagery drawn from space, more directly in references to space helmets, space suits, satellites, and capsules, less directly in the use of aluminum–the material of early satellites–and perhaps the vivid blues of shots of earth from space. Moreover, space helped usher in an era characterized by disposability–multi-million dollar rockets were discarded after one use, as were paper dresses, while plastic chairs and tables would be replaced rather than repaired.

Topham illustrates a wide array of futuristic 60’s design, including Haus-Rucker-Co’s “Fly Head” (1968), shown here, but the essence of it, for him, can be distilled into Matti Suuronen’s ellipsoid Futuro House of 1968, and the furniture designs and interior landscapes of Verner Panton. Topham points out that the flying-saucer shaped Futuro House, shown here, which represents the concept of pod living, was designed as a transportable ski cabin. Panton’s Visiona 2–depicted here–captured the exuberantly colorful and youthfully irrepressible (and irresponsible) character of space age design, while shifting styling from the clean lines inspired by spacecraft interiors to a more organic terrain–more “Barbarella” than “2001.”

Ultimately, according to Topham, the era of space age design was undone by its own excesses and by the oil embargo and recession of the early 1970’s–the cost of plastics rose with the price of oil, and a scenario of resource scarcity trumped the scenario of disposability. Curiously, Topham fails to bridge the idea of pod living into the era of sustainability. Surely, some notion of living in a compressed space, analogous to a spaceship or space capsule, remains relevant at a time when our greatest drain on resources comes from our egregiously outsized residences.

Ironically, the smallest prefab dwelling at a recent MoMA exhibition was intended as a ski cabin–40 years later, an idea of pod living still has to be couched in recreational terms.

What’s in a Catalog? George Nakashima, 1962

Originally posted May 6, 2010 on

“Furniture, we feel, is a development of mood besides being purely utilitarian. Basic forms with the reflection of the constancy of nature find satisfaction in times like ours. A small poetic haven in an unsettled world where excitement seems so necessary.” 

George Nakashima, from his 1962 catalog

The 1962 Nakashima catalog shows the same artistry and meticulous attention to detail as his furniture. Like his tables, chairs, case pieces, and lamps, like his writing, architecture, and his business, it is suffused with his philosophy. Humility, simplicity, serenity, natural beauty, harmony, pride, dedication—all were a way of life to him. The catalog expresses his philosophy in its artful and well executed photographs and uncluttered layout, in the choice of fonts, the use of Japanese hand made wrappers, endpapers, and pages, and hand-sewn binding. It states his philosophy and his approach, succinctly, in its text.

On craftsmanship and modern design:
“In a world where fine manual skills are shunned, we believe in them, not only in the act of producing a better product, but in the sheer joy of doing or becoming. We feel that pride in craftsmanship, of doing as perfect a job as possible, of producing something of beauty even out of nature’s discards, are all homely attributes that can be reconsidered. It might even be a question of regaining one’s own soul when desire and megalomania are rampant…”
“In proportion to the flood of consumer goods, we are probably at one of the lowest ebbs of design excellence the world has seen. It requires a genuine fight to produce one well designed object of relatively permanent value.”

On the idiosyncratic nature of his output:
“Many of our pieces are one-of-a-kind and cannot be reproduced nor accurately shown. They often depend on a particular board with extraordinary characteristics. Such boards are at times studied for years before a decision is made to its use, or a cut made at any point. Distinguishing features are fine figures in graining, burls, rich and deep coloring, unusual profiles, and even areas of decomposition.”

On using solid wood:
“Solid wood is a challenge. It is continually ‘alive’ and ‘moves’ depending on weather conditions, moisture content of the air, and temperature. Each board of each species is individual and must be understood; the good characteristics exploited.”

And, significantly:
“Furniture should be lived with and not considered something overly precious.”

The Nakashima catalog is unlike any other I can think of. Part admonition, part jeremiad, it enjoins or challenges his customers to see things differently and to share with George his deep respect for craft traditions, nature, and the well-springs of creativity. Cost was not a formidable obstacle. The 1962 price list shows a Conoid triple chest with sliding doors selling for $360.00; a seven-foot hanging wall case with free-edge front for $350.00; a floor lamp for $105.00; a 66-inch slab coffee table for $150.00, a double pedestal desk for $225.00, and a New chair with rockers and arm for $125.00. This at a time when a Dunbar chest of similar size cost up to $1,500.00, a Herman Miller desk cost $500.00, and Eames aluminum group armchair cost $195.00. Clearly, on some level, George was at least as interested in getting his message across as turning a profit, or maybe he just enjoyed what he was doing.

The 1962 catalog shows George walking the walk as well as talking the talk; it is a document that embodies and projects what he is about, both in word and act.

Circular Reasoning: On the Geometry of Chairs

Originally posted November 24, 2010 on

Beginning with de Stijl, geometry became an obvious metaphor for the scientific and mechanistic modes of thinking associated with avant-garde modernism. Mondrian’s canvases, arguably influenced themselves by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School architecture, became templates for mid-century wall systems and modular case good systems, as well as graphic inspiration for architecture.

All of these applications self-evidently involved rectilinearity or at least linearity–the so-called deconstruction and reconstruction of the box, applied both to surface and volume. Famously, this was the approach taken with Rietveld’s Red and Blue chair, which was explicitly linear, a rigid composition of wooden planks designed with little regard for comfort. Much cantilevered, Bauhaus-inspired furniture would also fit into this camp, though with somewhat greater interest in comfort. In the opposing, organic camp, are chairs such as the Womb chair, ergonomic in character, curvilinear, and fitted to the human form.

The circle occupies a place somewhere in between though much closer to the geometric camp; in Platonic terms, the circle is perfect, the ultimate geometric symbol of wholeness, unity, infinity. With tables, there is a long tradition of circular design: the Knights of the Round Table, round table discussions, etc. (note the underlying egalitarian aspect of this shape–no one sits in a privileged position).

Though curvilinear, the circle does not suggest itself for chair design–people have curves but are not hemispheric or conical, at least generally speaking. A circular or spherical chair is not inherently ergonomic, though it can be rendered comfortable with slings, padding, pillows, or butt-shaped indentations. Partly for this reason, and likely for technical reasons also, relatively few chair designs hewed to the geometry of the circle. And those that did tended to have an agenda: either experiments in form or ideological or symbolic statements of some type.

Beginning in the early 1950’s, the circle was deployed in chair design in the work of Donald Knorr, Lina Bo Bardi, and Roberto Mango. Knorr’s chair, shaped from a ribbon of sheet metal, shared first prize in a 1950 MoMA Low-Cost Furniture competition. Distributed by Knoll, and painted red, yellow, or black, with black metal legs, the chair possessed a minimalist and elegant beauty. Intended to be comfortable, the chair was also offered in a padded version, just in case. Bo Bardi, the Italian/Brazilian architect and designer, contributed an eye-catching chair consisting of a hemispheric seat floating inside a round tubular metal base. The chair could be used parallel to the ground or at an angle, for a variety of seating or lounging positions. The image here, which uncropped shows two such options, is from the cover of an Interiors magazine from the early 1950’s. It is notable, and surely meaningful, that Bo Bardi is a woman designer and the circle is a female archetype. Unlike Knorr and Bo Bardi, the Mango chair illustrated here is made of wood–in this case shaped plywood–and it looks like a James Prestini bowl on legs. This chair is part of a series done by Mango in wood and metal, exploring the possibilities of the circle as a chair frame. Significantly, all the designs referred to here had one thing in common: a lack of commercial success, and hence a small production run.

Continuing this tradition were three circular chair designs from the late 1960’s. In the case of Arman’s 1969 chair for Atelier A, consisting of two steel rings with a leather sling, the intent was not serial production but design/art; more a functional sculpture than a seating solution. Joe Colombo’s 1969 Tube chair for Flexform cleverly used round tubes looking like paint rollers to achieve a variety of seating options. Despite advertisements pointing to the comfort obtainable through the flexibility of assembly, the chair was far too radical for prevalent taste cultures.

Somewhat more accessible, and commercially viable, was the work in plastic by Finnish designer Eero Aarnio. His Pastille chair of 1967, with its contoured seating indentation, took the circle in an ergonomic direction, while his Ball chair of 1969, shown here and based on a sphere, required cushions and pillows to suggest comfort. The Ball chair stood, and stands, as a production analog to the utopian 1960’s preoccupation with self-contained living environments.

While this is not an exhaustive list of post-war circular chair designs, the two clusters around 1950 and 1969 do suggest an underlying cultural rationale at those moments—some metaphoric or symbolic reason for this attraction to the circle.  A topic I will deal with when I get around to it…

Norwegian Wood, and Other Substances

Originally posted January 21, 2011 on

Scandinavian Design, as understood in the modern design marketplace and the secondary literature, is a major constituent of Western modernism in terms of style, influence, and popularity.  Even through the recession, demand for vintage, high end craft production from Denmark, Sweden, and Finland remained strong.  Left out of the mix, or at least neglected, has been design and decorative art from Norway.

I’m not sure why this is so–I think Norway’s population is smaller than her neighbors–but it is not from lack of a suitable attitude or effort in Norway.  Listen to this introduction, from the booklet “Norwegian Arts and Crafts [and] Industrial Design,” published around 1960, which gives us a window into this subject:  

“Although it would be wrong to say that applied arts and industrial design have been developed farther in Norway than in other countries…it would certainly be no exaggeration to say that the average Norwegian believes that his life can be enriched by beautiful and yet practical surroundings, and is therefore very conscious of the importance of design…Thanks to the inherited feeling for form and color and to the first-class training provided by its technical schools, Norway is able to retain its position among the leading countries in the sphere of applied art, both in industrial design and in arts and crafts.”

Granted, this is from a source intended to promote Norwegian design to English speaking countries.  It still points to ongoing traditions of craftsmanship and design consciousness that provided continuity and impetus to the modernisms in other Scandinavian countries.  “Norwegian Arts and Crafts” is filled with examples of contemporary work in furniture, lighting, dinnerware, pottery, glass, metal, textiles, jewelry, and wood. Much of it is appealing, if not iconic, and it presents a representative cross-section of design activity in Norway. Yet there is nary a household name mentioned.

Five images from the catalog are presented here:  the cover, in color, features a sling chair by Frederik Kayser; the wooden toy figures are by Arne Tjomsland; the glass vase and bowls are by Arne Jon Jutrem for Hadeland; the ceramic teapot and vase are by Nils Jorgensen; the hanging lamps are by Arnulf Bjorshol; the flatware by Arne Korsmo.  Also shown is a ceramic vase by Norway’s best-esteemed potter, Eric Ploen, taken from the Freeforms gallery website. You get the point:  nice work, by artisans and designers you’ve never heard about.

If you look for Norwegian design year to year in “The Studio Yearbook,” you will find it, alongside work from the other Scandinavian countries.  Perhaps not as much material as Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, but maybe in a ratio of 1:3 to 1:4.  If you look on 1stdibs now, you will find 1 page of Norwegian design—including a pair of the Frederik Kayser armchairs—compared to 21 pages of Danish design and 12 pages of Swedish design.

So the question is:  whither Norwegian design? Why is it so under-represented in the marketplace? Is it a matter of adjudged quality, or a lack of exposure to the material?

Design Education: Pratt, 1952

Originally posted October 8, 2010 on

If all of the objects from the early 1950’s shown here look unfamiliar, that is because none of them was ever produced or distributed. All are student projects from the Experimental Design Laboratory at Pratt, taken from an article by Alexander Kostellow, chairman of Pratt’s Industrial Design Department, published in Interiors magazine in June, 1952. Founded by Donald Dohner in 1936, Pratt’s Industrial Design Department took a broadly humanistic approach to training future designers, one that sought to develop creative potential, but one that ultimately centered around machine techniques, hands-on experience, and constant experimentation.

The Experimental Design Laboratory, headed in the 1950’s by Luigi Contini, an engineer, and Victor Canzani, collaborated with companies such as Monsanto Chemicals (Plastics Division), Reynolds Metal, Shell Oil, Elgin Watch, Gorham Silver, and E.A. Electrical Co, so that by the fourth (and final) year of study, students were working on actual, real-world problems.

Some of the solutions proposed by these students are shown here. Of the furniture shown in the group photo, I like the profile of the chair on the middle right, and the low rectangular coffee table in the middle left. The chair with the woven seat in the middle also looks interesting. I’ve looked many times at the self-contained kitchen unit made of wood, metal, and plastic. Raised off the floor to prevent dirt collection, it included electric hot plates, work and storage space, and a sculptural hood that floats over the top, suspended by a guide wire. Overall, a sort of Milo Baughman meets the Jetsons fantasy that could be plugged into a high-end interior today.

Also intriguing to me is the cylindrical voltmeter with its electronics exposed inside a plastic tube. I could see this object re-cast as a radio I’d want to own. “More charming than functionally serious” is how the Japanese-looking scale is described in the article, but on a visual scale of 1-10, it is at least a 9. Thrown in too, are the second-year experiments in designing with metal strips, which also shows the students’ interest in photography. A look at a larger sampling of student work from the 50’s and 60’s would make a great blog, article, or exhibit. Any lenders out there?