Gilbert Rohde - Modern Design for Modern Living

Gilbert Rohde: Modern Design for Modern Living

The pioneering modernist Gilbert Rohde was an innovative designer of furniture and interiors who attained near celebrity status across the United States in the 1930s and early '40s. Yet his reputation languished after the war until rekindled in the 1970s by new interest in mid-century modernism-whose forms his work anticipated.

In March of 2009, the first comprehensive appraisal of the designer's achievements reaches bookstores nationwide. In Gilbert Rohde: Modern Design for Modern Living, published by Yale University Press, author Phyllis Ross provides a detailed account of Rohde's work and life in the context of the social, economic, and cultural circumstances of the first half of the 20th century.

Some 190 photographs document Rohde's interiors and furniture-including prototypes-and an array of never-before-seen archival materials. These include advertisements, publicity shots, magazine spreads, and trade publications. Many have been drawn from previously untapped sources, including the Gilbert Rohde archive held by the designer's most important manufacturing client, the Herman Miller Company.

Ross, a decorative arts historian based in New York City, portrays the designer as a critical connecting force between the early stirrings of American modernism and the distinctively American look of the postwar era, while illuminating the impact of his other roles as well: educator, mass marketer, and advocate for the designer's role in manufacturing and the adoption of new materials. She demonstrates how Rohde approached furniture design with the attitude of an industrial designer, concerned with the integration of materials, engineering, and consumer needs.

"Unlike some designers whose importance lies exclusively in the invention of form, Rohde's significance can't be separated from his different roles: this is a case where the sum is greater than the parts," says the author.

Rohde's personal life figures as well in Ross's scholarship. She sheds light on the supporting roles of his two wives and the professional challenge of chronic stuttering. Many giants in American design and education figure in the story of Rohde's career, including Lewis Mumford, a former classmate of Rohde's at Stuyvesant High School, John Cotton Dana, Dorothy Shaver, Paul Frankl, Russel Wright, Raymond Loewy, Walter Dorwin Teague, Kem Weber, George Nelson, and Serge Chermayeff.

Ross traces Rohde's career from the early phase, when the designer began to transpose French and German antecedents absorbed first-hand in Europe into something new: modular moderne and Streamline designs realized with chrome, tubular steel, and such new materials as Bakelite, Fabrikoid (a leather-like fabric made by Du Pont), and Plexiglas.

"Rohde was something of a genius at presenting innovation in the guise of tradition," explains Ross. "With Colonial Revival and other period styles ascendant in the 1930s, his ability to infuse vanguard forms with informality and comfort speeded the acceptance of modernism on these shores."

Ross examines how Rohde pioneered the shift from the production of fixed suites of furniture to coordinated systems in a home furniture industry that depended on new lines each season. She explains how Rohde's notion of modular units encouraged families to add to pieces as needed, thus keeping sales afloat. She points to Laurel, one of his most widely publicized home lines for Herman Miller, which offered enough pieces to furnish an entire home, from sectional seating, cabinets and tables for the living room to the outfitting of a bedroom. She also documents how Rohde applied the systems approach to office furniture, touching upon many of his furniture lines, including the Executive Office Group for Herman Miller, a kit of parts with more than 200 possible configurations.

This book shows how Rohde was the first in the American design industry to reposition the sales message from selling furniture to selling a lifestyle-with the imprimatur of designer branding. Ross demonstrates how Rohde rethought nearly every aspect of Herman Miller's merchandizing, from the showroom to catalogue to advertising: writing copy, supervising photography, selecting typefaces and designing layouts. When needed, Rohde even designed the sales areas of department stores.

The designer's understanding of international expositions as valuable promotional platforms is explored through his contributions to the World's Fair in New York (1939/1940), the Century of Progress in Chicago (1933/1934) and the Golden Gate Exhibition in San Francisco (1939). One focus is the distinctive line of clocks that Rohde designed for the Herman Miller Clock Company, which debuted at the Chicago fair and are considered design icons today.

Although Rohde's relationship with Herman Miller produced his most important work, the Michigan-based manufacturer was hardly Rohde's only manufacturing client, as this volume makes clear. Gilbert Rohde: Modern Design for Modern Living charts Rohde's production for 28 manufacturer clients, from the wood, reed, and rattan furniture he created for Heywood-Wakefield and the metal furniture he designed for Troy Sunshade to a Streamline water cooler for Cordley and Hayes.

This monograph makes a significant contribution to understanding American design during the interwar period, through the lens of Gilbert Rohde's career.

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