Paradoxically, Rohde came to furniture design almost by happenstance, and yet, in retrospect, the various threads of his education and his working and personal life combined to form a skill set perfect for that vocation. The son of a cabinetmaker who had immigrated to the United States from Prussia, he grew up in New York and attended Stuyvesant High School. Though today it is one of New York's premier public secondary schools, Stuyvesant in its earlier years was a technical school, training students for careers as carpenters, blacksmiths, and machinists.3 While Rohde excelled in his shopwork courses, in high school he also discovered a talent for drawing and painting. He would later study at such institutions as the Art Students League, and by the early 1920s he was earning a living as a freelance catalogue illustrator for department stores such as Macy's and Abraham and Straus, specializing in furniture and interiors.4 "It was all there," says Ross, whose book, entitled Gilbert Rohde: Modern Design for Modern Living, is the first full-length survey of the designer's life and career. "He not only understood how furniture was made, but he also had an artist's eye for shape, color, and textures."
All Rohde seemed to need to begin working as a furniture designer was encouragement, and he got it from Gladys Vorsanger (1898-1989). Rohde met her during her stint, from 1923 to 1925, as a copywriter in the advertising department of Abraham and Straus. She later became an editor at Women's Wear Daily and, later still, became Rohde's wife.5 While European modernism was covered in the press and shown in small traveling exhibitions, Vorsanger urged Rohde to go to the source to see the designs. In 1927 he set out on a four-month trip. In Paris he saw how French designers used exotic woods accented with inlays and marquetry to spectacular visual effect, and discovered that the sparer, sleeker furniture of such designers as René Herbst (1891-1982) and Pierre Chareau (1883-1950) had gained favor over the more heavily ornamented pieces of the early art deco period. Visiting the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany, Rohde was introduced to furniture designed for mass production, composed of simple materials such as tubular steel. He was also strongly influenced by the multifunctional modular designs of Marcel Breuer (1902-1981).6 Rohde would absorb all these ideas, and expand upon them after his return to the United States.
By 1929 Rohde had opened his own design firm in New York. He had won small-scale contracts from companies such as Heywood-Wakefield and Troy Sunshade, but it was his deal with Herman Miller that gave him the large platform he craved. A list of the various woods he employed in his pieces, noted by Leslie Piña in her preface to a reprint of the 1939 Herman Miller catalogue, gives a hint of Rohde's prolific imagination: "East India Rosewood, Brazilian Rosewood, Sequoia Burl, Walnut Burl, Mardou Burl, Quilted Maple, Macassar Ebony...Paldao with Quilted Maple, Walnut with Bleached Maple, White Acer with Black Walnut."7
The influence of the French school is evident in Rohde's facility with wood, and in many of his upholstered pieces. But Bauhaus tendencies are reflected in the shapes of most of the objects he designed, which are often rectilinear or formed with gentle arcs. Yet even in the pieces that incorporate tubular or flattened metal elements, Rohde achieves a vigor and élan missing from the work of the Bauhaus (see Fig. 2).
Clocks were another Rohde specialty (see Fig. 5), and one of his most famous designs-known now as the "Z" Clock (first made about 1933) and composed of a glass and plated metal dial mounted on a bent steel rod (Fig. 11)-appears to be pure Bauhaus, but, as Bletter says, it "is really better than Bauhaus. It is one of the most elegant modern designs: minimal and dynamic at the same time."