Gilbert Rohde: The man who saved Herman Miller

Staying on the crest of modernity was always Rohde's driving force. Correctly anticipating the more compact arrangements of households, he designed scores of pieces that could do double duty-a card table that could expand into a dining table, sofas that opened into beds, coffee tables that also served as bookshelves-and he introduced the sectional sofa. Rohde stayed atop material advances too, using Bakelite for tabletops and drawer pulls, and later using Plexiglas and Lucite for pulls and table legs.8

In the late 1930s, probably prompted by surrealist art, he began to design tables with biomorphic tops-forms that would not become commonplace for more than a decade.9 Eight years ago, the holy grail of Rohde aficionados was discovered in the attic of a house in Queens, New York, that had been the home of the designer's sister-in-law: a set of chairs, each composed of a steel frame and a seat made from a single sheet of curved Plexiglas (see Fig. 12). As the noted collector John C. Waddell, who secured the chairs, said in a 2000 lecture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the pieces are almost certainly the first examples of the use of plastic in seating, and in an embracing shape that anticipated the rise of ergonomic design by years.10

How many other innovations Rohde might have developed and design avenues he would have explored will forever remain a matter for speculation. The visionary designer died suddenly, of an apparent heart attack while lunching in a Manhattan restaurant, two weeks after his fiftieth birthday. His last words, reportedly, were: "This is the best French pastry I've ever had."11 Even at the end, Rohde had discovered something new.

1 Ralph Caplan, The Design of Herman Miller (Whitney Library of Design, New York, 1976), p. 24.
2 Ibid., pp. 24–26.
3 Phyllis Ross, Gilbert Rohde: Modern Design for Modern Living (Yale University Press, New Haven, forthcoming), pp. 9–11.
4 Ibid., pp. 14–15.
5 Ibid., pp. 20–24.
6 Ibid., p. 22.
7 Leslie Piña, preface to Herman Miller 1939 Catalog: Gilbert Rohde Modern Design, with Value Guide (Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, Pa., 1998), p. iv.
8 Ross, Gilbert Rohde, pp. 27, 144.
9 Ibid., p. 51.
10 Waddell spoke in conjunction with the exhibition American Modern, 1925–1940: Design for a New Age, presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from May 16, 2000, to January 7, 2001. I am grateful to him for an excerpt from his speech.
11 Ross, Gilbert Rohde, p. 230.

GREGORY CERIO is a regular contributor to Antiques.

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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