Gilbert Rohde: The man who saved Herman Miller

Gregory Cerio Furniture & Decorative Arts

The Magazine ANTIQUES | December 2008

Instances of fakery and shady dealing aside, furniture is rarely if ever the object of ethical quandaries. But Dirk Jan (known as D. J.) De Pree (1891-1990), the founder of the Herman Miller Furniture Company, tended to view most aspects of life through the prism of his devoutly held religious convictions, and in the summer of 1930, De Pree was spending more time than usual in prayer and contemplation. His Zeeland, Michigan, firm-then known best for grand historicist bedroom suites, comprising pieces heavily ornamented with moldings and turned legs and posts-was in trouble. The business looked like a certain victim of the Great Depression. Then a day arrived that De Pree would call “providential”-the day a man named Gilbert Rohde (Fig. 1) came to visit.1 A self-taught furniture designer influenced by both the Bauhaus and late French art deco, Rohde had come to try and convince De Pree to manufacture his works. Rohde argued that modern, middle-class lifestyles had changed, and required a new type of furniture. Smaller, more compact households could not accommodate large-scale pieces; fewer families employed servants to take care of the dusting and polishing that highly adorned furnishings required. And Rohde made two other points that De Pree took to heart. He suggested that the traditional designs of Herman Miller were not only grandiose and pretentious, but were also essentially stolen from earlier makers; and he pointed out that the company’s manufacturing techniques-giving wood an aged look through artificial means and using decorative elements to conceal shoddy joinery-were fundamentally dishonest. As De Pree would later say, “I came to see that the way we were making furniture was immoral.”2

Rohde, of course, won a design contract with Herman Miller. Given the preceding tale, one of the yarns that aficionados of twentieth-century design most fondly, if infrequently, recount, it is tempting to view Rohde as a sort of Professor Harold Hill of the furniture world. But Rohde, like De Pree, had a touch of missionary zeal. “His goal was to convert Americans to an appreciation and understanding of modernist design,” says Phyllis Ross, the author of a Rohde biography scheduled to be issued this coming March by the Yale University Press. While Rohde succeeded in his mission-insofar as he led Herman Miller to the forefront of mass-produced modern design-his accomplishments led, ironically, to underappreciation. He died suddenly and relatively young, and the dynamic design achievements of his successors at Herman Miller, such as Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, and Isamu Noguchi, effectively eclipsed Rohde’s reputation, and, more importantly, obscured his surprising foresight in the realm of modern design. “Along with Raymond Loewy, Russel Wright, and Paul T. Frankl, Gilbert Rohde is one of the most notable figures in the early history of modern design in America,” says Rosemarie Haag Bletter, a professor of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European and American architecture and theory at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “But what has been ignored or forgotten is Rohde’s incredible prescience as a designer.”

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 shop-work 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.”

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.