"The Shape of Things: Modern Furniture"
by Eliot F. Noyes
Consumer Reports, September, 1947

Modern Furniture--Mass production will lower prices, and some steps to achieve it are at last being taken

Good furniture form other periods is still good furniture, but it was made by hand to fit the needs and customs of other days. Our lives are so entirely different from the lives of men in the 18th Century or any other period that our needs in furniture must inevitably be different from theirs in many ways. Creative designers are concerned with solving today's problems with today's means, and they argue with considerable justification that they should not be expected to use present-day techniques just to copy old pieces.


(left) unit pieces against a blocked-off background make for flexibility

For the consumer, it is more practical and more rewarding to search for the best that today offers than to revert to period reproductions. Nor is this just a form of snobbery. Period reproductions almost always sacrifice important elements of usefulness, efficiency or comfort in the effort to recapture old shapes and details. If, on the other hand, you have inherited some good old furniture that is still useful, as much of it is, there is certainly no point in putting it in the attic; just don't feel that in buying new pieces you are limited to the same period.

Good pieces from different periods often go very well together if they are really good; their compatibility is more a matter of scale, size, spirit and quality than of style. A Windsor chair can be perfectly at home with a modern one by Aalto or Eames. Similarly, there is no need to worry about the propriety of using old furniture in a modern house, or modern in an old house. There is more good modern furniture available in this country now than there ever has been before. Ten years ago, anyone searching for really good contemporary design was limited to pretty much the excellent pieces imported from Scandinavia. Now good modern furniture is designed and produced in this country, and more is turning up every day. Much is produced under the banner of "modern design" which is thoroughly bad, however.

It is important to analyze what is available in terms of your needs, in exactly the same way that you would in buying an automobile or lawnmower. First, be sure that it performs well the job you have in mind for it. In a chair, this means chiefly that it must be comfortable. In a bedroom chest, it means that the drawers must be of an efficient size to hold shirts, for example, and that the drawer handles are easy to grip. Second, check to see that it is well-built, whether by machine or hand, but reject the machine-made piece which imitates handicraft detail. It invariably looks like the fraud it is. Third, examine the materials and the way they are used. Materials should obviously express their own good qualities; wood should be treated like wood and should look like wood.

Many of the most interesting modern designs have evolved from the invention of new structural systems and the imaginative use of new materials such as plywood, foam rubber, plastics, metals, etc. Of outstanding interest along these lines are the chairs and case pieces designed by Charles Eames, and produced by the Evans Products Company, Detroit. Though most furniture produced today is still heavily dependent on hand processes, the Eames group is really designed and engineered for mass production, while in appearance the pieces are a clean and beautiful expression of new materials and techniques in the hands of a sensitive designer. Department stores will have them readily available in October.

The Eames pieces express most clearly the aim of the modern designers, to provide extremely comfortable chairs which are at the same time light in weight, economic in construction and materials, and suited to mass production. The Finnish designer, Alvar Aalto, was a pioneer in developing furniture in this spirit; many Aalto pieces are now being imported from Finland and may be brought through Finsven, 925 Madison Avenue, New York. Other excellent imported furniture is carried by Knoll Associates, 601 Madison Avenue, New York, whose main line, however, comprises a well-known and complete set of very good designs made in this country and available in many stores. Also worth nothing is a special group of distinctive character made by Van-Keppel-Green, Beverly Hills, California.

While much modern furniture aims at light, articulated construction as in the Eames and Aalto pieces, ether is a kind of soft luxurious seating comfort which can only be found in heavy upholstered chairs and sofas. The springs and padding through which this comfort is attained usually makes them large and bulky, too. If such pieces are not too space-consuming, they are a useful and important part of furnishings. In buying them, look for simple shapes and maximum comfort in a variety of sitting positions. The chair illustrated is a member of a large and interesting group designed by George Nelson for the Herman Miller Furniture Company, Zeeland, Michigan. Other recommended groups include those designed by Edward Wormley for the Dunbar Furniture Manufacturing Company, of Berne, Indiana, and for the Drexel Furniture Company, of Drexel, North Carolina.

Modern design has given us an increased range of usefulness in the development of unit furniture, where a number of different types of cases (with or without shelves, drawers, cabinets, etc.) have matching dimensions so that they can be combined vertically and horizontally in a great variety of different arrangements.

A comparatively recent addition to the unit furniture idea re the bench units on which these cases may be placed, bringing them off the floor. The benches are useful by themselves, too, and increase the flexibility of the system. Examples from the Eames and Nelson groups are shown in the illustrations. One of the most extensive unit lines is that designed by Morris Sanders for the Mengel Company.

Modern furniture designers generally try to gear their designs to mass-production techniques, hoping that efficient large-scale manufacture will result in an inexpensive product. Two elements are usually missing from this picture, with the unfortunate result that modern furniture is often too expensive for average buyers. First, furniture are in large part not equipped with really up-to-date machinery and technical facilities, but continue to use pretty much the same machines, and even hand-techniques, which have been in use for a long time. Second, modern pieces usually have not been produced in sufficient volume--despite the designers' hopes--to bring the unit price down. The furniture industry, like the housing industry in its extreme decentralization and reliance on old methods, has a tendency to continue producing what it traditionally has produced, and by the same methods.

The effect of these things has kept prices high. Still, as modern furniture grows in acceptance and manufacturing techniques are brought up-to-date, the price picture should improve considerably, and some steps along these lines have already been taken. Now, for the first time in this country, a true mass-production approach is being applied in the Eames designs. These pieces are relatively inexpensive now, but the company expects to be able to lower them still further since manufacture on a large scale is just getting under way in a newly equipped plant.

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