Review by Christopher Long
Gilbert Rohde: Modern Design for Modern Living

Phyllis Ross. Gilbert Rohde: Modern Design for Modern Living. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. xiii + 274 pp.; 46 color and 144 bw illus., appendix, bibliography, index. $60.00.

In July 1932 the Herman Miller Company of Zeeland, Michigan, then one of the leading manufacturers of high-quality furniture in the United States, unveiled a strikingly modern bedroom set featuring a two-toned wood surface and a bold, asymmetrical arrangement. Its designer was New Yorker Gilbert Rohde, then thirty-eight years old. In the 1920s he had established a reputation as an up-and-coming modernist, and for a time he produced pieces for the Heywood-Wakefield Company, in Gardner, Massachusetts. Before the early 1930s Herman Miller had relied almost exclusively on local designers and traditional forms; Rohde’s first attempts to interest the company in modern design in the summer of 1930 had met with summary rejection. But two years later, the company’s director, D. J. (Dirk Jan) De Pree, concerned with falling sales after the onset of the Great Depression and his competitors’ experiments with modernism, decided to take a risk and commissioned Rohde to design two bedroom suites.

Thus began what would be one of the most important and fruitful collaborations in the history of modern American furniture design. Rohde’s sumptuous and visually arresting pieces would prove to be remarkably successful, saving the company from bankruptcy and contributing some of the landmarks of midcentury design. Yet, more than that, Rohde’s creations would alter the trajectory of the new aesthetic in America. “From the outset,” Phyllis Ross writes in her excellent new study of Rohde’s life and career, his “work for Herman Miller would demonstrate that original modern furniture could become a powerful selling point in mass-produced furniture. And unlike the company’s traditional lines derived from pattern books, in which the goal was to produce furniture that looked handcrafted, Rohde’s objective was to create designs that looked machine-made” (p. 72).

Rohde provided designs for the Herman Miller Company until his death in 1944. The range of products eventually included living and dining room furniture, as well as office furniture and a series of clocks. In 1946, the last year Herman Miller produced Rohde’s pieces, the firm’s catalogue listed more than three hundred different designs. Rohde also had a central role in developing its showroom displays, sales training, and advertising. He was a champion of modular components and an early experimenter with new materials, including Plexiglas.

Rohde has long been recognized as one of the seminal figures in the rise of the midcentury aesthetic. Until now, however, surprisingly little was known about his early life and education or even about the peak years of his career, in the 1930s and 1940s. Ross’s meticulously researched book, which began in the early 1990s as a master’s thesis at the Cooper-Hewitt/Parsons Masters program in the History of the Decorative Arts, supervised by the late Catherine Hoover Voorsanger, adds a great deal to what we previously knew about Rohde and helps to fill major gaps in our understanding of American design in the middle of the twentieth century.

Rohde, Ross discovered, was born Gustav Rohde in the Bronx in 1894. His parents, Max and Mathilde Rohde, belonged to the thriving community of recent German immigrants in Washington Heights. Young Gus, as he was known, managed to gain admittance to the elite Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, where his classmates included future New Yorker critic Lewis Mumford. He showed some talent for graphic design in his early years, taking classes at the Art Students League and the Grand Central School of Art and working as a freelance commercial artist for Abraham & Straus, Macy’s, W. & J. Sloane, and other stores.

In the summer of 1927, Rohde, who had now changed his name to Gilbert (in an apparent effort to distance himself from his German origins), traveled to Europe. He made stops in London and Paris before going on to Germany, where he visited the Bauhaus in Dessau—one of the first Americans to do so. The journey seems to have strengthened his resolve to begin making modern furniture, and by 1929 his designs, including a room at the “Modern American Design in Metal” exhibition at the Newark Museum, had started to attract notice.

Rohde’s first pieces borrowed heavily from other designers, including the Frenchmen Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Georges Djo-Bourgeois, and Pierre Chareau, and probably also the American Eugene Schoen. But by 1930, when he began his collaboration with Heywood-Wakefield, his work—particularly a series of bentwood chairs and settees—also showed the impress of Michael Thonet and other German and Austrian designs.

Evident, too, in some of Rohde’s designs for Heywood-Wakefield was a penchant for fine finishes, an idea he evidently borrowed from the French art moderne. He combined this idea of elegance and sumptuousness with striking forms, including cantilevers and dramatic asymmetries. Rohde, though, was always careful not to push beyond the limits of popular taste. “Nothing he does is startling or bizarre,” commented Edith Weigle, home decor writer for the Chicago Tribune, in a contemporaneous review of Rohde’s new line for Heywood-Wakefield (quoted in Ross, p. 42). Indeed, Rohde’s aesthetic, Ross writes, represented a “conservative modernism” that was “calculated for maximum acceptance by the American consumer” (ibid.). He shunned the more outlandish experiments of the European modernists, opting instead for intentionally simple designs, which Rohde thought would fit more easily with other styles of furniture. The result was a modernism of accommodation—one contrived precisely to appeal to middle-class sensibilities and middle-class budgets.

His understanding of the problems of marketing served Rohde and his clients well in the later 1930s and early 1940s, when the economy was still unsteady and household budgets were strained. Part of the attraction of his designs was that they offered a way of living. Rohde’s rooms of the late 1930s were refined and tasteful, but they were also comfortable and unapologetically modern. He succeeded in retaining some of the sense of graciousness that had marked fine traditional ensembles, but he did so in an updated form and with an evident appeal to those who sought both ease and stylishness. Nothing was left to chance. During the years Rohde collaborated with Herman Miller, he helped the company reinvent almost every aspect of its merchandising strategy: he wrote advertising copy, supervised the photography of its individual pieces and ensembles, helped choose typefaces, and oversaw the design of advertising layouts. Even more important, he reconceived the way in which furnishings could be matched and grouped. Already with his work for Heywood-Wakefield, Rohde had begun to display a strong interest in coordinated groups of furnishings and modularity. Instead of fixed suites of furniture, he advocated coordinated systems or lines, which allowed his manufacturing clients to offer new collections each season.

The origin of this idea, as Ross notes, extends back to the introduction of unit furniture before World War I. Among the leaders of the movement were Richard Riemerschmid and Berlin designer and educator Bruno Paul, who had developed his Typenmöbel, or combination furniture, for mass production. Rohde almost certainly saw numerous examples of such modular units during his travels in Germany, and he began to investigate their possibilities not long after his return. He explored the concept most fully in his work for Herman Miller, producing an array of lines that could be grouped in myriad ways. Rohde’s Laurel collection, for example, one of the most popular home lines for the company, included a broad assortment of pieces, one sufficient in number and range of application to allow a family to furnish an entire house. Rohde also extended his system concept to office furniture, fashioning groups that had a variety of uses and configurations. This strategy offered a number of marketing advantages. Not only did it allow the company to present potential customers with many different pieces and looks, but the modular sets also enabled families to add pieces as they needed and could afford them. In this way, consumers could be enticed to make multiple purchases, helping to promote continuous sales.

Herman Miller’s efforts to encourage the loyalty of customers also relied on designer branding. Rohde was among the first American designers to have his furniture marketed under his name. Both Heywood-Wakefield and Herman Miller featured Rohde’s name prominently in their advertising, as did a number of the companies he worked for in his later years. In its 1934 brochure for a line of streamlined metal furniture, the Troy Sunshade Company, of Troy, Ohio, used the phrase “Made by Troy, designed by Rohde” as its advertising slogan. The catalogue also informed potential customers that Rohde was “recognized as one of the foremost Industrial Designers in America.”

But Rohde conceived of his involvement with his clients to go beyond lending his identity to their products. He was convinced, Ross explains, that he had to assume a leading role in convincing retailers, manufacturers, and the public of the rightness of modernism:

To promote his designs he appealed to both reason and emotion, stressing “scientific” and practical aspects through rational arguments, even while on a psychological level he engaged consumers in the process of living with modern design by offering choices in finishes, colors, and fabrics, and in the case of coordinated groups, customizing a room according to personal needs. Moreover, some of his designs were conceived to blend visually with traditional styles, making modernism more palatable to a broader public. (p. 99)

By the end of the 1930s, Rohde was probably the best known of the American modernist furniture designers. His work for Herman Miller enjoyed surprising popularity—especially when one considers that the great majority of Americans at the beginning of the decade still viewed the new aesthetic with suspicion, if not outright hostility. Undoubtedly, one of the principal reasons for his success—and that of such fellow modernists as Russel Wright and Henry Dreyfus—was his capacity for translating the ideas of the European avant-garde in a way that ordinary people found acceptable. He was able to achieve this in part through his evident appeal to practicality. Yet, more than that, Rohde succeeded because he was able to communicate a vision of living that many found enticing. His furniture was both comfortable and elegant—but in a manner that customers could readily recognize.

Phyllis Ross’s book recovers one of the central figures in the history of American modernism. It is readable, insightful, and informed. If there is a weakness to her account, it is that it is narrowly focused on its subject; there is little discussion of the larger context of American design of the era or of the forces that shaped it. Ross also makes no attempt to evaluate Rohde’s many designs, which varied considerably in terms of both quality and ambition, nor does she analyze the works in formal terms. The latter would have been especially interesting: over the course of the decade and a half from the late 1920s to his death in the mid-1940s, Rohde’s work underwent a remarkable transformation, becoming more plastic and inventive. He was among the first to employ biomorphic motifs and one of the pioneers of the “irregularity” that would mark the design of the post–World War II era. His Paldao group for Herman Miller (named for a Philippine wood with conspicuous variation of color and figure) set modern design on a new path—one very much at odds with the rectilinear and prismatic look of early modernism. Indeed, one might argue that Rohde was among the most ­formally inventive of the modernists in the 1930s and early 1940s—a designer of considerable audacity, despite his reputation for practicality.

But, such quibbles aside, this is an important book and a significant contribution to the literature on American modernism.

Christopher Long
University of Texas at Austin

American Furniture 2009