Thursday, September 5, 2013

Predictor Linear?


So what do you do when you are presented with something that you fervently believe to be inaccurate but do not have the means to prove as being so? If you’re me you document everything that can be documented, research everything which is researchable, cross the t’s, dot the i’s and wait for more information.
1953 Urban-Aire chair designed by Edmund J Spence


When I saw a listing for the chair pictured above a few years back citing it as “Predictor Linear lounge chairs manufactured in 1958 for the O’Hearn Furniture Company of Gardner, MA.” I did the mid-century researchers version of a spit take. The listing just had to be wrong! For one thing the Predictor Group was produced from 1951-1955 by the O’Hearn Furniture Co. and the totally unrelated Linear Group from 1956-1962 by Calvin Furniture, there’s not even any overlap between the two groups and they look as different as two groups of furniture could possibly be.

The date seemed wrong too… 1958? How could O’Hearn have produced this chair in 1958 when all of the information I had compiled up until this point pointed to Paul Mccobb’s association with the O’Hearn Furniture Co. being entirely over by the latter half of the 50’s. 

I had to admit though that the chair itself did look very much like something that Paul McCobb could have designed and that if I were forced to make a guess based upon nothing other than “look and feel” that my best guess for manufacturer would have been the O’Hearn Furniture Co., but I am not in the business of “look and feel” best guesses, I am in the business of researching and presenting historical fact.


The “Predictor Linear” part was fairly easy to tackle as I had already at this point amassed a substantial body of information on Paul McCobb including a scan of his obituary in the New York Times. What it seems happened is that various folks online had used the information from the Obituary as the basis for their on-line prĂ©cis of Paul McCobb, some encapsulating and summing up the material contained herein and others pretty much copy/pasting it wholesale without editing. What I eventually came to realize was that whichever editors had copied the information had copied it pretty much verbatim from the original source but had missed one very significant detail, a comma, yup that’s pretty much all it took to create “Predictor Linear” in the canon of Paul McCobb’s work. Below is a scan of the complete  article from the March 12th, 1969 edition of the New York Times. The offending sentence is in paragraph 9. This, by the way, is the only place in the sum total of period material written about Paul McCobb where the word Predictor is followed by the word Linear (it’s amazing what you can do when you have your entire research library as scanned and text recognized PDF’s) You can still find the errant “Predictor Linear” references in websites such as Artnet or Lost City Arts and currently even the IDSA has it wrong…

Highlighted text: Furniture groups that he produced were marketed under the titles of Planner, Predictor, Linear, Perimeter and Delineator. 
So having proven to my satisfaction that “Predictor Linear” was in the very least a typographical error I still had not disproven the Paul McCobb attribution so next I set my focus on the Predictor Group and the O’Hearn Furniture Co.

Knowing that the Predictor Group was composed of 19 pieces in total (as referenced in Interior Design Sept. 1951 p. 29, Interiors Oct. 1951 p. 126, and other historical sources) I set about making a visual record of all 19 designs, which I was able to cobble together from my research materials in short order. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) our errant chair did not prove to be one of the 19 designs, which made the existing attribution less likely in my mind but did not prove it one way or the other, it was alway possible that McCobb had added pieces to the group later…

Having completed this part of my research into the Predictor Group I now set about tracking down any surviving members of the O’Hearn family, ultimately getting in touch with Robert O’Hearn, who is still very active in the furniture industry and a font of information. Mr. O’Hearn was of the opinion that it was very unlikely that the O’Hearn Furniture Co. produced any furniture for Paul McCobb in 1958 as he believed the contract had expired around 1955 or possibly even earlier. This corroborated other information in my research and strongly suggested to me that the date in the listing was in error, but, yet again, did not prove one way or another whether the chair was or was not a Paul McCobb design, just that the text of the listing was questionable. <sigh>

After doing all of this I hit a brick wall, there was no more information to gather, whatever new sources of information I uncovered only rehashed the information already in my research archive, it seemed that I was well past the point of diminishing returns and had not yet solved the problem. Without the proverbial smoking gun in the form of authoritative historical information properly identifying the chair as someone else’s design I was up an informational creek without a paddle.

Fortunately there’s lots to focus on in my continuing historical research, so, having exhausted one avenue of research I was readily occupied with other tasks and was rapidly immersed in a myriad of other information gathering and sorting endeavors which put this particular windmill far from my mind for a time.

Then about a month ago I got a call from my frequent collaborator, Gerard O’Brien of Reform Gallery, asking whether I had ever uncovered the true provenance of this chair design as an auction house had contacted him for confirmation of the design attribution. Sure enough, shortly after Gerard’s call the same researcher reached out to me via e-mail asking for help. She had done a very thorough job referencing all of the available web based data and like me was not entirely convinced that the information presented on-line was accurate. I relayed to her my suspicion that the design was not by Paul McCobb and outlined my research to date presenting the available facts.

Around this time I was also looking into a question about Modernage furniture and thus had delved once more into the New York Times historical archives looking for information pertinent to the question at hand. It was when conducting this search that I finally struck pay dirt about this long standing chair conundrum, finding a concrete historical reference to the chair in question in the form of a Modernage advertisement (seen below) from page 80 of the New York Times June 14, 1953 issue which announced a new line of chairs to be carried by Modernage called Urban-Aire. Whoo Hoo!!! I finally had something to go on!!!


From there it was the work of about an hour or so to finally track down who the designer was and again the New York Times provided the answer with the corroborating information appearing in an article from about a week earlier, specifically page 14 of the June 6, 1953 issue of the New York Times where we see the exact same chair from the Modernage ad accompanied by the following historical attribution which clearly describes the chairs in the later Modernage ad: “Top right: Unusually rounded wood-framed armchair was designed by the organization of Edmond J. Spence and is one of a series of four with slight variations available from Modernage, 16 East Thirty·fourth Street next week. It comes in walnut, birch or black lacquer finish and has Air-foam cushions.”

Highlighted text: “Top right: Unusually rounded wood-framed armchair was designed by the organization of Edmond J. Spence and is one of a series of four with slight variations available from Modernage, 16 East Thirty·fourth Street next week. It comes in walnut, birch or black lacquer finish and has Air-foam cushions.”
So there we have it, mystery solved at last, our mystery chair has proven to be a 1953 design by Edmund J Spence and most definitely not by Paul McCobb.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Blair Aluminum Furniture

It's important to realize that time does not stand still. For a designer this means that design ideas change, new approaches are tried, new materials become popular/available, in general - things move on. Paul McCobb was no different from any other designer in this regard, his designs changed over time and his design work in the 60's was really very different from where he started in the late 40's/early 50's.

Some time around 1960 Paul McCobb and Directional broke the ties that had bound them together and each went their separate ways. Paul McCobb, now a free agent for the first time in a decade, was at first unsure how he was going to proceed (according to interviews with friends and relations) but soon enough opportunities presented themselves, amongst these new opportunities was the chance to design a group of office seating for Blair Aluminum Furniture. This new group of office chairs was very synergistic with the continuing design work McCobb was doing with the Mutschler Bros. in the form of their 1961, McCobb designed, "Series 800" group of office furniture.

Now it's not entirely clear whether Mutschler Bros. themselves brokered the deal with Blair or whether Blair contracted with McCobb directly, but, whatever the case might be, the results were the "Series 690" group of 6 office chairs designed by McCobb, manufactured by Blair Aluminum Furniture and marketed by Cranbrook Inc.

The chairs are first shown and mentioned in an article about Mutschler's Series 800 office furniture in the June 1961 issue of Interiors Magazine and then again in the July 1961 issue of Interior Design Magazine. In 1962 Blair and/or Cranbrook took out a few full page ads in Interiors Magazine advertising the group.

Interiors Magazine - April 1962

Considering the scant few historical mentions for this group (there are four total that I have found) we are very lucky to have complete information on it in the form of the original catalogs and brochures courtesy of Melissa McCobb.

Blair Series 690 by Paul McCobb one sheet page 1


Blair Series 690 by Paul McCobb one sheet page 2

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Lee L. Woodard Sons 1952 Allegro Collection


The very McCobb like Lee L Woodard Sons Allegro group of wrought iron and white Ash was introduced at the Fourth Annual Summer Furniture Market at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago on October 22, 1951 and was in stores in early 1952. The group was a success and was sold throughout the 50’s. 

It was not designed by Paul McCobb.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The CBS-Columbia Model # 5110 Radio

Image courtesy of the McCobb family archive


This story starts back in 2009 when I first found out about a radio designed by Paul McCobb from a teensy little mention in House and Garden.
"For those who like to travel with music, there's a perfect portable for $29.95. Designed by Paul McCobb, it's about the size of a pocket novel, weighs only 2 lbs. and has a carrying case with shoulder strap."[1]
Not much to go on... but now that I knew that such a thing existed I had to find out the rest of the story. So I hit the books, which in this case means I did a search in Google Books, that invaluable resource for the historical researcher, to see if there was anything that jived with Paul McCobb and Radio (I think it's important to mention that Google Books has gotten progressively better over time, back in 2009 it was kind of a bear to deal with).


The responses were few, with most of them referring to the better known Paul McCobb designed Bell & Howell Hi-Fi and it's built in radio, but there was one mystery reference  to "USA Tomorrow". Those of you who use Google Books frequently will know that the greater majority of book results have a bit of scanned text attached to them showing your search in context to the books text, which is really quite helpful, but every once in a while down at the very bottom of the list of search results there will be one or a few without any scanned text attached, the USA Tomorrow hit was one of "those" responses. 


Having eliminated all of the stuff which was clearly about the Bell & Howell designs I was then left with an exceptionally short list of potential sources of information about this other McCobb radio. Getting a look at "USA Tomorrow" was pretty high up on my list of things to look into for my McCobb radio research along with getting a look through the run of Industrial Design magazine which was already on my research priority list. After some misadventures with WorldCat I finally manage to track down a copy of "USA Tomorrow" in the NYPL Arts and Architecture collection, which was a really great thing with two big advantages for me:

  1. The library is freely accessible and doesn't require making an appointment in advance to view items in their collection 
  2. Even more important, it's local.

And in case anyone is wondering why they've never heard of USA Tomorrow before, it's because USA Tomorrow was an exceptionally briefly lived periodical lasting only two or three issues. It was in one of these few published issues that I found the best information about the McCobb radio thus far in my research endeavors 
"Personal portable radio and carry case designed by Paul McCobb for CBS-Columbia, WINS good design award, 1955. This is the first radio of this type that has ever been accepted by the Museum of Modern Art for the Good Design exhibit. Paul McCobb has achieved this within the restrictions of cost and engineering. Colors --Cabinets: Stone, Sand, Avocado Green, Cardinal Red. Secondary colors: Lemon Yellow, Charcoal. Leather Carrying Case in Luggage Brown and Black. Cabinet material: Polystyrene. Handle: Spring steel, 4" Speaker. Battery operated. Retail price--$29.95."[2]
The article also included a photo of the radio, the very same photo at the top of this post in fact (but not the same print). 


So now that I knew what the darn thing looked like and that it was included in the Museum of Modern Art's 1955 Good Design show. Thus equipped I put on my curator and collector hat and started scouring the internet in hopes of finding one. Part of the problem in searching for this is that I do not know, at this point, the model number of the radio, so I go about searching out any and all references to CBS-Columbia radio's on the net only to find precious little out there. Not only was I unable to find a McCobb radio sitting Un-noticed in some online radio boutique but I very quickly learned that CBS-Columbia radios are kind of hard to come by, irregardless of the model you're searching for. 


Only slightly daunted by this I created an automated search on Ebay and waited. It took quite a while before I got my first bite from this Ebay search but sure enough after about 6 months I land my first radio (stone) which once it gets delivered gives me the final piece of the puzzle, the model number of the radio. It is a CBS-Columbia Model #5110!




 A few months later a second color (sand) appears and is successfully acquired, it takes almost a year between these first two finds to score the third (cardinal red) with a partially complete 4th radio (case only in avocado green) arriving just recently. 


While I was busy collecting radios I was also occupied in continuing research on this subject which resulted in my acquiring a scan of a 1955 press release from Paul McCobb Design Associates (text reproduced below) for the radio's inclusion in the 1955 Good Design show. It's interesting to note that the USA Tomorrow text blurb is taken directly from the text of this press release.


Ironically about a year ago I got access to the Pratt University Library which includes a complete run of Industrial Design magazine, where the McCobb/CBS-Columbia radio is pictured and written up quite prominently at least twice... had I gotten there first this would not have been a very interesting story at all and certainly might have taken a lot less time.

[1] House and Garden December 1954 page 166

[2] U.S.A. Tomorrow June 1955 page 54

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Arbuck Style No. 76 by Paul McCobb

In a recent conversation with Mike Pratt, a fellow mid-century design researcher and the author of Mid-Century Modern Dinnerware: A Pictorial Guide (Schiffer 2002) he mentioned to me that one of the things he had learned doing his research is that we are getting newer, better information all the time and that what we publish, when we publish it, is really only an encapsulation of the state of our research at that moment in time, that there is every chance, given time, more will be revealed. Truer words could not have been said. Case in point:

Back in September I got an e-mail from Wright asking for information authenticating the above items which would ultimately appear as Lot 177 in their October 2011 Modern Design auction. Their request was for "information regarding the manufacturer and date of production" but what they really needed was confirmation that the table and chair in the above image were by Paul McCobb as they had been unable to find any historical reference to support the attribution; information which I had ready to hand and was more than happy to provide them. I did not know exactly who made the chair and table for McCobb so I gave them a very tentative guess that both the chair and table would have been manufactured by Furnwood Corp., as they were the only other producer of wrought iron furniture for Paul McCobb whose total output was not fully understood by me at that stage in my research. It was an error on my part to make any statement about a manufacturer when I had absolutely no information to either support or discredit the idea, as it turns out I could not have been more wrong about who made the chair.

But let's step back a bit because researching the chair alone is an interesting story. I found my first reference for this chair design more than two years ago in the 1953 W. J. Sloan and Company advertisement from the NY Times [1] seen below.



"Apartment size table (36' x 54" with 1 - 12" leaf) designed by Paul McCobb
Plastic top in birch or black, wrought iron legs                                      89.50
 Side chair, white plastic seat, wrought iron                                           18.95"


I should mention that there's a rule which I have established to help make sure that I don't go off half cocked spouting about some new discovery only to find out later on that my original source was in error, it's pretty simple and straight forward: "Make sure that you have more than one source of information for any attribution." Truth is that there are errors and omissions in the period literature every bit as bad as some of the worst of the current day. Best to dot your i's and cross your t's...

How that applies here is that in the ad above only the table is clearly attributed to Paul McCobb and though it seemed likely to me that the chairs were also a Paul McCobb design I needed more than one solitary blip to even think about making a determination of this nature, and so the snippet was duly filed away in hopes that more information might surface at a later date.

Unfortunately after a protracted period of time no new information was forthcoming. The only other scant reference I had found in over two years of searching was a 1954 Bloomingdale's ad [2] where the same chairs were tantalizingly displayed without any attribution information whatsoever. 


Then over the summer I learned of an online newspaper repository whose depths I had not yet scavenged. And there, lo and behold, was another reference to the mystery chair design [3] (below), the earliest I had found thus far, pre-dating the Sloane ad [1] by several months, and this time complete with a clear Paul McCobb attribution for the chair. Paydirt!


Besides the chair the article also describes a table as part of this un-named Paul Mccobb group and by the description it was not the same table design shown in the Sloane ad [1]. So we have a new design for the further research files. There's still no information about who was manufacturing this group of wrought iron furniture, but at least now its pretty clear that it existed and that it was introduced to the market sometime in the middle of 1953.

Now after more than two years spent researching a single subject I was starting to become a bit frazzled. When I first started out I firmly believed that I would have everything I needed to do the complete Paul McCobb history given a years worth of research time. Ahhh, how little I knew back then... I hadn't lost interest, I wasn't giving up, but I most definitely needed to take a break. 

So what do you do to take a break when you've spent the past several years researching mid-century furniture and design? Research other designs and designers of course! During my tenure researching Paul MCcobb I have developed an increasingly expanding database of information about Paul McCobb's imitators and competitors. Now with a little bit of discretionary time on my hands I delved a little bit deeper into subjects, such as mid-century wrought iron furniture production, which I had become increasingly interested in, expanding my database even further and accruing information for what very well might eventually become a book on the subject (providing I ever get this Paul McCobb project finished and published...) It was while doing this "side research" that I stumbled upon what would ultimately be the rosetta stone to unlock the mystery of these wrought iron tables and chairs in the form of a small snippet from a 1955 Bloomingdale's sale advertisement [4].

Here at last we have a pictorial reference for the round table mentioned in the Dallas Morning News editorial (above) and of course yet another image and attribution for the wrought iron chairs (it's interesting to note that the textured Madagaska plastic upholstery has been replaced with white denim at this point). But what was really important about this image was the fact that I had seen that table before on page 38 of the 1958 "Wrought Iron by Arbuck" Catalog!

"Wrought Iron by Arbuck" catalog page 38
Since there is so little authoritative information floating around about the various Arbuck groups I suppose a note of explanation is in order if this narrative is to make any sense from here on out. The designs in the 1958 catalog are unattributed, nowhere is there any mention of who designed them and there is a reason for this; In the Mid-Century when a company contracted a designer to design a product for them they frequently also contracted with the designer for the use of their name in marketing the product, there would be a finite term that the company would be allowed the use of the designers name in associated marketing after which, even though they still might retain the rights to produce the furniture, (furniture designs were typically a "work for hire" where the designer was paid a fee for the designs along with a percentage of sales) the designers name would revert to being the property of the designer. In this case it seems the George Nelson and Paul McCobb designs were still the property of the company in 1958 but they likely no longer had the rights to use the designers name to promote these designs. 

This catalog page (above) contains designs by George Nelson and Paul McCobb. The small stool and chair pictured lower center and the side chair on the lower right, listed as Style No. 70, are three of the George Nelson designs from Arbuck's 1950 George Nelson designed group [5]. The chair pictured top left as Style No. 74, along with the chair pictured top right as Style No. 75 and the room divider pictured bottom left as Style No. 75 are all Paul McCobb designs manufactured by Arbuck as seen in the 1953 "The Pavillion Collection of Wrought Iron designed by Paul McCobb " catalog.




"The Pavillion Collection of Wrought Iron
designed by Paul McCobb"

Leaving only the top center table listed as Style No. 76 unidentified. Now this table I had ignored previously, it didn't appear in anything else I had ever seen and honestly I had no idea about it, that is until I came across the 1955 Bloomingdale's ad [4], compared side by side we see that the tables are identical. 


The most likely conclusion I can draw given the evidence at hand is that the chairs and table seen in the 1955  Bloomingdale's ad [4] and by extension the chairs and table seen in 1953 Sloane ad [1] were manufactured by Arbuck. And that's where my research stands at this point.

  1. New York Times - November 8, 1953 page 94
  2. New York Times - August 29, 1954 page 39
  3. Dallas Morning News - July 26, 1953 part vi page 3
  4. New York Times - June 19, 1955 page 48
  5. New Furniture 1 edited by Gerd Hatje (1952), page 118

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Anatomy of a Paul McCobb Lamp

Time and again I have seen the most spectacular misattributions when it comes to the Paul McCobb lamps. Some are entirely figments of an overactive imagination and as such are easily discounted, others being of very similar design to the actual lamps are the far more difficult to debunk since the three blind men and the elephant principle applies. Partial information almost always leads to incorrect conclusions.

So let's pose the question: What makes a Paul McCobb lamp a Paul McCobb lamp? Are there any specific design features which separate out the McCobb lamps from all the others on the planet? Not surprisingly the answer is yes... the greater portion of the McCobb lamps manufactured by Northcraft Lighting and Excelsior Art Studio had specific and unique design elements which are not repeated anywhere else in the centuries long canon of lamp manufacture.


First off no McCobb lamp for Northcraft Lighting and/or Excelsior Art Studio used a lamp harp to hang the shade. There are no lamp harps on these lamps. None whatsoever. Rumors of lamp harps are greatly exaggerated. Did I mention that there aren't any lamp harps? Yup, no lamp harps here, not even the hint of a lamp harp on a cold and blustery winter's day. No lamp harps!


So how the hell do you put on a lamp shade? The lamp shades would sit atop a piece of conical glass which was also used as a diffuser. Now those of you who know something about lamps and lamp manufacture in the 40's and 50's might say "Oh you mean those fairly common Milk Glass diffusers..." to which I would reply with a slight sigh of exasperation "No, not those"... The McCobb diffuser was a specially produced 7-1/8" tall tapered cylinder of white glass (called opal glass in the catalogs) measuring 3" at the base and 4-1/4" at the top, this conical glass diffuser would then sit into a purpose made metal cone. You can see this arrangement quite clearly in the photo (below left) of a Northcraft #2001 floor lamp currently offered for sale by Reform Gallery and also (below right) in this 1951 Directional advertisement introducing the Northcraft Lamps.






And though you cannot actually see the glass diffuser in these images of the Excelsior Art Studios lamps below, you can clearly see the cones into which the glass diffuser sat. 




The arrangements are almost identical for both lighting groups, the one subtle difference being that for the 1954 Excelsior Art Studios lamps the receiving cone is not quite as deep as it is for the the 1951 Northcraft Lighting group. The 1951 Northcraft Group uses a cone 6-1/2" deep and the 1954 Excelsior Art Studios' cone is 5" deep. Northcraft lamps manufactured post 1954 also frequently use the same 5" deep cone. The Northcraft lamps came in either bright brass or a matte black finish btw, the Excelsior Art Studios lamps are only ever found in an bright brass finish.






Unfortunately time and the elements take their toll. These glass diffusers were quite fragile and easily broken, and, since their design was unique to the McCobb lamp designs, once one became damaged there was absolutely nowhere to go and get replacement parts. I imagine that once a diffuser got broken the lamps were most likely taken out of service (i.e. thrown away), this I suspect is one of the major contributing factors to the exceptional rarity of these lamps today.