The sincerest form of flattery

Every so often there pops up an item which on first look seems so obviously to be by a known designer that even the most experienced and knowledgeable people will not bother to question it’s provenance and authenticity since it’s creator seems to be proven by the “look and feel” of the object itself. The truth of the matter is that the Mid Century was rife with design copycats and outright knockoffs and not everything should be taken at face value. The following quote is taken from the August 22, 1954 New York Times article “The Pros and Cons of Copying” by Betty Pepis: 
  Designer Paul McCobb says of his inexpensive Planner Group: “Approximately a dozen manufacturers copied this line. Of this number we can name at least three who purchased our goods, brought them into their factory and copied them right down to the last detail. We were also given reports that the merchandise was being sold openly as direct copies. Prices were the same as the original—or above.”
  And architect George Nelson, referring to the flagrant copying of his plastic bubble for lighting, writes: “It has reached the point where we cannot tell whether we are looking at an original or a copy without a rather close examination."
Now here’s an example of a copycat design which has managed to fool even the most experienced and knowledgeable design researchers in the past.

Arthur Umanoff designed #618 2 Drawer Cabinet 
for Peter du Jardin’s Tropic Shop
18” x 15” x 9”

This small chest pictured above has the same sleek, unadorned, totally modern look that you would expect from one of Paul McCobb's designs. It is constructed of like materials and in a similar fashion to other pieces by Paul McCobb. It also uses exactly the same drawer-pull hardware as was used on Paul McCobb's Connoisseur Collection and Calvin Group for Directional.

By all outward appearances it would seem to be exactly what it appears to be, a small chest designed by Paul McCobb.

It’s only upon closer examination that this seemingly obvious Paul McCobb attribution starts to unravel.

For one thing there’s the construction of the chest itself: The chest is made up of two drawers, a single spaced top drawer and an oversize bottom drawer with a faux drawer face and double drawer hardware making it appear that there are three drawers where there are in fact only two.

McCobb himself would have probably had a fit hearing that anyone thought this chest of drawers was one of his designs (all reports say that he had an immense and very quick temper). His design aesthetic would have never allowed for a faux drawer face.  The most basic rule of Paul McCobb’s design philosophy was: no ornamentation

There's also the slight issue of there not being one single photo or mention of this chest (or  anything even remotely like it) in the exhaustive historical record that I have put together...


So let’s ask the obvious question... “If it isn't by Paul McCobb then who made it?” 

Investigating and learning in detail about those designers whose work is most similar and easily confused with McCobb's own I have put together ever expanding files on designers such as Clifford Pascoe, Milo Baughman, Kipp Stewart, and Arthur Umanoff, also companies such as Raymor, Selrite, and Furnette. Not as exhaustive perhaps as my main focus, Paul McCobb, but certainly in depth wherever possible. While doing this due diligence I stumbled upon the identity of the designer of these chests.

They are an obscure design by Arthur Umanoff from very early in his design career [1], sold through Peter du Jardin's Tropic Shop in New York from 1954 to 1958, the group consisted of very simple yet elegant cases in birch or walnut supported by 1/2" square wrought iron frames. Though other pieces from this group have withered into obscurity it seems that the #617, #618 and #620 designs (such as the one pictured about) flourished. 

Arthur Umanoff for Peter du Jardin's 
Tropic Shop 1954
1954 NY Times advertisement for Peter du Jardin’s Tropic Shop. 
This is the earliest known reference for these chests.

According to du Jardin's press the entire production run for this group consisted of 1036 pieces. With at least 14 designs in the group this averages out to 74 pieces of each of the known designs manufactured, possibly less, which accounts for their scarcity in the antiques marketplace. There just weren’t that many to start with... Personally I have only ever seen two other pieces from this group (barring the Jewelry Chests of which there are comparatively many) one of which is currently for sale on through Weinberg Modern (pictured below)

Arthur Umanoff designed #603 Cabinet Table
for Peter du Jardin’s Tropic Shop
19” x 15” x 29”
circa 1954


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