Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Cautionary Tale: Researching the Paul McCobb lamp designs

When I first became interested in Paul McCobb I did what everyone does nowadays. I looked it up on-line.

Having wasted a lot of time google’ing Paul McCobb and not really finding much of substance I realized I was going to have to do more than just search the Internet if I truly wished to learn the subject.

The problem with doing "research" on line is that no-one is editing the Internet. Anyone can publish anything in a webpage and no-one is checking their information. For instance: Do a Google search for "Paul McCobb lamp", and click on the very first link. This brings you to a very nicely designed and well thought out web page with examples of Paul McCobb furniture and lamps, it certainly looks official. The website is architonic.com which advertises itself as a “Reference data base for collectors of design objects”
 
Before we go much further it’s important to mention something about the way that many websites gather their content; it’s called “aggregating”. Aggregating is gathering or copying information from other sources. It is a quick and easy way to put together a large amount of content in a short period of time. There is little or no editorial oversight. The prevalent thinking being that the responsibility for the editorial content is ultimately that of the content's creator. For Architonic.com their content is primarily aggregated from the online auction databases of auction houses such as LA Modern and Wright 20th Century.

Now let's take a closer look...

Of the two lamps depicted on the page I mentioned this one (below) taken from a LA Modern online auction catalog in 2004 is fairly well documented and can be found in the September 1951 issue of Furniture Forum as well as in William J Hennessey's excellent Modern Furnishings for the Home published in 1952.


Paul McCobb for Northcraft Lighting


The other (below), also from a 2004 LA Modern auction, kind of stumped me. I couldn't find a single historical reference to support the Paul McCobb attribution. But it had to be correct otherwise it wouldn’t be there, right?


Gerald Thurston for Lightolier

Coming back to it several times and looking at it closely, I found that this lamp just didn't fit with those lamps from Raymor, Northcraft Lighting and Excelsior Art Studio that I had been studying. It looked and felt wrong to me. I began to get the idea in the back of my mind that maybe it wasn’t a Paul McCobb design after all; maybe it's a mistake. But I could hardly claim superior knowledge without some cold hard facts to support my side. As I had nothing to support my assumption, I had to put this idea aside. So this attribution became another of a long list of issues that I hoped to deal with at some nebulous future time.

Time passed, my research progressed; as I became connected with more truly knowledgeable people in the field eventually another expert expressed his own doubts about the lamp to me. It felt good to know that I wasn't totally alone in my suspicion, this knowledge helped fuel my desire find a definitive answer.

Now much of my research involves, quite literally, flipping through old design magazines and periodicals, page by page, month by month, year by year, looking for information pertinent to the subject at hand. It is a time consuming, labor intensive and frequently very disheartening task.

It’s not all drudgery however; occasionally the effort pays off in surprising and unexpected ways. During a research trip to LA, and the private archives of Reform Gallery, in fall of 2009, exactly this happened. After days of flipping pages and dutifully scanning and logging articles and information pertinent to my Paul McCobb research Gerard (Gerard O'Brien the owner of Reform Gallery) found it; conclusive proof that this lamp and it's cousins were not designed by Paul McCobb at all, as had been previously suggested, but rather by Gerald Thurston for Lightolier (see below).

Interior Design August 1957, page 108


Interior Design August 1957, page 110

Having the answer I became interested in learning how this error had occurred, so I started looking into who had made the original attribution. After some digging it became fairly obvious that this attribution originated with the aforementioned 2004 LA Modern auction. I contacted Peter Loughrey, Director of LA Modern and learned the following:

Here I paraphrase: "In 2004 LA Modern was consigned this lamp to auction, time pressure, anticipated sales price and other factors limited the amount of research that they (the auction house) could devote to any one lot at auction, having little or no information to go on a determination was made based upon "look and feel", the catalog was published, the auction went off as planned.”

This erroneous information was then picked up by the auction and design aggregators (such as Architonic) where it was propagated into their online content and left there to be presented to the world.

LA Modern, upon learning of this new information, immediately took steps to correct their website and, I am told, informed their purchaser of the mistake.

But aggregators such as Architonic are not necessarily aware of changes to the original information. Attempts to contact Architonic to modify or edit this material on their website have received no reply as of the publishing of this article.

Finally here are a few pointers about Paul McCobb lamp design:
  • The lamps do not look like the furniture by Irwin/Calvin; there are absolutely none that use 1/2" square brass tubing.
  • As of this writing there are no known ceramic lamps Update 6-29-2010: have now confirmed existence of one ceramic lamp designed for Raymor in 1948 it is not a classic ceramic form lamp base however.
  • Calvin Furniture never made lamps for Paul McCobb, anyone claiming a lamp to be by Calvin is not knowledgeable in the field and the quality of their attribution might be called into question.
  • The brass floor lamps by Excelsior Art Studio always have little pills at the ends of their feet, anything without this detail is not a Paul McCobb/Excelsior Art Studio lamp (see picture below)
  • With the exception of some of the earliest lamp designs for Raymor. Paul McCobb lamps do not use lamp harps to hold the shades but rather have a glass or plastic conical reflector/diffuser on which a lampshade would sit.