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was confirmation that the table and chair in the above image were by Paul McCobb as they had been unable to find any historical reference to support the attribution; information which I had ready to hand and was more than happy to provide them.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

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