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.