James Zemaitis Digs Deep: A Dozen Chairs From The R Collection
Venesta Plywood Company
Stool. 1933-39. (ST707)...
Manufactured Luterma, Tallinn, Estonia.
Retailed by Isokon Furniture Company, London
Bent birch plywood, iron foot plates and screws
This “prime object” of modern design history is underappreciated by collectors and curators. It was originally designed circa 1930 by the Estonian company Luterma, a pioneer in plywood technology. Their English export division was known as Venesta, and Jack Pritchard was their English representative starting in 1925. The stool was first imported by Pritchard in 1933 and retailed as Model no. 1 by his fledgling firm known as Isokon.
Studying the history of these stools over the years has brought me much joy. After Isokon began producing original designs in plywood by Marcel Breuer and others, Walter Gropius was hired as a consultant. His major contribution to the firm was a modernist modification of the stool in 1936, in which he straightened the classical shape of the stool’s cut-outs and seat. It remains incredibly difficult to discern the differences in shape between the original model and the Gropius modification, but the present example, which is in superb original condition, would appear to be the original design. Both versions of the Isokon stool are illustrated in period photographs of the “Isobar” designed in 1937 by Breuer in the Lawn Road Flats, Hampstead.
Examples of the original version of the stool are in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum and the University of East Anglia Collection. An example of the Gropius modification is in the collection of LACMA.
Chair, model no. 21. Designed 1932....
Manufactured by Artek, Finland and retailed by New Furniture, Inc/Artek-Pascoe, ca. 1938-47.
Molded laminated birch and birch plywood
This is a rare example of the model to have been made for the American market in the 1930s, having previously been in the collection of the Hugh Stubbins House, Lexington, MA. It dates to the early years of distribution in the USA, when Laurance Rockefeller set up a firm to handle the American market in conjunction with the 1938 Aalto exhibition at MoMA. Most of the early American owners of this model seem to have been architects who were affiliated with either MoMA or Harvard/MIT. Hugh Stubbins, who studied with Walter Gropius and succeeded him as department chair at Harvard, almost certainly knew Aalto in the 1940s. I prefer this model over its Paimio Sanitorium prototype, which was an awkward fusion of bent ply and tubular steel.
Charles and Ray Eames
Charles and Ray Eames...
LCM (Lounge Chair Metal). Designed 1946
Manufactured by Herman Miller, Zeeland, Michigan
Molded ash plywood with original black aniline dye finish and original blue leather upholstery, chrome-plated steel, rubber shock mounts
From the 1920’s to the 1940’s, the pioneers of modern chair design – Aalto, Breuer, Eames - produced seats in three distinct mediums. Tubular Steel. Bent Plywood. And…the most difficult of all, the marriage of steel and plywood. I firmly believe that the most successful realization of the third category is the LCM and DCM designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1946. The separation of the molded plywood back and seat simplified production and heightened the design’s sculptural qualities by emphasizing the space surrounding the actual form. The rubber shock mounts were the secret sauce of all Eames chair designs, cushioning the impact of sitting on plywood on top of the frame. In the end, the LCM is a far more compelling chair than the LCW, in which the seat, back and legs were plywood.
Eames collectors love early and quirky examples of the most famous designs, and the present LCM certainly fits the bill. We acquired a pair of these chairs because it is the first time we have ever seen original blue leather seats and backs, contrasted with black aniline dye finish to the wood on the underside. The manufacturer and retailer labels date these examples to approximately 1952.
Lounge Chair. Ca. 1952...
Manufactured by New Dimensions Furniture, USA
Black woven steel mesh.
One of the research bibles for those of us who began their careers in the 1990’s as dealers and auction specialists is Cara Greenberg’s Midcentury Modern, first published in 1984. It was loaded with famous and rare designs by Eames, Noguchi, Mollino and many others, but also chock full of obscure American pieces from the 1950’s “Good Design” era as promoted by MoMA and other institutions. It is where I first saw the wire-mesh designs of Sol Bloom, whose “Catch-All” was included in MoMA’s November 1951 Good Design exhibition. The present lounge chair has been in the gallery’s collection since 2005 and is the first time we have made it available for purchase.
“Colette Chair.” 1954....
Produced by Asko, Ltd., Finland.
Solid wood, webbing
One of the great treasures of R & Company’s collection is the furniture acquired from the estate of “Finland’s Second Designer” Ilmari Tapiovaara (Aalto being the first, of course), which formed the basis of our gallery’s 2001 exhibition Ilmari Tapiovaara: Interior Architect. The designer’s own example of the “Colette” chair has been buried deep in our warehouse for nearly two decades. It is a classic example of midcentury modern low-cost “Good Design.” Two years ago, when we last made Tapiovaara’s “Domus” lounge chair from his estate available, it was acquired by LACMA for their upcoming exhibition “Scandinavian Design and the United States.”