Think iconic furniture, and the names of 20th-century architects come to mind: Mies van der Rohe and his Barcelona Chair, Eero Saarinen's Womb Chair, Frank Lloyd Wright's Barrel Chair, and benches and credenzas by Florence Knoll, to name a few. Their creations are sculptural, yet functional and express the elemental qualities of the materials from which they're made. Unable to find furniture that suited their concrete, wood, and glass buildings, the Bauhaus architects designed their own. They experimented with emerging materials and manufacturing methods, and in the process pared down and reimagined ideas about the home.
Many of the classics were designed for specific commissions, so the architects were thinking in broad strokes while responding to the problems at hand. The Barrel Chair was originally created for a client named Darwin D. Martin in the early 1900s and modified in 1937 for the Wingspread house of Herbert Fisk Johnson Jr., of Johnson & Johnson fame. And van der Rohe created the Barcelona Chair for the King and Queen of Spain to sit on inside his showpiece German Pavilion for the Barcelona World's Fair of 1929.
Now a new generation of architects is using the latest technologies to create industrial designs, not unlike the heyday of the early modernists. Among them is James Cutler, FAIA, Cutler Anderson Architects, Bainbridge Island, Wash., who sells furniture and hardware through Reveal Designs of White Plains, N.Y. “I would so love to be an industrial designer,” he says. “When you're designing a building, there are hundreds of people you have to get to move in the same direction. When you design an object, it's you and the pencil and the manufacturer.”
He isn't the only architect to think so. Others—including, most famously, Frank Gehry, FAIA, and Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA—are producing furniture and objects people touch every day. And while there will always be demand in the art world for limited-edition work by star architects, it's worth asking the everyday question: What qualities of industrial design lead to long-term value and collector interest? What past work continues to appeal to new generations of buyers, and what clues might they give us for the future?
the power of one Ask Cutler if he's pondered these questions, and he'll say they've never crossed his mind. But he simply approaches the issue of cultural and aesthetic impact from a different direction. “With our buildings and anything we do, we're trying to describe reality and display it for other people,” he says. “If you look at the door handles we've sold, their strength lies mostly in understanding how the hand wants to operate something, the nature and strength of the materials, and the mechanical relationship of all the parts.” His elegantly spare lever door handles are made of a flat metal bar that wraps around and through a round metal shaft that activates the locking mechanism, and a gently curving slip of wood on top that feels warm to the touch. “You see the connections,” he says, adding that when work is true to the nature of a place or material or function, it will be timeless.
Joeb Moore, AIA, principal of Greenwich, Conn.-based Joeb + Partners, Architects, has come to the same conclusion. What will make an object valuable 50 years from now? “According to curators we spoke to, objects that are put into collections, especially from the mid-century, have this primitive formal/functional relationship,” he says, “where function and form are direct expressions of each other.” Moore, who launched in November a line of domestic products ranging from extra-small (door pulls) to extra-extra-large (a 15-foot-by-15-foot portable studio), believes that architects' current foray into industrial design is a systemic shift that's been building over the course of the last decade. His product categories are a witty take on the idea that architects aren't just putting bricks in place but organizing the entire visual field, and that carries over to all scales of the environment.
The way Moore sees it, “advanced consumerism” is driving one side of this phenomenon. People want immediate gratification, yet designing and engineering a high-end custom home has never been more complex, time-consuming, and expensive. “Sophisticated clients understand they can go to Madison Avenue or Greenwich Avenue and walk into Prada and buy a product for $10,000 that's right there on the shelf,” he explains. “It's personal and exclusive, but mass-produced. As an architect you have to find ways—instead of having to go through prototyping, testing, and getting it into one house—to take those architect-designed details and market them to a wider audience.”
Following the lead of last century's modernists, Moore began designing objects when he couldn't find the right ready-made solutions. His art-piece pocket door pull, for example, was invented as a simpler solution to the usual hardware installed on each side of the door. By carving away part of the narrow side and inserting a handsome metal bar that can be grasped from either side, he made a design detail out of the act of opening and closing the door. The hardware looks like what it does, and is devoid of masking or ornamentation.
When it comes to furniture, there's no shortage of manifestos from which to draw. What the classics all have in common are striking proportions, seductive materials or forms, and beautifully executed ideas—the same as signature homes. Wright's Barrel Chair sells well not only because it's attractive by itself, but because it epitomizes his work. “It says Frank Lloyd Wright the minute you see it,” says Oskar Muñoz, assistant director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives and director of licensing at Taliesin West, Scottsdale, Ariz. “It's clearly not a Stickley piece and not Arts & Crafts, but it can go in an Arts & Crafts interior or a mid-century modern interior.”
Those are the principles that have guided Deborah Berke, FAIA, in designing the special-order wood, glass, and steel furniture she distills from one-off commissions. “I feel the pieces designed for a certain person or house or hotel with a certain art collection or palette of materials—those are the things that will have long-term value, because they really are no different than a building created by me,” says Berke, principal of Deborah Berke & Partners Architects in New York City. “We see their value as being so simple as to be timeless.”