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 Gilbert Rohde  (1894 - 1944)

About: Gilbert Rohde


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Lived/Active: New York / Russian Federation      Known for: modern furniture design

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
A designer whose avant-garde style revolutionized early 20th-century furniture styles through the Herman Miller Furniture Company, Gilbert Rohde is described as having a driving force of "staying on the crest of modernity." (81) He was the son of a cabinetmaker, who had immigrated with his family to New York City from Prussia.  He attended Stuyvesant High School when it was a technical school, and he also discovered his talent for drawing and painting.  He attended the Art Student's League, and by the early 1920s was employed as a freelance illustrator for department store catalogues.  Clients were impressed, including Macy's and Abraham and Straus, whose company specialized in furniture and interior designs.  For Rohde, these were very formative years.  His biographer, Phyllis Ross, wrote: "He not only understood how furniture was made, but he also had an artist's eye for shape, color, and textures."

Encouraging him was his future wife, Gladys Vorsanger, a copywriter at Abraham and Straus, and later editor of Women's Wear Daily.  She suggested that Rohde take a tour of Europe to see the source of the modernist designs that were increasingly catching his interest.  In 1927, he took a four-month tour that included France where he saw the visual effects of wood inlay and marquetry and the departure from heavily ornamented pieces of furniture, and Dessau, Germany where he visited the Bauhaus and observed furniture being mass produced from strong, simple materials such as tubular steel.

In 1929, he opened a design firm in New York City, and one of his clients became the Zeeland, Michigan firm of the Herman Miller Company, known for its heavily ornamented furniture, especially bedroom suites.  The founder was Dirk Jan De Pree, and knowing the business was in trouble, was responsive to Rohde's ideas that the market was dying for grandiose, pretentious furnishings because "modern, middle-class lifestyles had changed, and required a new type of furniture.  Smaller, more compact households could not accommodate large-scale pieces; few family employed servants to take care of the dusting and polishing that highly adorned furnishings required." (78) He also made two points that especially got the attention of the highly religious De Pree:  The company's designs were essentially copied without permission from earlier designers, and the company's technique of making new wood look aged was basically dishonest.   De Pree later said of his discussions with Rohde:  "I came to see that the way we were making furniture was immoral." (78)

As a result of the alliance with Herman Miller Furniture Company, Rohde led the company to the forefront of modern designed, mass-produced furniture, much of it tubular and arc shaped and made with flattened metals.  A specialty was clocks, with one of his most famous designs being the "Z" shaped clock, first appearing in 1933, and made of glass with metal dials and a bent steel rod.  He also worked with many woods including Sequoia Burl, Quilted Maple, Macassar Ebony and East India Rosewood.  Many of his pieces could serve several purposes such as a card table that expanded into a dining table, sofas that became beds, and coffee table-book shelves.  He introduced the sectional sofa and Bakelite for table tops and Plexiglas and Lucite for drawer pulls and table legs.

Likely his design contributions would have been even more extensive, except that he died at age 50 from an apparent heart attack in a Manhattan restaurant.  Some of Rohde's successors at Herman Miller built on his visions for designs that served modern American living including Isamu Noguchi, George Nelson and Charles and Ray Eames.

Gregory Cerio, "Gilbert Rohde: The Man Who Saved Herman Miller", The Magazine Antiques, December, 2008, pp. 76-81

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