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5 Midcentury Furniture Designers You Should Get to Know

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In April, we explored Why The World Is Obsessed With Midcentury Modern Design, and how exactly the ubiquitous term "midcentury modern" has come to find itself applied to things that have no real tie to the middle of the 20th century. True midcentury modern designers were disciples of a specific theoretical approach. They hewed to a belief that the technologically-advanced materials and innovative building methods of the time were beautiful in their own right and should be proudly showcased rather than embellished to resemble historical styles. Though casual fans of the period will recognize the era's most celebrated names—Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Arne Jacobsen—there was a wealth of talent beyond the avant-garde superstars. Architecture schools pumped out tons of graduates, each of whom took up the mission in their own small regional practices, built businesses mass-producing popular pieces in high volume, or did any number of things that shook up the industry, despite failing to attract a fawning press. Here are five American furniture designers you may not have heard of who truly embody the midcentury modern ethos.


William Katavalos (born 1924) continues to teach at Pratt as the co-director of the Center for Experimental Structures. He has a strong interest in chemical architecture, or developing substances for furniture and construction that react in beneficial ways to humans situated within built environments. An early 1952 collaboration on the slung-leather "T Chair" suggests an early interest in materials that conform to the body.


Bill Lam (1924 - 2012) was an influential lighting designer with an MIT education who became known for "lighting by design, not engineering." He literally wrote the handbook on artificial lighting strategies for modern architecture. Because of his diverse experience, he was able to intuit the functional and aesthetic needs of other designers as they specified illuminating fixtures for their projects, and he worked an essential line of modern pieces until establishing his own 1959 architectural practice. His forays into furniture design often involved the interaction of light.


Harvey Probber (1922 - 2003) brought midcentury modern flexibility to the nation in 1944 with modular seating designed around comfort and mass-market palatability. Though not a formally trained architect, Probber began tinkering with ideas for furniture as a child, and recognized a postwar American society that was poised to purchase. A famous ad for his furniture states, "If your Harvey Probber chair wobbles, straighten your floor." He took the austere intellectual furniture designs and reimagined them for a less vanguard audience.


Mel Smilow (1922 - 2002) co-founded Smilow-Thielle in 1949 with the idea that consumers could be provided with a better pricepoint by a company that sourced or designed everything that was sold in their retail showrooms. By eliminating the middleman, he sought to give average Americans a way to buy quality furniture that was practical for their lifestyles and their pocketbooks. Smilow allowed himself to be inspired by the trendy Scandinavian modern pieces when creating products for his stores.



Raymond Loewy (1893-1986) was born to a Jewish father and a French mother in Paris who immigrated to the U.S. after serving in the French army during World War I. Loewy began his career as a designer of window displays for Macy's, Saks and other department stores, and went on to create iconic graphic identities for oil companies Shell and Exxon, fashion the svelte Coca Cola bottle, and conceive of tobacco brand Lucky Strike's game-changing packaging. Later, Loewy turned his attentions to the higher octane world of locomotive and automobile design, and his furniture designs—sleekly utilitarian credenzas, highboy dressers, tables, and more—reflect that transportation-design background, separating Loewy from the midcentury pack.

· Why The World Is Obsessed With Midcentury Modern Design [Curbed]
· All Midcentury Modern posts [Curbed]