There’s a brief moment each day, trapped inside, when I scroll through interior design Instagram and contemplate taking my anxious mind off the world with a house project. I see one artistic friend has painted an elaborate graphic pattern on her living room wall; another has sanded and refinished a vintage dresser. Without paint or power tools at my disposal, I’m eyeing my curtains wondering if it’s time to learn how to hand-sew outfits and start a family singalong. (And then I remind myself that we don’t all have to be creative powerhouses right now, and maybe what I really need is a nap.) When American designer Louise Brigham lived on a remote Norwegian island for several months in 1906, she found herself in a similar predicament.
The island of Spitsbergen, located 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle, housed a coal mining camp of about 80 hearty souls, and Brigham, 31, was a guest of the camp manager and his wife, who were old family friends. The nearest place for supplies was 535 miles to the southeast, in Hammerfest, Norway, and snow and ice cut the island off from shipments for eight months each year. Goods arrived only during the summer, when miners had to ferry hundreds of wood packing crates over a half mile to the camp. Brigham arrived to find a sparsely furnished cabin as her temporary home. She looked around the spartan lodgings and determined to do something about them.
Electricity wouldn’t come to Spitsbergen for a few more years, so Brigham was left with hand tools and whatever existed on the wind-shorn terrain. She scoured the island and discovered little by way of raw material for new furniture. There was a “polar willow,” as she called it, a stunted tree that managed to rise just two inches above the Arctic earth, and there was an edible moss the miners called famine bread. Once the camp’s supplies had been unpacked, however, leftover wooden crates “began to accumulate,” Brigham later wrote, and as she was cut off from all other resources, the boxes seemed a trove of opportunity.
Brigham deconstructed the rough-hewn crates and fashioned a sideboard and a hall stand for the house, among other items. Her time on the island was so inspiring and productive that she returned in 1907. “Two summers on the island of Spitsbergen taught me, more than all previous experiments, the latent possibilities of a box,” Brigham wrote in 1909.
Brigham’s vision during her isolation on Spitsbergen would presage a new era of furniture design: a systematized method for easily creating functional, rectilinear furniture. Brigham brought her ideas for modular furniture back to the U.S., and in 1909 she published a manual for amateur furniture makers called Box Furniture: How to Make a Hundred Useful Articles for the Home. By 1915, Brigham had also developed a flat-pack method that augured the ready-to-assemble furniture trend by several decades, creating a mail-order business for her furniture. Brigham’s work foreshadowed both the rise of minimalism and the Ikea era.
Brigham became a minor celebrity during her lifetime—regularly contributing articles to popular magazines like Ladies’ Home Journal and displaying rooms of box furniture inside model homes and at international exhibitions—but like so many pioneering women, her contributions were left out of design histories. Now, a fresh account of Brigham’s life and work comes courtesy of Antoinette LaFarge, a professor of art at the University of California, Irvine. In her new book, Louise Brigham and the Early History of Sustainable Furniture Design, LaFarge writes of how “several prominent areas of contemporary design trace back to, or through, Brigham’s project: especially recycled-materials design, low-impact design, do-it-yourself design, multifunctional design, and modular design. Indeed,” LaFarge adds, “it would not be too much to call her a progenitor of the sustainable design movement.”
Louise Brigham was born in 1875 in Boston and reared in the kind of prosperous New England family that breeds industriousness into children. She was a daughter of the Progressive Era—an artist with an activist’s heart—who believed her life should in some way address the rising inequities of modern society and industrialization. Early in her career, Brigham would live and work in settlement houses, a late 19th-century movement meant to integrate the rich and the poor in communities that fostered societal interconnectedness.
Brigham lost both parents early, and an inheritance likely funded the independence and curiosity that marked her unmarried 20s. She studied art and education in New York City, as one of the rare women in the late 1800s to attend college. She then traveled Europe starting in 1905, a trip common for women of means at the time. But unlike her socialite contemporaries, Brigham used her visits abroad to seek out prominent architects and designers in order to study industrial design arts. Brigham learned advanced wood-carving in Sweden and woodworking in Copenhagen, and she met architect and furniture designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow. There were other encounters with master teachers from whom Brigham “picked up techniques in weaving, spinning, dyeing, basketry, and metalwork,” LaFarge writes.
Perhaps most influential was the time Brigham spent with Josef Hoffman, part of Vienna’s famed Wiener Werkstätte. “Many of Hoffmann’s designs riff on the square,” LaFarge writes, “a motif that Brigham would later acknowledge as the inspiration for her own design aesthetic.”
Brigham had already toyed with making furniture from scrap wood by the time she arrived in Spitsbergen. In the early 1900s she had funded a settlement house for immigrants in Cleveland called Sunshine Cottage, where she shared lodgings with a woman and her infant child. Brigham made furniture for the cottage out of recycled materials, including a high chair and a set of simple nesting tables. She used broomsticks as curtain rods, lining them with cheesecloth curtains.
But she hadn’t yet realized the potential of harnessing the humble supply crate, which was a new development in the early 20th century, as corporations like Proctor & Gamble “began paying close attention to the design and standardization of the containers that were used to package their goods,” LaFarge writes. Leftover crates were burned for heat in the years before gas furnaces became more prevalent, and Brigham was one of the first to see their potential for upcycling.
As Brigham carefully dismantled supply crates on Spitsbergen, she envisioned a household filled with the resultant furniture, but she also imagined a system of designed pieces that could easily be replicated by anyone. Her ideas would not remain her patented own; they would become available to the working masses. Brigham believed, in the way of the British Arts & Crafts proponent William Morris, that furniture should be both beautiful and practical. She also believed that good design bettered a life and that anyone—regardless of socioeconomics—should have access to it. In her introduction to Box Furniture, Brigham wrote: “As I worked in that far-off marvelous land of continuous day, surrounded by mountains and glaciers, I felt anew the truth, so familiar to all, that work to be of real value must be honest, useful and beautiful, and … Morris spoke as clearly in the arctic regions as in the settlements or studio in New York.”
Brigham saw the value, too, in multifunctional pieces. On Spitsbergen, she designed a reading table and desk with built-in bookshelves that also housed oil lamps tethered into place to avoid being knocked over by a local cat with a “fondness for lamps.” The idea that one piece could serve myriad uses was important to Brigham—and once the basic skills were mastered, a person could cheaply and easily personalize a piece to accommodate even the errant behaviors of a bored feline.
From her remote outpost, Brigham thought about the needs of the working poor living in burgeoning American cities. “Brigham’s designs take into account the space constraints of urban apartment dwellers, who often need flexible-use and space-saving furniture such as drop-leaf tables and hidden cupboards,” LaFarge writes.
The instructions for crafting each piece in her book also take into account the reality that the supply crates might vary in size owing to the contents and the brand. A crate of canned beans was sized differently than one carrying soap or milk bottles. Instead of including specific measurements, Brigham “based many of her designs on the limited set of standard dimensions and shapes of common packing crates, which she then often broke down into repurposable pieces of pine sorted by size,” LaFarge writes. So a small wall rack was built from a condensed-milk crate, while the larger version involved tethering two together. Other designs used baked bean crates or soap boxes.
Back in America, Brigham set about bringing the concept of box furniture to the people. She settled in New York City and by 1912 had founded the Home Thrift Association, a center housed in Gracie Mansion to teach woodworking skills to boys from low-income households. Brigham decorated her own apartment entirely with box furniture, calling it Box Corner First, and she designed other Box Corner flats in her apartment building, including one for her assistant. (She also made her own linens and curtains.) She opened the Box Corner apartments up to journalists, who marveled at the beauty of her interiors. LaFarge believes that she also offered tours to philanthropists and women’s groups in order to showcase her system’s potential.
Brigham began giving lectures and writing for the burgeoning domestic arts magazines, like Ladies’ Home Journal, as a way to publicize the social mission of her furniture design. In 1915, Brigham started Home Arts Masters, her mail-order catalog with ready-to-assemble furniture, and she opened a factory on the Lower East Side. Three years later she founded a school and a store dedicated to training young women in carpentry skills, and by 1919, Box Furniture was in its third edition.
Along the way Brigham married, and it was after her betrothal to wealthy industrialist Henry Arnott Chisolm in 1916 that her design and social work ebbed. “In the rare instances when Brigham appears in the press after her marriage, it is mostly in the role of a society woman, a fundraiser for museums and charitable endeavors,” LaFarge writes. She did, however, buck convention and insist on being called Mrs. Louise Brigham Chisholm rather than Mrs. Henry Chisholm.
One of the difficulties in recounting Brigham’s story, LaFarge told me recently, was in placing her in the lineage of design history. “She was a classic Progressive Era reformer trying to make life better for people with fewer means and fewer opportunities,” LaFarge says, “and that combination of working in the arts and connecting it to the idea of social progress came from the Arts & Crafts Movement, but her design was absolutely descended from European modernism.”
LaFarge first encountered Brigham’s design style while doing research in an archive several years ago. LaFarge was flipping through a 1910 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal when she saw Brigham’s article “How I Furnished My Entire Flat with Boxes.”
“I stumbled on this article that’s illustrated with a drawing of a dining room, and it’s so stark and so unlike any of the other images in the magazine, many of which are expressing the heavily decorated, tasseled and fringed interiors of the time, that I thought: Who is this person? What is this?” LaFarge says.
LaFarge was then a member of Women in Red, a group that aims to right the gender imbalance in Wikipedia entries, and she set out to write a Wikipedia page about Brigham. She soon found the breadth of Brigham’s work deserved more. Brigham was a social activist, a teacher, a designer, and in some ways these many roles kept her from self-identifying—and being identified as—a designer above all.
“Louise made a strength out of what other designers might see as a weakness. She took this crappy material and transformed it,” LaFarge says. And while her box furniture looked simplistic, “her sense of proportion, and the care with which she actually put the structures together and thought about how they could be moduled into bigger structures, are astounding. There’s a lot of trained art thinking and good design eye at work there.” LaFarge found in her research that people were often surprised by how beautiful Brigham’s furniture was. “They just couldn’t believe it was made from boxes,” she says. And yet, LaFarge believes, it is likely because her simple, beautiful furniture was meant for the poor and not the patronage of the wealthy that Brigham’s work was overlooked in design histories.
Back in 2019, pre-pandemic, LaFarge wrote that Brigham’s career and design vision offer us “a resounding critique of capitalism’s waste and an assertion of new values in design.” For me, Brigham has become a kind of self-isolation guiding force, not so much for her productivity, but for her ethos. As the fragility and inequity of our economic system is laid bare by a virus—as I read articles in which some suggest that Americans might sacrifice their very lives to the economic engine that is capitalism—the spirit of what Brigham created on Spitsbergen seems even more salient.
“Louise came from that era of do-goodism and openness to other people’s needs that is exactly what people are trying to reconnect with right now,” LaFarge tells me. She found creativity within her confinement and emerged from isolation thinking about a future where people harness what they already have, where we live in communities that support one another, where we flatten the curve between rich and poor. In her introduction to Box Furniture, Brigham signed off with this simple dedication: “To all who care for simplicity and thrift, utility and beauty, I send my message.”