Thursday, December 15, 2011

Top 10 Most Influential Furniture Designers

Creating this list was no easy task. I fretted over the likes of Boulle, Ruhlmann, the Bauhaus, and Sidney Barnsley. But my list is well thought out and they did not make the cut. Oh 10 years from now I may change a name or 2, perhaps replace a time period with an individual but this list of the 10 most influencial furniture designers is finished. You can double click the time-line to reference a larger view.

The following is in chronological order and not based on who had the most influence. So lets start with:

the Renaissance

a period of enlightenment, a time when regions that now comprise Italy took the arts center stage, all while Medici funded architectural experimentation. Perspective is what turns up in furniture which eventually became the focal point of marquetry.
Starting as intarsia, pictures in perspective created in wood later turned into furniture embellishment. Furniture now could tell a story. Lets look to the Met at Studiolo and to the work of Fra Giovanni pictured.
Mostly importantly, this enlighting Renaissance period had anybody who was a player heading south to learn the tricks of the trade. From France, from Germany, from Belgium and Holland, artists and craftsman came to Italy then went home to spread the creativity through their work.

Thomas Chippendale

We are used to seeing a Philly Highboy
and referr to it as Chippendale, but the soul of who Chippendale was, is reflected in the "eclecticism of his production" as seen in Chippendale's Director.
People watching along St. Martin's Lane in the 1750's, would have witnessed a revolutionary change in furniture manufacturing. The Chippendale company was not the only game in London but he was the saviest. St Martin's Lane was a magnet for talent and facilities employed 100's to meet the growing housing demand.

Chippendale's business acumen enabled him to do it better than most. His understanding of fashion within the decorative arts and an ability to hire well kept him in the forefront.

Above is the Harrington Commode.
A Chippendale design that in january 2011 under "Sotherby's hammer" fetched a whopping 5.9 million dollars to become the most expensive piece of English furniture sold at auction.

My hat's tipped and re-tipped to Thomas Chippendale.

Robert Adam

Now I know that Dorothy Draper fans will be annoyed, but it was Robert Adam long before Dot who was the first Interior Designer.
Robert Adam as architect created the space and as Interior Decorator created from soup to nuts, fabulous interiors.

In a previous post I had mentioned that you seek "good" interior designers. "GOOD" is defined by working with Interior Designers who create the entire room not just a piece. This was Robert Adam.

The piece at right is from the Chippendale shop, designed with and for Robert Adam. Look at the balance, the fine details of Adam and the execution of Chippendale. Just simply fantastic.

Let us not forget that it was Adam who brought the NeoClassical style to life which lead in America to the Federal Period.

Robert Adam the master of scale and space!!!

David Roentgen

The mechanical madman and cabinetmaker to Royalty.

David Roentgen grew-up in the family business. His father Abraham Roentgen apprenticed in The Hague, Rotterdan, Amsterdam, and London, and settled the shop in Neuwied, Germany.
There be built for the local princes and religous figures but it was David obviously well tutored, who spread the wings of the family business and created "the most spectacular chapter in the history of German furniture-making".

At right is a writing desk from the Roentgen work shop for the Archbishop and Elector of Trier. To appreciate, you need to investigate this piece thoroughly.

David Roentgen was called "the most celebrated ebeniste in Europe". It was his view of the international market at the time that set him apart. With cartloads of furniture Roentgen set up distribution in Holland, Germany and most importantly Paris where he sold to the Royals.

It was in Paris where the company fortunes turned. Paris is where he sold to Louis XVI and became Marie Antoinette's cabinetmaker.

With more to conquer beyond Europe, Roentgen loaded up the carts again and headed to St Petersburg, Russia where he landed as a client, Catherine the Great a luxury furniture enthusiast. Roentgen pieces are present today in the Hermitage Museum.

David Roentgen with secret compartments and latches to expose more secret compartments may not have been the craftsman of his contemporaries Oeben and Riesener but Oeben and Riesener did not conquer a continent. Who knows maybe Ingvar Kampar was inspired by Roentgen, after all for effeciency and cost, occasional pieces of Roentgen's were RTA long before IKEA.

The Shakers

Simple forms, "devoid of all that is useless and vain". Many will view Shaker furniture as the first example of modern furniture. This view is not construed based off an artistic form but rather the idea behind standardized parts that meet the highest production quality. A minimalist approach to and through the design process.

Althoug I have built entertainment centers in the style of Shaker, I am not a fan of Shaker furniture, but I do respect a good design when I see it and we've been looking and admiring it for over a century.

Heck lets not forget, the Shakers invented the circular saw. That alone has made our woodworking lives much easier.

Michael Thonet

With proper data, I bet one could prove that Michael Thonet's bentwood cafe chair Nr14 has sold more units than any other furniture design.

Thonet begain in 1819 specializing in parquetry. It was in the 1830's that he begain experimenting with manufacturing techniques. Bending wood to be specific.
By the 1850's under the company name Gebruder Thonet, Thonet and his sons were exporting around the world with manufacturing facilities throughout Europe. In the 1870's Thonet had established sales offices all through Europe, Russia, and the US cities of Chicago and New York.

Judith Miller in her book "Furniture" writes, "Thonet's legacy has endured well into the modern age - he precipitated Charles and Ray Eames's mass-produced office chairs, and of course the modern flat pack domestic furniture industry."

Micheal Thonet a manufacturnig genius who replaced joinery with the mechanical fastener and blew away the furniture world.

Hans Wegner
the chairmakers....chairmaker!!!

It's very obvious to see that Hans Wegner inspired many craftsman including, the style and production of Sam Maloof.

Wegner designing over 500 chairs, was about the design process from the craftsman perspective. I'll paraphase here, but "let the craftsman do what he can do in the design process and let machines do what the craftsman couldn't". Where Maloof stayed in craft-based production, Wegner took his into industrial design/production.

Having been exposed to Wegner back in the late 70's, while in a production environent, a lost thought in the US design community that I have never forgotten was Wegner's thought on the production process.
Bernsen writes, that Wegner stated,"you have to know exactly what a craftsman and factory can do. And also what they shouldn't do". Words to profitable design placement.

One last nugget associated with Hans Wegner is the approach to the design process. Wegner for 25 years participated in Design Competitions believing that one wasn't a "furniture designer" after 3 pieces but through cummulative participation, one nutured an understanding where, "Craftsmanship unites knowledge of material, construction, and process".

Hans Wegner.... the chairmaker's chairmaker!!-whose designs manufactured by Karl Hansen and Son are just as popular today as they were 50 years ago.

Robert Probst

Robert Probst was the director of Herman Miller's Research Division established in 1960. Probst's passionate mantra was "that the artist needed to be more involved functionally in society".

Probst research obsession became the white-collar work environment. His solution was intended to be "flexible and resposive to new ideas and changing opportunities". With the help of George Nelson giving the concept form, Action Office 1 was born.

Three years later the modular office furniture was refined and relaunched as Action Office 2.
Although cheap copies from creative wankers have given rise to the cubicle, Probst concept and ideas have changed the way a white-collar work environment is structured while creating a multibillion dollar segment of the furniture industry.

What probst learned was once the original Office Action layout was in place, nobody took the time to work the environment as it evolved.

As Berry quotes Probst, "Not all organizations are intelligent and progressive. Lots are run by crass people who can take the same kind of equipment and create hellholes. They make little bitty cubicles and stuff people in them."

Wendell Castle/John Makepeace

I know, I know.... I double dipped in the "Craft Revival" movement of the 1960's and 70's, but Castle from the US and Makepeace the UK, are true contemporaries. Both careers parallel and at individual strengths, diverge. Besides, I struggled with listing Arts and Craft builder Sidney Barnsley, arguably the first Studio Furniture Maker,(not Wharton Esherick) that I had to put Makepeace in the mix.

Where Makepeace is a woodworking technician, Castle is a sculptor of wood. I believe Makepeace
to be the more innovative with his "bespoke" wooden material, where Castle is more creative in deriving form. Both men have left their legacy in furniture design. No doubt Makepeace has been knighted and Castle is listed as one of the top 10 designers in the world, the only American to make the list.

Today both are still creating and most importantly still meeting show deadlines. I am a big fan of both men. In 1980ish, one of the early books I purchased for my library was The Art of Making Furniture, where both a young Makepeace and young Castle are featured in the book.

For those of you who think they are or want to be a Studio Furniture Maker, always remember, it is Castle
who brought high monetary value to the studio craft movement during the 1980's as he fought and continues today to fight to get furniture out of the decorative arts wing and into the Fine Arts wing of museums where perceived value is higher.

Ettore Sottsass

Although I timelined Sottsass at 1980, he's was extremely productive in the 1950's and 1960's as an Indutrial Designer. Long before Ives made the Ipod fashionable, Ettore Sottsass made the typewriter fashionable. The Valentine typewriter designed for Olivetti was a fashion statement of the time.

Sottsass always curious about numerous creative media, made his mark in furniture design in 1980-81, instigating and leading the Memphis Group in a Post-Modern effort.
After living with Modern Design philosophies since the 1920's, architects and industrial designers begain to question the "less is more" mantra in the 1960's. It was Robert Venturi's writing who looked for more and spoke of "less being a bore". It was Sottsass who looked at decorative objects as an opportunity to seek possibilities not solve a specific design problem.
Radice writes that Memphis "is concerned above all with breaking ground,extending the field of action, broadening awareness, shaking things up, discussing conditions, and setting up fresh opportunities."
Of course new technologies at the time enabled a new "sensory concentration" when viewing the assembly of various materials in all sorts of color, inventive graphics, and geometric shapes and sizes.

You don't have to look far to see the impact that Memphis had on the US Studio Furniture Maker, look at Gary Knox Bennett's work "Colorcore Desk" 1984 and Memphis designer, Peter Shire's "Peninsula" table 1982. Knox was obviously inspired by the freedom Memphis allowed. You even see Memphis in Castle's 80's work, but at least he acknowledges Ettore Sottsass. Look at Tom Loeser, same thing, Memphis with subdued color tones. The list goes on with investigation.

I will argue that the Memphis group is the last defined historic furniture period we have had and brought to you by Ettore Sottsass. For me personally, it was an absolute plessure to have caught on to Memphis, lived in its time and built in its philosophy while others of my age group got fogged by Krenov.

For those of you searching for why you DIY and want more out of the craft of furniture design, a personal intellectual investigation into the Memphis group will be awakening.

Well there you have the 10 Most Influencial Furniture Designers. Who are your influencial designers, and more importantly WHY?


Kenny Comeaux said...

Neil I'm still impressed that you would even take on this task. As I mentioned a few days ago when you mentioned that you were working on this post, I wouldn't dream of trying to get this list below 20. After reading your post, I'm even more impressed and intrigued. I'd bet that you could probably write a small book on how you came up with your choices.

My list would have probably included the likes of Krenov, Makintosh, and Frank Lloyd Wright. However, what I realize after reading your post is that I'm not sure I could truly answer "why" they would be on my list other than the fact that I like their furniture. Just another point as to why I'm impressed with your list. Great post!

Neil....a Furnitologist said...

Thanks Kenny:

Yeah....Mackintosh was a tough one. How can you disregard the iconic Argyle chairs and his crossover between Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau.

Real tough call on Mackintosh. Although I enjoy the form of the Argyle chair, I'm always left with how comfortable that chair is to sit in for a while.

Hey Kenny....that chair needs a re-design maintaining the look and re-working the backslats.

Thanks Kenny......Neil

Pete said...

This is a great read Neil! Thanks for those extra links too. Another vote for you writing a book (or series of books) on design and design history. Your posts and videos do a great job in linking the history to what we do and are influenced by today, and in the case of your Sawdust Build and Carlo Mollino table, how to reinterperate those influences into real work.

For those of us with a new hunger to dig into design and history, what would you recommend as resources? I'm interested in design process and in furniture design history.

Our state fair is in late August and I'm planning on entering a couple pieces. I've nevered entered anything into a judged competition before, but I'm pretty excited about it.

WVWoodshed said...


This type of information is why I've truly enjoyed reading your past posts and watching your videos! Great information beyond the how tos of the craft! Hope there are more to come in 2012!!!

WV Woodshed

WVWoodshed said...


This is a terrific post. I truly appreciate your knowledge of the who's, why's when's and where's of design. While "How To" information dominates the published landscape your design based historic tidbits and detailed explainations regarding the origins of furniture design really impress.

Thanks for your contributions!

Stephen (WV Woodshed)

Neil....a Furnitologist said...

Glad you enjoyed the post.

Pete: participating in the state fair is important to do. Super!!!!! Find out what the criteria of the competition is and design a wrinkle around. Remember if you twist the judges a bit they will pay you more attention.

As for the resources, I get asked this alot. Here is what I recommend. Acquire a book that goes through the history although pricey, Judith Miller's book "Furniture: World Styles from Classical to Contemporary". Here's an Amazon link:

Once you peruse the text, its loaded with pictures, you'll see a style you like....begin creating your library by investigating that style with a text specific to it's history and designed objects. The key is to first get a big picture and timeline of where furniture fits in history.

As for design..when speaking to an advanced furniture design class, I recommended "Furniture Design" by Jim Postell. link here: This is a text book used at the Univ of Cincinnati.

Very comprehensive book. Study the elements of design then apply them to what you see.

Stephen: the "how to" is the easy part to do. Getting the story out takes time at the bench, lots of experience, and study.

Thank for the comments......Neil

Ronaldo said...

Hi Neil,

really glad to see you posting again =D

I would dare to say it is quite anglo-saxon-centric, as Chippendale and the Shakers are not really known outside the US/UK furniture-world, same thing for Krenov or Maloof.

In a french-centric view, Boulle should defitely be in the list, as he was imitated in almost all periods. He also invented the commode.



Rob Bois said...

Neil, this is an amazingly thorough, thoughtful, and educational post. I know your list isn't just about American furniture, but you've inspired me to finally get my butt over to the MFA Art of the Americas wing - long overdue.

Bruce Somers said...

Although I don't particularly care fo it, I'm surprised that with the current trend/fad for Greene and Greene furniture,I saw no mention of them and their contributions to the expaned FLW/Mission work.

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