STACKABLE CHAIR. Designer David Rowland tells how at first, everyone turned it down ...
New York — IN the '50s, as a design graduate from the Cranbrook Academy of Art, in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., I arrived in New York with a little cash - and a few ideas. Each design firm at which I applied for work required signing over to it for $1 all rights to any patentable ideas I'd come up with while in their employ. I'd refuse to sign and thus couldn't get the job.
Finally, Norman Bel Geddes, America's first industrial designer, gave me a job doing architectural renderings - he didn't require such a signature. But my real love was designing something that could be produced in quantity, because that's the way masses of people could be benefited.
The design of chairs is especially interesting from this point of view, because a chair is at once a piece of architecture, of art, and of sculpture - and it can be made in great quantities.
So whenever there was a spare moment, I'd work independently on chair designs. As these became ready, I'd show them to furniture companies - but was always turned down. One company president would like the back, but not the legs. Another would like the legs, but not the seat.
Since a chair takes at least six months to build, the costs and disappointments were becoming unbearable. So finally I decided that if there was to be success in this work, it had to be through trying to do a better job - not just through designing different shapes that might strike someone's fancy for the moment.
The study had to go much deeper than surface effect. It had to include a certain redefinition of a chair and what it must do for people. It had to be not just different, but clearly better.
And so the work began with no guarantee of finding a manufacturer and no guarantee of any return for the development time ahead. After years of experiment - building samples and rebuilding - the first workable models were ready to show.
A unique feature of the new design - the 40/4 Chair - was that, as the name implies, 40 would stack in a height of 4 feet - something heretofore never accomplished.
Because of the chairs' compact stackability, friends have since discovered that they can have what appears as four chairs around a table - which are actually four stacks of two chairs each. When visitors come for an unexpected meal, these unstack to provide eight.
I approached a firm that had rejected me several times on other proposals.
At the first showing, the company president liked this chair's looks and concept so much that within 15 seconds she said, ``We'll take it!''
A contract was signed, and we proceeded to prepare for production of a proposed 5,000 the first year. But after several months in conferences between that president and her company-employed designers, they turned it down.
At that point there were only two furniture companies in the United States known well enough for their avant-garde spirit to be logical candidates. I had already met with one and failed. Approaching the design head of the second, I was again rejected, because he felt they were already full with work of other designers.
I then talked to many other kinds of firms, including those handling office and school furniture. All turned me down. I proceeded to wage a writing campaign, sending pictures around the world. All foreign firms also turned me down.
But finally a friend suggested I visit Davis Allen, then senior in the interiors section of the New York office of the large architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
Mr. Allen enthusiastically welcomed the chair, indicating that his firm was designing a university campus in Chicago that would need 17,000 chairs. He suggested I ask a firm called GF Furniture Systems Inc., in Youngstown, Ohio, to make it.
The company welcomed the 40/4 with open arms. We signed a license agreement in 1963, and poured money and engineering talent into the production line.
The chair was an immediate success both in the US and abroad, receiving the design Gran Prix at the Triennale di Milano, a Gold Medal from the Austrian government, and American Society of Interior Designers First Prize.
In addition to its commercial success, the 40/4 has been selected for inclusion in museum collections, including the Museum of Modern Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Mus'ee des Arts D'ecoratifs, Palais du Louvre, Paris; Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro.
The chair's selling success continues after 24 years of production. A sub-licensee, Seid International of London, makes it for the European market.
The 40/4 can be found in many locations around the world: the Rockefellers' Mona Kei Hotel in Hawaii; St. Paul's Cathedral, London; de Gaulle Airport, le Centre Pompidou, and the new Quai d'Orsay museums, Paris; the airport in Karachi; and the Cultural Center, Jakarta.
The chair has been copied often, but architects the world over assert that they believe in the original and loyally specify it. When the late architect Richard Neutra's Los Angeles Glass House burned, his son, Dion, also an architect, rebuilt it, redesigning the interiors. He included the 40/4 chair in black and chrome as the formal dining chair.
The chair was conceived for comfort in long sitting periods, and the shape was arrived at through arduous effort and trying on my friends to arrive at proper ergonomics. This was later acknowledged by doctors in a Milan, Italy, hospital, who ordered 250 because they were ``ergonomically correct.''
When people ask where they can obtain 40/4 Chairs for their homes, I refer them to GF Furniture.