Before Design Within Reach, Ikea, and Michael Graves at Target, there was Gilbert Rohde.
Born in New York in 1894, Rohde began his professional career as a commercial illustrator. He worked freelance for ad agencies and large department stores. Drawing furniture and interiors was a specialty. An epiphany for the young Rohde came during a trip to Europe in 1923. He visited the Bauhaus in Germany and the Paris Exhibition, that year a showcase for sleek, streamlined architectural and interior design.
Rohde returned home determined to become a designer. His vision: furniture that embodied Bauhaus purity of form, accented with simple, yet sophisticated Art Deco elements. His designs combined rich, exotic hardwoods with new materials (chrome, plastic, Bakelite). He saw his audience as less the affluent upper crust, rather a growing middle class born of the 20’s boom.
The Depression might have put the brakes on the Rohde enterprise. However, in the lean 1930’s environment, his “concept” took hold. His furniture was simple to mass-produce, small in scale, modular, affordable, new. His Design for Living House was a major hit at the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.
Like many designers who followed (Nelson, Eames, etc.), Rohde worked closely with manufacturers such as Herman Miller to merchandise both himself and his products. Comprehensive marketing and consumer education were integral to Rohde’s success, and successful he became, soon a well-known celebrity proselytizer of modern design.
Had he not died in 1944 of a heart attack at age 50, Rohde might have ridden the post-War consumer boom to even greater heights. Although his fame faded, he remained a strong influence on future designers and a favorite of collectors.
According to Phyllis Rose, “A comprehensive appraisal of his diverse career is long overdue.” Rose, author and design expert, rises to the challenge. Gilbert Rohde: Modern Design for Modern Living, her new book from Yale University Press, should put Rohde rightfully back in the pantheon. The book is thoughtful, comprehensive, required reading for anyone who wants to better understand why today’s interiors (offices, included) look and function the way they do, and how “design sells.”
My favorite Rohde is his 1933 Z-clock, a boldly minimal creation of glass, chrome, and Bakelite. For my money, it makes the cut as a major icon of 20th century design. (Some collectors agree. The small table timepiece can sell for $10,000 at rare auction appearances.)
By Bill Robinson