Episode 1 in our Mid Century Modern Icons series focuses on the plywood chair designed by Norman Cherner in 1958.
The reason for picking this chair to launch the blog series? The relationship between function and form is so central to the concept of mid century chair design that seating is going to feature a lot in this series. Plus, well, it’s one of my favourite MCM designs, I’ve just completed refurbishing four of them and I had to start somewhere! Seating is an easy way to incorporate mid century design into your home or workspace so hopefully this series will provide a little inspiration and insight into some of the classics as well as one or two less well known designs.
The story behind this particular chair is one of innovation, betrayal and justice - what more could you want in a story?
Norman Cherner was born in 1920 in Brooklyn, New York. He studied Fine Art at Columbia University and at the age of 27 he became an instructor at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It was during his time at MoMA that his interest was piqued for the Bauhaus movement, and in particular for housing as industrial design. While Norman Cherner is most well known for his furniture, his work included all aspects of design: from graphics, glassware and lighting, to his pioneering work in low cost, cooperative and prefabricated housing.
You may be thinking that the Cherner Chair has clear similarities to another MCM icon - the Herman Miller ‘Pretzel Chair’ – and you would be correct (clever cookie). The Herman Miller Company, led by George Nelson in the 1950s, had been working on creating lightweight chairs out of plywood. Their Pretzel chair was designed by Nelson's office in 1952 and produced by Plycraft. However, the Pretzel chair was too fragile and costly to produce resulting in the Herman Miller Company ceasing production in 1957.
Plycraft, having been left with excess materials as well as the techniques for constructing plywood furniture, decided that they would produce their own chair and Paul Goldman, owner of Plycraft, hired Cherner to create a new design. However, on completion of the design, Cherner was fired from Plycraft with the message that they would not be producing the chair after all.
A few months later, Cherner came across his own design for sale in a showroom with the label stating the manufacturer as Plycraft and attributing the designer to ‘Bernardo’. Cherner successfully took Plycraft to court in 1961, with Goldman admitting that ‘Bernardo’ was a fabricated designer. Cherner has rightfully received credit and the royalties for his work ever since.
Production of the Cherner Chair ceased in 1970 and the design became iconic – only to be found in the homes of collectors or on display in museums and galleries.
Good news came for the rest of us though in 1999 when Norman’s two sons - Benjamin and Thomas - started the Cherner Chair Company. Since then the Cherner Chair Company has brought back into production many of Norman Cherner's most popular designs. Utilizing his original drawings and specifications, the reissued designs are made with the same attention to detail found in the original hand made classics.
Did you know?
The Cherner Chair is occasionally called ‘The Rockwell Chair’ since Norman Rockwell included it in his painting ‘The Artist at Work’ which was featured on a 1961 cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
Photo thanks to Cherner Chair Company and George Nelson Foundation.