By Judith Gura
Harvey Probber, 1922-2003 Harvey Probber was known primarily as a designer of elegant residential furniture, but his actual accomplishments went well beyond that. A largely self-taught artist with virtually no formal training, he produced hundreds of successful furniture designs, thousands of furniture sketches and dozens of renderings, as well as skillful cartoons and painted-stone sculptures. During the course of a career that lasted well over four decades, he devised new concepts, introduced new materials, and developed technical innovations that were adopted throughout the furniture industry.
In the middle years of the twentieth century, he became one of America’s leading designers,1 on the strength of the luxurious collections of upholstered furniture, case goods, dining room and bedroom storage pieces produced by Harvey Probber, Inc., the company he founded in 1945 and sold in 1986. Though he considered himself a modern designer, his approach to modernity favored exotic woods, highly polished lacquer, hand-rubbed finishes and opulent upholstery fabrics — materials largely abandoned by more radical, Bauhaus-influenced designers. Probber’s designs, like those of Edward Wormley, Tommi Parzinger and others with a similar aesthetic, were sought after by interior designers and their upscale clientele. These customers wanted modern, but modern with elegance – of which Probber furniture had more than its share.
Yet Probber’s most significant, and enduring, contribution to design was in his development of modularity – the use of standardized units to create furnishings that were infinitely flexible and varied.2 In 1944, he first applied the concept of “unit furniture” to upholstered seating, with a brilliantly simple series of geometric shapes that could be assembled into different configurations. The very idea of furniture that can be arranged and rearranged at will is so universally accepted that its original source has been largely forgotten. Yet the concept of modularity, applied first to seating and then to case goods, tables and eventually office furniture, has changed the way furniture is purchased and used in modern homes.
Born in 1922, in Brooklyn, New York, Probber showed an early talent for sketching and an interest in design. While still attending Samuel J. Tilden High School, he took a part-time job in a used-furniture store, and was inspired to try his hand at drawing ideas for furniture. When he was just 16, he sold his first design, a sofa, to Superior Upholstery for $10, and took the subway into Manhattan to find additional customers at the New York Furniture Exchange, a wholesale showroom building.3 After high school graduation, when his parents could not afford to send him to college, he accepted a job as designer for Trade Upholstery, a small manufacturing facility on West 17th Street, at a salary of $35 per week.4
Immersing himself in factory procedures to learn about furniture construction and design, studying techniques of frame making with a helpful supplier, reading advertisements and decorating magazines, and visiting furniture stores, Probber essentially educated himself in the field. He often noted that his only formal training came from evening design classes at Pratt Institute.
When Probber first heard of the Bauhaus, and visited the Museum of Modern Art, it was 1940 – the year that Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen, then 33 and 30 respectively, came to national attention by winning MoMA’s Organic Design competition. The seeds of American modernism were just beginning to sprout – a time of great potential for a young designer with talent, initiative, and a willingness to take risks with new ideas. Probber was one of an early band of pioneers in a field that included D.J. DePree of Herman Miller, Hans Knoll, Georg Tanier and Jack Lenor Larsen.5
With his career interrupted by the outbreak of World War II, Probber enlisted in the Coast Guard, serving two years before returning to the profession to which he had originally been drawn. After a short-lived partnership, 6 Probber established his eponymous firm in 1945. He initially juggled a design career with that of pop singer and songwriter, 7 abandoning show business only when it became clear that designing and making furniture held promise of a steady income. Indeed, it would provide far more than that for over forty years, supporting not only Probber and his family – he married Joan Dworkin in 1952, and together they raised four sons – but a thriving factory, several hundred employees, and supliers in three countries overseas.
Probber’s most significant design breakthrough came when he was exploring approaches to seating furniture and found that, in his words, “the key to salvation was in bits and pieces of plane geometry… they were meaningless alone, but when fused to conventional shapes, profoundly altered their character.”8 These “bits and pieces” became templates for the line he named the Sert Group (after Spanish- born architect Jose Luis Sert, later dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design). It consisted of nineteen different elements – simple upholstered forms like half-circles, quadrants, wedges, and corner sections that could be assembled into any desired seating configuration. Probber even developed scale models that resembled odd-shape building blocks, placing them on tabletops in his showroom so that clients could design their own arrangements. The upholstered elements could be ordered as a single seamless piece, or separate, individual ones – providing a more flexible alternative to the sectional sofas that were becoming popular all the time. The use of modules also made it possible to adapt the same basic form to any styling – loose cushions or tight, skirted or plain.
Probber referred to the concept as a modular system, a name not then in use, and the individual pieces as modules. Although what was then called “unit furniture” dates to the first decades of the twentieth century, in designs by early German modernists and Le Corbusier, Probber’s modular seating was the first of its kind. Taking the concept further, he introduced “nuclear furniture” – which included occasional tables with interchangeable pedestals, in different shapes and sizes that could, like seating, be clustered in varying configurations. In the 1960s, he extended the idea to case goods, making it possible to offer many variations on one basic design… the same case was available in a choice of finishes, legs, bases, heights, and hardware.9 Differences that were cosmetic rather than conceptual were economical to produce – evidence that Probber’s business acumen matched his design ability.
Probber was quick to seize opportunities in the market place. In 1947, when showroom space wasn’t available in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, he took his line to Grand Rapids, then the center of the furniture manufacturing industry.10 In 1948, seeing the potential in the interior design market he opened a showroom at 136 Fifth Avenue, catering exclusively to designers.11 His elastic sling chair and Nuclear upholstered groups were chosen for MoMA’s Good Design exhibition in 1951,12 and he won several prestigious Roscoe industry awards.13
In little over a decade, Harvey Probber, Inc. became one of the country’s leading contemporary furniture firms, producing a broad range of furniture first in New York and later in the abandoned textile mill which he purchased in 1957 in Fall River, Massachusetts, and equipped as a start-to-finish manufacturing facility. He installed a metalworking shop for stainless steel, a laminating press to make plywood and curved-wood elements, an upholstery shop, and specialists in every area from fabrication to finishing. Many aspects of the factory’s production were virtually custom operations – enabling clients to vary almost any design in the collections according to specific requirements of size, color and finish.
The company’s image was enhanced with eye-catching advertising in upscale media like The New York Times Magazine, as well as design and consumer publications. The full-page ads, with provocative headlines like “If your Harvey Probber chair wobbles, straighten your floor,” were noted by a 1963 trade-magazine article as “not cocky, just confident”. 14
Moving into the developing contract market, Probber introduced his Inner Office furniture in 1958, with luxurious looks like a crescent-shape conference desk – a custom variation of which was later made for then-President Lyndon Johnson’s personal use.15 He later applied the concept of modulars to the executive office. His flexible 1975 Advent series of desks, with unattached pedestals and flexible enclosures, was adopted by corporations like the Ford Motor Company.16 Two years later, Advent III included case goods with double-wall construction that allowed for unrestricted, hidden wire management and built-in ambient lighting – a high-end alternative to the panel systems that were then proliferating in the marketplace. IBD awards honored several Probber office designs, including the Houston executive swivel chair (1977), with its soft-cushioned look of living-room seating.
By the 1970s, Harvey Probber, Inc. had opened trade showrooms in major design centers across the country, 17 and had relinquished the residential market for the larger and more lucrative contract furniture field. He never abandoned his interest in seating modules, however, and continued to explore variations of the concept. One of the most admired—and most copied—of these was the 1972 Cubo collection, which included 32’’ squares and quadrants of steel-reinforced urethane foam that could be arranged in different shapes and mounted on either recessed steel legs or platform bases. The pieces had convenient zip-off upholstery, as well as coordinating tables.
Probber was intrigued by new materials – an early user of foam rubber in the mid-1940s, 18 he installed in 1967 what was probably the first cold-cure urethane foam furniture production facility in the United States, 19 using it to produce molded seating groups like Cubo. His early use of laminates in upscale office furniture helped make that material more acceptable. Despite this, he never forsook his preference for wood and other natural materials over synthetics and hardedge metal. His 1977 Artisan collection used materials like wicker, cane, and fiber woven from leaves, and was made by local craftsmen at a production facility he established in Haiti.
As deft with words as with pencils and brush, Probber was typically outspoken in interviews, criticizing furniture that was too severely modern, over-decorated, or slavish to style changes. In a 1957 interview, he cautioned consumers, “Don’t be intimidated into thinking last year’s purchases are obsolete simply because a new style appears on the market… good furniture doesn’t have to change with the seasons, leaping in and out of fashion like a woman’s hat.”20 A clear-eyed observer of his profession even after leaving it, he commented in 1988, “Fashion is a word invented by the avaricious to prey upon the insecure.”21
After selling the company, which closed shortly afterwards, Probber remained involved in the furniture industry as a consultant and lecturer about business and design issues. At the invitation of a private investment group, he traveled to several Central American countries to advise on business opportunities, and consulted to developing companies in Belize and the Philippines.22 Having more time to pursue artistic avocations, he created whimsical art works, like Probber People – a series of mixed-media images of chairs-as-personalities, with witty names like “Chairlady,” “Laminated Man,” “Fancy Pants,” and “Embraceable Me –“ and Petroglyphs, a collection of odd-shape rocks culled from the beach outside his house, incised and painted with abstract, impudent faces.
Evaluating Harvey Probber’s contributions to design reveals an interesting paradox. By the final decade of the twentieth century, he was being referred to as “a pioneer in the application of modular seating,”27 and his furniture was being increasingly sought after by collectors and dealers in the vintage market. Probber, however, felt that his contributions had no been fully recognized. In a 1999 interview before the first of several strokes that ended his active life—though leaving his mind and memory intact – he complained that his most influential ideas had been adopted, if not specifically copied, by other designers, without acknowledgment. This is probably true, in part because his innovations were more often in the form of general concepts than in easy-to-identify trademark designs – although his prodigious output includes a number of these. However, as owner of the company as well as chief designer, his creative impulse was continually at war with his role as a merchandiser who sought to make products that would sell. In this, he was eminently successful. Though Probber’s designs rarely ventured into the avant-garde, he understood precisely how to translate current style directions into sophisticated furniture to fit his clients’ needs and tastes. This ability was perhaps as significant as his skill in innovation, and should be given equal weight in assessing his career. Much of Harvey Probber’s furniture looks as attractive today as when it was first made – a testament to the timelessness of good design, in which he so firmly believed.Notes: