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Stamping Out Design Piracy

Harvey Probber deep in thoughtThe last word… on stamping out design piracy

By Harvey Probber 

WHAT I have to say affects all of us – distributors and manufacturers – and in other industries as well. It goes under the curiously romantic heading of "design piracy."

But before I antagonize a lot of nice people, let's make a clear-cut distinction between design "piracy" and de­sign "influence." Influence being the healthy cleansing process that has turned many a maker of blinding, water­ fall suites into a sudden champion of well-planned, clean­ lined storage units: the movement that is making good modern – in all its many facets – available to more and more people of varied incomes, every day. More power to the well-influenced.

But now-enter the culprit! That unscrupled, lame-brained parasite who blandly burglarizes other men with less conscience than a second story man crawling up a fire escape. The war of course, called a halt to this nasty business. Nothing moral or patriotic about it, though. It just wasn't necessary. But now that our old friends. supply and demand, have met and made up – and a firm must again depend on its ingenuity and organization in an increasingly style-conscious market – the unwholesome few are back. Yes, the little men with the long pencils and short imaginations are scurrying around once more, greedily digesting the fruits of another man's mind with their "ruler" eyes.

Harvey Probber's Early Days in the Furniture Industry

NY Daily News ad from 1940 for "Renard Lenglen" (Harvey Probber)

Renard Lenglen didn't exist. It was a fictitious name for the Michaels Brothers furniture store publicity. A letter from Michaels Brothers acknowledged that Harvey Probber was the author of the "innovation" of a collection of designs that is advertised as being by the design-committee prize-winner Renard Lenglen.

The text from this ad in the New York Daily News (September 12, 1940) reads:

Designed by Renard Lenglen for those lovers of modern who want something really different… this smart suite has been selected by our Mayfair House Committee as the prize winning suite of 1940. Includes the extra-large, extra-comfortable Channel-back Settee and Arm Chair and the High-back Wing Chair… covered in Government Standard Mohair with fine pencil stripes of Curled Mohair… in choice of glorious two-tone pastel shades. Features sweeping jumbo welt decorations… sag proof steel construction… and latest style puffed arms. $285 grade… and bears our Mayfair House Lifetime Guarantee. Please note that a $10 deposit was required.

Playing second-fiddle to a made up designer is an example of the many obstacles that Probber faced while trying to establish himself as a designer of tasteful, well-made modern furniture. He was just 18 years old at the time of this ad and situations like this forced, or inspired, him to think up up a better way to design, present and sell beautiful, well-made modern furniture.

Harvey Probber, 1922-2003

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.

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