Modular Evolution

Posted on Posted in Blog, Books, Design, Furniture
Gilbert Rhode Dressing Table
Gilbert Rhode Dressing Table, designed for Herman Miller c.1940
Photo Credit: Toomey Galleries
Gilbert Rhode Clock
Gilbert Rhode Clock, 1933
Photo Credit: Toomey Galleries

George Nelson and Charles & Ray Ames, are the talented industrial designers credited with the development of the classic designs that continue to be a part of Herman Miller’s product line to this day. However another man who walked into DJ De Pree’s showroom one day in 1931 became the man to create the modular designs for Herman Miller that are considered to be the first systems approach to office furniture. The seeds for Rhode’s modern approach to design were planted at the time of his sudden death in 1944, paving the way for those that followed.

Gilbert Rhode's assistant was named Elizabeth Kaufer who was from Buffalo, New York. I met Elizabeth a very long time ago and have always credited her with introducing me to the field of commercial interior design. She did not mention her association with Gilbert Rhode, but I was not surprised when I first read of their working relationship in a 1982 interview by Abbey Jewett, with D J De Pree.

A book published in 2009, “Gilbert Rhode Modern Design for Modern Living”, was researched and written by Phyllis Ross, chronicling Mr. Rhode’s life and includes many illustrations and examples of his work. Phyllis Ross foot notes a paragraph crediting an interview she had with Elizabeth Kaufer, “On June 16, 1944, just two weeks after his fiftieth birthday, he died suddenly, apparently of a heart attack. He and his wife, Peggy, had just finished lunch at Le Beaujolais, a restaurant known for its classic French cuisine. A favorite haunt of his, the bistro was located directly opposite his office on East Sixtieth Street. It is rumored that his last words, indicative of the pleasure he took in fine dining, were: “This is the best French pastry I’ve ever had.”

Gilbert Rhode was honored in a 2011 United States Post Office Forever® stamp series, Pioneers of American Industrial Design as one of the nation’s 12 most important and influential industrial designers. The stamp features a clock he design for the Herman Miller Clock Company in 1933.