Anyone in the United States who loves Chemex coffee makers or Marimekko dresses has one man to thank for bringing them stateside: architect Benjamin Thompson. The new book Design Research: The Store that Brought Modern Living to American Homes (Chronicle Books) tells the story of Thompson’s pioneering emporium of modern design.
When he founded D/R in Cambridge, MA in 1953, Thompson created “a general store of good design,” where ordinary people could pick and choose from the best of international, modern, vernacular and folk products to create homes in their own image. As I researched the book with Jane Thompson, editor, planner, and recipient of the 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cooper-Hewitt, I discovered that D/R was the source for many now-iconic products that are the backbone of museum design collections. Here are 11 of the most interesting.
Howlett house [pictured above]
Thompson initially practiced as a member of The Architects Collaborative, a firm created with Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. On his own, and with TAC, Thompson designed a number of small, modern houses for families in the Boston suburbs. In outfitting these homes, he realized his clients needed a place to buy furniture and fittings that suited their new, open-plan lifestyle. This is his Howlett House, Belmont, MA, 1947-48.
D/R’s biggest claim to fame was introducing Finnish textile manufacturer Marimekko to the United States in 1959. The easy cotton dresses in bold, bright patterns became a craze, particularly after Jackie Kennedy was photographed in one on the cover of Sports Illustrated. For many women they were a liberation, since they looked good without benefit of girdle. Thompson and Marimekko founder Armi Ratia became fast friends; key ?mekko designers like Annika Rimala and Maija Isola produced new patterns and silhouettes annually, and their arrival was an event in Harvard Square.
Thompson traveled to Europe frequently in search of new designs and designers. One of his discoveries was Viennese craftsman Carl Aubock (1900-57), who made bar tools and other implements in brass and wood with a distinctly surreal sensibility. His firm, Werkstatte Carl Aubock, is now in its fifth generation of family ownership, and still produces Aubock’s designs.
Another Thompson discovery was Swiss glassblower Roberto Niederer (1928-1988). His blown-glass discs and drops (which could be filled with colored water) were usually hung in the front windows at D/R, the better to capture light and attention.
Among the brand-new goods at D/R were some classics, including the Vallauris casseroles that became popular wedding gifts. These ceramic vessels had been made in southeast France for centuries, but the town came to new prominence circa 1950, when Pablo Picasso became a resident and began to use the local clay for sculpture. The casseroles proved useful for producing such staples of new cuisine as stews and tagines.
?Chemex coffee maker
Thompson did not believe all good design had to be pedigreed. One of the store’s most popular items were $1 drinking glasses from Mexico. He also liked Peter Schlumbohm’s 1941 Chemex coffee maker, a still-in-production and utterly simple appliance that makes excellent coffee with a minimum of moving parts (Pyrex carafe, bentwood grip, leather tie).
Arabia Valencia china
While the Vallauris casseroles and Mexican drinking glasses were authentic vernacular products, D/R also sold modern designers’ new versions of folk, like Ulla Procope’s 1960 blue-and-white Valencia china for Arabia. Displayed next to MoMA-sanctified dinnerware like Thomas’s all-white, stacking TC-100, Valencia had a graphic and dramatic presence much like the Marimekko prints.
Alongside handmade products of craft workshops, D/R also showcased industrial products for the postwar home’s new uses–like work. The Kevi chair, designed by Jorgen Rasmussen in the early 1960s, was an early home office favorite along with the Luxo lamps ubiquitous at architects’ offices of the period.
Colombo mini kitchen
Thompson was an early champion of Italian designer Joe Colombo (1930-1971), and sold a number of his products at D/R (as well as adopting his stackable Universale chairs in his own Cambridge kitchen). One of Colombo’s most extravagant designs was the 1964 Minikitchen for Boffi, which packed a whole room’s worth of appliances into a 40-inch square. At D/R, the kitchens were used for cooking demonstrations, and sold alongside copper pans created with the input of Julia Child.
In the 1960s, Thompson’s taste began to move from natural materials toward the new plastics, particularly a series of extreme and amusing forms coming out of Italy. The Blow chair, designed by De Pas, D’Urbino and Lomazzi for Zanotta in 1967, suited Thompson’s ideal of lightweight, movable furniture. He also championed the director’s chair.
Thompson’s love of design stretched back to childhood, so he made sure the store was stocked with delights for children, from big Marimekko hats to Muurame bunkbeds to Jussila blocks from Finland. Of particular quality were Kay Bojesen’s (1886-1958) 1951 menagerie of jointed wood animals, which included a monkey, a bear, and an elephant.