The Formative Years of the Mid-Century Design Canon

WWII and the mid-century design movement are inextricably linked. Leland Little Modernism Director Luke Newbold notes that from "the processes of production to the predilections of consumers, WWII left an indelible mark on the decades of design that followed it." We are offering the work of a number of the giants of Modernism in our Important Summer Auction, many of whom spent their formative years as young men engaged in the war effort. Here we explore how WWII shaped these great designers and their careers.

Edward Wormley

Furniture designer Edward Wormley was just 25 in 1932 when he became the Director of Design for Dunbar, the company with whom he would have his longest and most fruitful collaboration. His pre-war precocity foreshadowed the leadership role he would take just ten years later when the United States entered WWII.

During the war, Wormley served as the head of the Furniture Department for the Office of Price Administration. After the Emergency Price Control Act was passed, the Office of Price Administration was created to place ceilings on war-time prices of consumer goods, control rents, and manage agricultural and other subsidies. They also oversaw the rationing program. When the agency was disbanded in 1947, these duties were overtaken by other federal agencies like the Department of Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development.

Wormley continued on as a consultant to Dunbar after the war, and then returned to work for them full-time in 1957, when he introduced the famous Janus collection, a sofa from which is included in our current auction.
Edward Wormley (American, 1907-1995), Janus Sofa

Eero Saarinen
Eero Saarinen with a model of his design for the US Embassy in London

Julia Child wasn't the only major cultural influencer to lend a classified hand to the war effort. In a document released in recent years, dated June 1, 1944, iconic mid-century designer and architect Eero Saarinen was recommended by the predecessor agency of the CIA for Class II-A or Class II-B classification.

According to the document, Saarinen's high level of design expertise made him "irreplaceable" to the agency. Saarinen "[was] responsible, construction, and equipping situation rooms and military schools, the development of special display equipment for conferences, pilot models of new weapons and devices..."

Because Saarinen went on after the war to design a number of embassies for the US government, as well as the original war room at the White House, this new revelation about his war-time work for the OSS has given rise to speculation that he helped to integrate espionage devices into the design of those spaces.

So many of Saarinen's designs have become landmarks in our publics spaces - the arch in St. Louis, the TWA terminal at JFK airport, and more. They are highly visible reminders of the mark Saarinen made on the aesthetic of his time. But it seems Saarinen also left invisible fingerprints on the mid-century zeitgeist that we're only beginning to uncover.
altEero Saarinen (Finnish/American, 1910-1961), Set of Eight Tulip Chairs

The Woodard Family

Russell Woodard, a selection of whose furniture is featured in our auction, was the third generation of Woodard men to run the family business. That business, however, was not always devoted to furniture. The company was started in Michigan by Russell's grandfather in the mid-nineteenth century, at which time they made wood furniture, window and door sashes, blinds and pine caskets.

During the Spanish Flu pandemic in the early twentieth century, the family's Owosso Casket Company became the largest casket producer in the world. When the Depression hit, however, and the supply of Michigan hardwood was depleted, the company switched to making metal furniture, and closed their previously-successful casket business all together.

This change in basic material paved the way for the Woodard's involvement in the war effort. During WWII the Woodard & Sons furniture factory was converted to manufacturing metal parts for trucks, tanks, and naval and aircraft equipment.

After the war, Woodard returned to furniture design and production, and presented their well-known Sculptura line to the world. Due it's enduring popularity, the company has recently re-introduced a commemorative version of this design. The original is being sold in our Important Summer Auction.
altRussell Woodard, Sculptura Pair of Settees

Harry Bertoia

For Harry Bertoia, who worked in a broad range of media from jewelry to sound sculpture, WWII had the effect of focusing his many talents by virtue of the lack of materials available, and therefore influencing the direction of his career.

When the United States joined the war, Bertoia was a young Italian immigrant, attending the Cranbrook School of Art in Detroit on a full scholarship. At the urging of Eero Saarinen's father, Eliel, Bertoia had re-opened a metalworking shop at the school. Bertoia was making furniture in the shop, but had to switch to jewelry during the war due to the scarcity of metal. He ended up designing a wedding ring for the first marriage of Ray Eames, for whom he then went to work in California after the war.

Bertoia collaborated with the Eames's (who Newbold notes made their own contributions to the war-effort, designing a pressed-wood splint for wounded soldiers) on their famous lounge chair, but they never credited him with his contributions, causing him to leave their employ for a job with another Cranbrook associate, Florence Knoll. Bertoia enjoyed a long working relationship with Knoll, for whom he designed the Diamond chair, also in our Important Summer Auction.
altHarry Bertoia (American, 1915-1978), Pair of Diamond Chairs

Milo Baughman

For Milo Baughman it proved unusually fortuitous to be coming of age on the eve of war. Baughman enlisted in the Air Force right after he graduated from Long Beach High School in the spring of 1941. While for some this might have proven a roadblock to a career in a creative field, for Baughman it was a conduit.

Baughman's parents involved him in design decisions for their family home at a young age. And so it was natural that in the Air Force Baughman found himself designing officer's clubs, a task that would be the springboard for his long design career. He served in the Air Force until the war was over in 1945, at which point he used his wartime expertise to get his first civilian job working for the Frank Brothers furniture store in Long Beach.

It was at Frank Brothers that Baughman began to design custom furniture, an escape from the conservative style of wartime military design, and the launching point of his long furniture design career. In our Important Summer Auction we present two of his barrel-back chairs, the open framework of which came to be emblematic of his furniture.
altMilo Baughman (American, 1923-2003), Pair of Barrel Back Club Chairs

Newbold notes that "furniture design after WWII reflected the mood of the country - it was flush with a new sense of confidence and a bold, American identity." A generation of designers had proven themselves battle-hardy and were ready and able to prove themselves on the global design stage.

Content produced by the Leland Little Editorial Team