The Birth of The Modular*
A novel idea won Harvey Probber his seat in the modernist pantheon
Judith Gura -- Interior Design, 9/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Anyone who's ever rearranged the modular sofa in the living room has Harvey Probber to thank. Probber, who died in February, came up with the concept (and named it) back in 1944. During a career lasting well over four decades, he launched many ideas now taken for granted, but his reputation rests primarily on the elegant residential furniture he designed and manufactured—a genre that might be called moneyed modern.
The look is once more being sought-after in the vintage marketplace. "Harvey Probber is part of that unsung second wave of mid-century modernists. Though he hasn't achieved the 'label' recognition of Eames or Noguchi, I think he'll become considerably more important on the secondary market over the next few years," say James Zemaitis, director of 20th-century design at Sotheby's. Meanwhile, an exhibition of Probber's residential furniture and artwork is opening October 3 at New York's Baruch College.
Born in Brooklyn in 1922, Probber attended public schools and sold his first design to the Superior Upholstery Company when he was just 16. Unable to afford college, the natural artist and entrepreneur took a job with New York's Trade Upholstery—which heralded his arrival with a mailing announcing a "brilliant newcomer, whose freshly original approach … marks him for prominence." Widespread recognition came when he entered a sketch in a 1941 Interiors to Come magazine competition.
Probber served two years in the Coast Guard during World War II, then worked briefly as a singer and songwriter before recommitting himself to a career in design. In 1945, at age 23, he established his own firm; the next year, he opened a Fifth Avenue showroom for upholstered furniture. His first case-goods collection debuted five years later. Be- fore his 30th birthday, his sling chair and Nuclear seating had been featured in a "Good Design" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
As early as 1938, Probber had been exploring the idea of sectional seating segments that could be placed in different configurations. By the mid-1940's, he was calling these flexible pieces modules. (A 1979 Interior Design article called them "one of the most influential developments in contemporary furniture design.") To introduce this unfamiliar idea, Probber provided scale models of his modular forms, inviting clients to the showroom to design their own arrangements. Success was immediate.
Probber always understood the needs and tastes of affluent clients and their interior designers. Though he considered himself a modernist, his factory in Fall River, Massachusetts, produced an urbane version of the idiom, eschewing spareness in favor of richly figured woods, high-gloss lacquer finishes, and opulent fabrics. "He was expensive, but I had that type of project," says designer Valerie Schwartz, a client for over 40 years. "I did homes on several continents, and I used Probber furniture in all of them."
By 1957, Probber was famous, the Philadelphia Inquirer referring to him as "one of the nation's leaders in contemporary furniture design." That same year, he purchased an abandoned mill in Fall River and installed a metalworking shop, a wood-laminating press, and workshops for upholstery and finishing. The combination transformed his business into a virtually custom operation as he juggled the roles of designer, production manager, and savvy marketer.
In addition to turning out hundreds of furniture designs over the years, he sketched endless cartoons and whimsical drawings in his spare time. Scrapbooks fill several cabinets in his house in Rye, New York. "He saved absolutely everything," recalls his widow, Joan, the mother of his four grown sons.
Probber continued to design residential modular seating, such as a much-copied 1972 collection of steel-reinforced urethane-foam forms offered with zip-off upholstery, legs or platform bases, and coordinating tables. The Harvey Probber company as a whole, however, had made the transition to office furnishings, applying the modular concept to the booming contract market.
The Ford Motor Company, for one, adopted his executive desks with unattached pedestals and flexible enclosures. In 1977, he brought out a line of office modules with double-wall construction that allowed for wire management and built-in ambient lighting—a high-end alternative to panel systems. Several of his designs won awards from the Institute of Business Designers and the Resources Council.
His son Jory, a furniture- manufacturer's representative, comments that Probber's ideas are "omnipresent but invisible," in that his innovations soon became industry standards. By 1986, though, he was ready to sell the business. It closed shortly thereafter.
Its founder, then nominally retired, remained active consulting, lecturing, and writing the occasional article until suffering the first of several strokes three years ago. His mind unaffected, he lived long enough to see his furniture's revived popularity validate his longstanding belief in the timelessness of good design. As he said in a 1957 interview, "Good furniture doesn't have to change with the seasons."
A professor of design history, Judith Gura is the curator of "Harvey Probber: Modernist Furniture, Design & Graphics," at Baruch College's Sidney Mishkin Gallery from October 3 to 30.
The designer at his showroom in 1962.
A sectional seating ensemble and companion corner table, circa 1955.
Modular seating in molded urethane foam, 1982.
Looking into the future, a 1941 sketch of a modern interior.
An enamel-fronted cabinet and upholstered chair, circa 1960.
A Classique chair in peeled cane over steel, made in Haiti in 1977.
The 1958 occasional chair made famous in the ad stating, "If your Harvey Probber chair wobbles, straighten your floor."
The Houston executive chair, a 1977 Institute of Business Designers award winner.
A credenza and bookcase unit from the Mesa office-furniture collection, 1984.
The Mayan sofa in foam over hardwood, 1983.