The Father of Midcentury Modern: The Lasting Impact of Gilbert Rohde
There are few design styles as iconic as midcentury modern. Its architecture is full of welcoming warmth, enveloping viewers in a blanket of earthy hues and gentle forms. Its founding dates back to the era of the Art Deco and Bauhaus movement, starting from one designer’s dream. Gilbert Rohde is most known for his work with Herman Miller as his design advisor, where he used inspiration from surrealism and international design styles to achieve natural patterns within the furniture that were cozy and timeless yet bold and detail-oriented. His designs became the reference for modernist style.
While the design style is known for its timelessness, it has recently grown in popularity as Generation Z begins moving into their own spaces and finding their own styles. However, its resurgence raises questions about the strength of timelessness. Will trendy design choices displace timelessness and classic charm? Will these resurgences serve as moments of inspiration from the past to continue to propel interior design and architecture forward? Where does Gilbert Rohde’s career fit among these questions?
After almost 100 years of interior design history, information on Gilbert Rohde’s personal life is nearly as scarce as his surviving designs. Most of Gilbert Rohde’s early life was spent as a born-and-raised New Yorker, where his love for design sparked in his father’s workshop. He graduated high school in 1913, and after earning his degree from Grand Central School of Art, he began seeking inspiration for his works. A trip to Europe in 1927 was a turning point for him and heavily inspired his projects with Herman Miller.
Rohde kickstarted his career in 1929 at the Newark exhibition “Modern American Design in Metal.” Three of his tables featured his metal support design in the show. His emphasis on the manufacturing process for the furniture was driven by his desire to place art in consumers’ homes to make his vision synonymous with America’s national architectural and interior style. He envisioned midcentury modern as the staple look in American homes—classic, cozy, and functional. His designs brought a welcoming element to office spaces around the country while providing features of timeless curation for American family homes.
Lots of his earlier work displays biomorphism in the designs, some of the first in the United States. These design choices were derived from and were inspired by naturally occurring forms. This was achieved by sanding down sharp edges and corners while creating more organic shapes with tables, chairs, and nightstands. This same concept is where we also get iconic midcentury furniture pieces like kidney bean coffee tables and couches.
His design career only continued to grow in the wake of this exhibition. In 1932, Rohde’s designs spread to Philadelphia in the “Design for Machine” exhibit, where they shared the same spotlight as Russel Wright’s designs. Two years later, the National Alliance for Art and Industry took his works to the Rockefeller Center for the “Art and Industry” exhibit. That same year, his work was displayed at MET for the "Contemporary American Industrial Art” exhibition.
While Rohde inspired everyday families to curate their spaces for the newfound American style, filmmakers placed modernist works like his among Hollywood’s finest. When scenes involved vanities, directors wanted to ensure the furniture was as glamorous as the actress in front of them. This view of modernism within film helped make glamor in the everyday American household seem more achievable. One of the most significant contributors to this was Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932). Thus, Rohde’s vision for luxurious practicality in his designs became romanticized on the big screen.
During Rohde’s design era, furniture in Art Deco and mid-century modern appeared in his works, taking on distinct elements of both periods. Since his work became a bridge between the styles, lovers of both Art Deco and mid-century styles clamored for his pieces. Those pieces are now worth thousands of dollars. Companies he worked with included (but are not limited to) Herman Miller, Heywood Wakefield Company, and Troy Sunshade Company. Other accolades during his career include features at the Century of Progress Expo in 1933 and 1934, the Golden Gate International Expo, and the Decorative Arts Pavilion in San Francisco in 1939.
In 1940, Rohde convinced Herman Miller to stop manufacturing reproductions of his period work. He believed that imitations of a traditional style only made both pieces insincere. Rohde worked at Herman Miller until he died in 1944. George Nelson took his place soon after and continued to push the midcentury modern vision in post-war America.
While his career ended with his untimely passing, appreciation for his contribution to almost a century of interior design continues to influence generations of artists and designers. His vision for American design reached the U.S. government, which immortalized his work on stamps in 2011. Gilbert Rohde’s work can be found in art museums worldwide, from New York to London. While the hundreds of images of his designs are stunning, nothing compares to seeing them in person. Every bolt and curved wooden edge represents the lifetime of dedication Rohde had for his realized visions. His attention to detail still peeks through the decades of natural weathering that every furniture piece experiences. After seeing work like this, you can’t help but feel inspired to curate your home for similar furniture.
Mid-Century Modern has had a resurgence in the past couple of years, and the sleek, cozy elements from the period still shine through nearly 100 years later. Several brands today are using elevated tempered glass in their products to appeal to a “modernized Rohde” aesthetic, juxtaposing timeless styles and microtrends, contrasting his vision for tradition in design. Even though trends pass faster than ever, it is unlikely that Gen Z’s new-found love for an already timeless style will jeopardize its sanctity. Midcentury pieces will continue to rise in value and will be romanticized in museums for decades to come.
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