Cherner's design was stolen by Plycraft, the manufacturer, until he successfully sued for credit and royalties in 1961
You've seen the shapely, classic Cherner chairs, but do you know the designer behind them? Norman Cherner is an unsung hero of mid-century design, an innovator in plywood and in affordable design. And the story of his most famous design is a dramatic tale of innovation, betrayal and, ultimately, of justice.
Norman Cherner (image 2) was an American architect and designer. He studied and taught at Columbia University, and was an instructor at MoMA in the late 1940s. There, he became steeped in the MoMA-favored Bauhaus approach, where all the aspects and media of design were considered. In 1948, Cherner built modular, low-cost cooperative housing in upstate New York, for which he also designed the affordable furniture and all other decorative details.
Housing was in enormous demand in the US during the Postwar era, with the GI Bill, the baby boom and the surge of postwar prosperity. Cherner was determined to make affordable design a reality. He created a prototype for prefabricated housing that, although it was not commercially successful, he transported to Connecticut and used as his own home and studio in the late 1950s. He published books on the subject of affordable design throughout the 1950s, including, Make Your Own Modern Furniture (1953), How to Build a House for Less than $6000 (1957), and Fabricating Houses from Component Parts (1958).
But it was the plywood chair that Cherner is best known for, and the story of its creation is fascinating.
In the 1950s, the Herman Miller company, led by George Nelson, was working on creating lightweight chairs out of plywood. Their Pretzel chair (image 6) was designed by Nelson's office in 1952 and produced by a Massachusetts-based company called Plycraft. The Pretzel chair proved too fragile and costly, so Herman Miller stopped production in 1957.
But because of the Pretzel chair, Plycraft had the materials and techniques for constructing plywood furniture, and they didn't want them to go to waste. George Nelson recommended that Norman Cherner design a sturdier and more affordable Pretzel-type chair that could be more easily produced on Plycraft's equipment, so Paul Goldman, the owner of Plycraft, hired Cherner, contract and all. After Cherner turned in his design to Plycraft, though, he was told the project had been scrapped.
Not long after, Cherner was in a furniture showroom in New York and saw his design for sale! Examining the label, he saw it was from Plycraft and was attributed to "Bernardo." He sued Plycraft in 1961 and won; Goldman admitted that Bernardo was a fabricated name. Plycraft continued to produce Cherner's chair, but Cherner received royalties and proper credit. The chair was produced until the 1970s, but Cherner's sons have recently reissued their father's original designs, not only for the famous chair, but also for various tables and case furniture, as well.
Although now known as the Cherner chair, the chair is occasionally still attributed to Paul Goldman, and is also sometimes called the Rockwell chair, because Norman Rockwell featured it on a 1961 cover of the Saturday Evening Post (image 7).
Sources: The Cherner Chair Company, founded by Norman Cherner's sons Benjamin and Thomas in 1999, is the sole authorized licensor of Cherner's designs, and they work off of his original drawings and specifications. The company produces Cherner's original armchair, side chair, barstool and counter stool, as well as his other designs. You can buy them at many different stores, including Design Within Reach and the Conran Shop, as well as through the Cherner Chair Company's online store.
Images: 1 Modern Design Fanatic; 2-5 Cherner Chair Company; 6 Vitra; 7 Buhl Blvd; 8 Lorissa Kimm architecture via Desire to Inspire.
Originally published 12.10.10 - JL