The designs of Harvey Probber
Sep 26, 2018 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
We’ve featured a lot of designers and icons over the years and Harvey Probber is my new favorite. I’m drawn to beautiful thoughts and I find one of his quotes from the late 1950s particularly unforgettable. “Design has a fourth dimension — the intangible quality of aging gracefully.” Isn’t that what we adore about vintage? The craftsmanship, attention to detail, and bold vision that only gets better with time – that’s what still draws our eye to Lane, Brasilia, or Art Nouveau.
So what made this Brooklyn boy strive for the intangible? Harvey grew up in the 1920s and, like most teenagers, sought an after-school-job. While his peers saw their jobs merely as the means toward a personal economy, Harvey’s job became so much more. The used furniture store where he helped with all manner of tasks sparked his creativity. Soon he was sketching furniture and had his first taste of success at age 16, selling a sofa design for ten dollars (that’s about $170 in today’s money).
Without any formal training, with just the bustling city as his muse, Harvey continued to draw. He parlayed his love for sketching into his own start-up, selling designs to various Manhattan furniture companies. I want to take a moment to pause on the sheer scale of what he accomplished. As a young man, just a teenager, he carved a thriving business model from the remnants of an after-school-job. I can’t imagine, as a recent high school graduate, walking up to big firms in Manhattan to pitch my ideas. Talk about guts! His bravado wasn’t entirely rewarded as these big firms didn’t credit him for his work – some even created fake designer names to give the collections a sense of history (the sense of history an 18-year-old inventor couldn’t impose).
That feeling of rejection lingered, but instead of folding up shop, he took a job with Trade Upholstery and enrolled in night classes at Pratt Institute. During the day Harvey learned about craftsmanship, honing his skills and understanding the mechanics behind furniture. But once moonlight cascaded through the city, Harvey was learning about this new movement dubbed “American modernism.” This singular dedication to furniture was only interrupted by a stint in the Coast Guard. Following the end of WWII, Harvey’s focus returned to furniture. More specifically, he focused on an entirely new audience. The post-war family fueled a level of consumerism previously unimagined. The boom of the post-war years gave these guys and gals a lot of market power. Any designer worth their salt knew what was in demand and could anticipate the next trend. Harvey was definitely worth his salt.
Creating Harvey Probber, Inc. in 1945, he began releasing designs bearing his name and his unique perspective. While his aesthetic was decidedly modern, he had an appreciation for rich materials that didn’t carry on as modernism transitioned to the principles celebrated by the Bauhaus. His creations are known for their exotic wood selections, shiny surfaces, and rich upholstery. The Harvey Probber signature style was summarized by many as “modern, with elegance.” These streamlined, yet lush creations were highly popular with interior designers and sophisticated clientele. Despite the imagery of glitz and glam this story may conjure, the designs of Harvey Probber never lost sight of the average American.
As family life evolved, Harvey wanted to marry the concept of geometric planes with this newfound demand for flexible seating. The concept of modular seating was born and the furniture industry was never the same! The first collection was called Sert, in honor of Spanish architect Josep Lluis Sert. While I’m not entirely sure the two icons ever met face-to-face, you can easily see the influence when you consider Sert’s portfolio of work. There were 19 separate pieces in total and consumers were thrilled by the level of customization available. The concept proved so popular, Harvey went on to extend it to “nuclear furniture” (table tops with interchangeable legs) and case goods. Today when you look at a Crate & Barrel catalog and see all the options, remember that this approach is rooted in Harvey’s revolutionary work.
By the 1950s he was getting the acclaim he never received in his youth. In 1951 MoMA chose two of his designs (elastic sling chair & Nuclear upholstered group) for their Good Design exhibition. The rest of the decade brought numerous industry accolades his way. By the end of the 1950s his company purchased a textile mill, which gave him complete control over the manufacturing process. The factory floor was staffed with dedicated craftsman and artisans, working on all manner of commissions and mass-marketed pieces. Bold advertising in key New York publications only fueled the company’s growth.
Harvey was just as adept with design as business and he sensed another upcoming trend. By the 1960s the group, acting on this hunch, moved into the office furniture industry. This move proved successful. In fact, President Johnson had a Probber desk for his own personal use! The 1970s saw a reinvention of his modular concept with the Cubo collection, which took advantage of new material advancements. But by the late 1980s he was ready to retire. In 1986 Harvey sold the company and today its legacy lives on in thoughtful reintroductions. But in truth, his legacy lives on all around us. His designs were so innovative, and his perspective so popular, nearly every major competitor went on to create eerily similar pieces. Being a trailblazer wasn’t an easy role for Harvey and his frustration with being copied is understandable. But as a vintage enthusiast I’m so thankful he didn’t let the noise distract him from his purpose. He was as outspoken during interviews as he was with his sketch pad and I’ll leave you with another of his great quotes to ponder. “Don’t be intimidated into thinking last year’s purchases are obsolete simply because a new style appears on the market… good furniture doesn’t have to change with the seasons, leaping in and out of fashion like a woman’s hat.”