Jan 15, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
There are a few things that I adore collecting: pottery, board games, and costume jewelry. But I also have a more “sizable” collecting addiction: chairs. My collection mainly focuses on mid-century pieces. Perhaps it’s because designs from this period reflect the optimism of the post-war era. This optimism is contagious. Chairs from this time embrace enthusiastic shapes, showcase a bravery with materials, and flaunt colorful textiles that have sparked joy for generations. The foundations for this American furniture tradition started at the end of the first World War. Prior to this, owning well-designed and thoughtfully-crafted furniture was an honor reserved for only the most wealthy of consumers. For the creative community, this elitism would not stand. The Bauhaus in 1919 disrupted the industry, setting it on a new path. Formerly disparate artistic outlets now started to cross-pollinate. The goal of their collective efforts was singular: creating beautiful and useful pieces for every home. By the end of the second World War, this strong philosophical foundation evolved hand-in-hand with new materials & technologies. This was the type of environment where tried-and-true brands thrived: Lane, Heywood-Wakefield, and Knoll. Dunbar is another member of this happy collection.
The Indiana-based Dunbar company started life as a maker of customized carriages for the finest American travelers. Since 1910, they enjoyed a reputation for meticulously crafted pieces. Riding into town on a Dunbar meant that you were arriving in style. Their way of manipulating wood was legendary and the company’s future seemed bright, but then Henry Ford started making automobiles. The founders were determined that the decades spent in developing wood-working techniques wouldn’t go to waste and the Dunbar logo was soon attached to a new product: furniture.
Breaking into a new market isn’t easy and as they say – timing is everything. For Dunbar, their big move into furniture coincided with the Great Depression. In times like these, when things seem bleakest, leaders are faced with a choice. The big names we know and love today had leaders who made the same decision: to innovate. For Dunbar that meant taking a chance on a twenty-something college drop-out. Edward Wormley, who many consider one of the greatest designers of all time, is the person Dunbar invested in. Dunbar’s president knew how to spot talent and soon Edward was whisked away from an interior design job and rose to the role of Design Director during his long tenure.
Edward’s design aesthetic was informed by both clean-lined Scandinavian influences as well as an appreciation for tradition. Under Edward’s guidance, Dunbar translated their existing talents and created powerfully simple pieces. Pieces that were elegant, freed from the excesses of antiquity. Pieces we would call “transitional” in nature. The collections were popular with consumers and in 1950 the company received praise from industry experts at the Good Design exhibition. This event showcased influential designs for the home – pieces that were thoughtfully and cleverly made. One of the most-celebrated Dunbar collections is called the Janus. It debuted in 1957 to great fanfare. In true Wormley fashion, the collection was prolific – including around 70 distinct pieces. The style blends Japanese influences with stunning designer tiles. As always, Wormley and Dunbar were leading the industry and expanding consumer appetites for new looks and materials.
If you want to start collecting Dunbar, it’s best to start with the basics. In real estate, we’re trained to consider location, location, location. For furniture collectors, it’s all about labels, labels, labels. As high-quality pieces aren’t always easy to see on-sight, labels provide vital clues to a piece’s provenance. Dunbar labels come in a variety of forms: little metal plaques (some are shaped like a “D” and some list the manufacturing location: Bernie, Indiana), tags sewn onto cushions, or marks branded into the wood frame itself. As any collector knows, not all designer pieces are labeled (particularly if it’s a suite of furniture – like a bedroom set). In the absence of a label, it’s time to don your detective hat! Closely inspect the construction: are the joints dovetailed? are the backboards wood (not pressboard)? is the wood itself a quality species (walnut and cherry was a favorite of many iconic furniture makers)? Lastly, consider the quality. Investing in a piece that needs a little TLC can be very rewarding, but be sure to find a furniture restoration expert who can guide you toward thoughtful repairs. Vintage shop owners are tremendous resources for the beginning collector as they have a virtual rolodex of great artisans they can refer you to.
Consider this quote from Edward himself: “Furniture is needed for practical reasons, and because it must be there, it may as well be as pleasant as possible to look at, and in a less definable psychological way, comforting to the spirit. Modernism means freedom—freedom to mix, to choose, to change, to embrace the new but to hold fast to what is good.” In this new year, what are the pieces you are going to embrace? When you look around your home – what are your items reflecting: freedom, joy, whimsy??? Tell us what you want to hold fast to in the comments…