In the fall of 1971, I began my college studies at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I had applied to and been accepted to both Art Center in Los Angeles and Pratt, but Art Center emphasized automotive design, and I wanted a a complete Industrial Design curriculum offered by Pratt.
My first year involved taking the required courses that included art history, figure rendering and other courses I long ago have forgotten. One of the buildings described as Pratt Studios was an ancient brick building, as much of Pratt was. There had been no new construction on the campus since Pratt had been established in 1887. It was an urban campus, and it fit the description. It still does today.
In my sophomore year (1972-73) I began a few design related courses. One of them was in furniture design. Pratt has always taken pride in inviting successful graduates back to the campus to give lectures. One week the professor announced designer Charles Pollock, who had achieved worldwide fame for his chair designs for Knoll International, would be coming to speak.
I entered the study hall with a group of others and Pollock was standing in the corner with an assistant and talking to my professor. Pollock was only 42 at the time and in his prime was a handsome man. I was about to receive a lecture on the fabulous world of modern furniture design and the company best known for its mid-century modern designs, Knoll. Knoll has been established by Hans Knoll. He met interior designer Florence Schust, and she joined the company and expanded the scope of its offerings. Eventually the furniture designs of architects like Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, and many others were added to the Knoll line. Hans and Florence married in 1946 and she took over the company when Hans died in 1955.
Pollock began his talk discussing his early design work with George Nelson, his first chair design for Knoll, a deceptively simple arm chair, model number 657, introduced in 1963. Pollock followed this up with what became his most successful and financially rewarding design, the Pollock Executive Chair. The chair’s polished and plated extruded aluminum frame secured the black plastic shell and the upholstery welting. This sat on a pedestal base with four legs; later this was changed to five legs for greater stability. Known simply in the trade as the Pollock Chair, it was introduced in 1965. It was an immediate success and was ordered by interior designers and architects around the world.
Pollock then discussed the Knoll au Louvre exhibit at the Paris museum from January to March of 1972. For the first time I was exposed to the most famous furniture designs produced by Knoll by some of the most successful designers and architects in the world. I was totally captivated and felt I had discovered my true design passion. After Pollock completed his talk, he answered a few questions and then the students began leaving the hall. I was the only one to stay behind, and I went to speak with the assistant. I asked if they hired design interns for the summer. He took me to Pollock and he told me he would be glad to see my portfolio for an interview. I was ecstatic. We scheduled a date for the interview at his home in Queens.
The Pollock Lounge Chair that Never Was
When I arrived for the interview, he directed me to a prototype chair he had in the living room. It was a highback version of his executive chair and featured an ottoman. The ottoman used the same structural frame member from the front of the executive chair, placed in mirror image fashion. It was clever and visually stunning. The highback lounge chair prototype was amazingly comfortable. Pollock told me he wanted Knoll to have a lounge chair to compete with the Charles Eames lounge chair and ottoman made by Herman Miller.
After showing Pollock my rather limited portfolio, he took me downstairs to his basement studio. His assistant was there working on a refined design of the highback shell. Knoll had expressed interest in the concept, but had not yet made a decision on production, pending review of the latest design. The prototype shell was made from several layers of fiberglass, sanded, then primed and painted flat black. The extruded aluminum frame, made from the same stock as the executive chair, was heated up with a blowtorch, then formed around a jig to the shape Pollock desired. The leather upholstery, cotton batting and urethane cushions were also made by hand. Pollock offered me the job to help the assistant complete the prototype so it could be sent to Knoll for evaluation.
The summer of 1973 I spent working at Pollock’s design studio on this prototype. Pollock rarely worked in the studio, leaving the work to his assistant and me. He was either working in the office on the second floor of the home, or off playing tennis. One day he called me up to the office and gave me a royalty check he had received from Knoll. His quarterly earnings from the sale of his two chairs was over $95,000. He asked me to go to the bank to deposit it for him. I found this very curious; why would he not do that himself? I ran the math in my head and Charles Pollock was pulling in roughly $400,000 a year in royalties from the sales of just two of his chair designs. I came to another conclusion: Charles Pollock did not have work if he did not want to.
I also worked for Pollock in the summer of 1974. By then, Knoll had decided it could not sell enough units of the Pollock Lounge Chair to make it profitable. However, there was also an issue with the design of the shell that, as far as I could see, gave the chair a top-heavy appearance. In other words, it did not look right from all angles. However, Knoll could easily have offered the ottoman to match the executive chair, much like Knoll’s Barcelona Chair and Ottoman designed by Mies van der Rohe. The Pollock ottoman never went into production, as least in the United States. His Model 657 arm chair eventually went out of production but the executive chair has remained in continuous production for over half a century.
The Pollock Paradox
After the immense success of his two chair designs for Knoll and failure to get the lounge chair into production, Pollock seemed to vanish from the design scene. He produced no further designs for Knoll, but this was not unusual for designers with the company. Some designers for Knoll, however, were prolific and designed various seating designs, tables and even office systems.
In the early 1980s, Pollock succeeded in interesting Castelli, an Italian furniture company, to manufacture one of his new designs. This was a stacking chair sharing some design elements of his Knoll executive chair. The chair was given the name Penelope. After this, Pollock’s design career went into eclipse. He was however, still collecting substantial royalties from Knoll.
The Pollock Executive Chair became the iconic office chair of the 20th century. It was displayed in the Museum of Modern Art, and art this chair definitely was. As all excellent designs are, it is truly timeless. However, many mid-century modern chair designs do show their age. The Pollock Chair will never suffer that fate. Knoll will probably produce this chair forever. Knoll reintroduced the 657 arm chair in 2013.
Charles Pollock in the 21st Century
Although retired from active furniture design by the early 2000s, Charles Pollock enjoyed the cultural life New York City had to offer. He would often appear at gallery openings, museums, famed restaurants, and visits with friends, eager to hear his stories about his active design years.
Jerry Helling of Bernhardt Designs knew the profound impact of the Pollock’s chair designs, and wondered where he could find the famed designer. Perhaps he could interest Pollock in designing a chair for Bernhardt. He did find Charles Pollock in 2010, who was then 80 years old. Pollock was pleased and once again began sketching some ideas. Bernhardt Designs introduced the CP-1 chair in 1982. The company followed up the chair with a matching bench design.
This design collaboration between Pollock and Bernhardt Designs ended Pollock’s design drought, and he relished the activity that would actually result in a production piece. Helling, for his part, was thrilled that this design legend would lend his name to a new 21st century design.
In August 2013, Charles Pollock died of smoke inhalation in a residential fire in an unpretentious home he was living in South Jamaica, Queens, New York. Many, including me, were shocked to find the kind of home Pollock was living in at the time. It was a single family home that had been illegally sub-divided and had several families living in it, of which Pollock occupied just one floor. Why was this successful designer who had earned millions of dollars over the decades living in such a home? Why was he not living in an upscale assisted living center? This made no sense to me.
The daughter of one of the home’s residents found him on the floor of a smoke-filled room. She knew of Pollock’s fame, and asked the obvious question. “This man is famous. I said to myself, ‘What is he doing here? He is supposed to be in a better place.'”
Indeed, Charles Pollock is in a better place. And no doubt he is designing to his heart’s content.
Anthony Young ©Personal Spaceflight Advisors LLC
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