Ralph Rapson Design: The Early Years

During the late 1930s and early 1940s, while working in the inspiring surroundings of Cranbrook Academy in Michigan, Ralph Rapson produced volumes of sketches of furnishings for modern homes. The Cranbrook ethos demanded a broad-based design education, and Rapson was not unique in designing furniture as well as buildings. Only a few Rapson designs were realized in studio production, including Rapson’s Highback Rocker submission for the 1940 Organic Design in Home Furnishings Competition sponsored by MoMA (see below).

It was Rapson’s friendship with Florence Schust, the talented designer and future wife of Hans Knoll, that brought Rapson designs to the mass market and out of studio production.  The Hans G. Knoll Furniture Company had been established in New York City in 1938. In 1941, the first Knoll modern furniture line was released - the “600 Series”, most of which was designed by Jens Risom, but would later include all the pieces of the Rapson Line for Knoll as well.

[photo credit: Rapson Architects, all rights reserved]

Many people note the similarity in materials and upholstery between these early Risom pieces and Rapson pieces for Knoll. In fact, the use of webbed upholstery was common among the early Modernists because it allowed for clean lines and met the materials restrictions of the times - including wartime, when there were strict limits on the length of wood pieces available as well as metal for springs and upholstery materials. Rapson’s Highback Rocker for the 1940 Organic Design competition used hardwood and webbed cotton and predated the Risom pieces for H.G. Knoll in the same materials, but both designers followed in the footsteps of Alvar Alto, who pioneered the use of webbing to enable a clean form using simple, natural materials.

[photo credit: Rapson Architects, all rights reserved]

In 1944, Knoll and his wife, Florence Schust Knoll, established the Knoll Planning Unit to lead the research/design project he called “Equipment for Living” which was to prepare for a dramatic change in furnishing style and material after the end of World War II. Knoll believed a closer collaboration between stream-lined production and the talented designers was needed to successfully bring quality, affordable modern furniture to the masses. To set the project off on the right foot, Florence looked to Cranbrook for cutting-edge designers. Rapson was the first selected for the Planning Unit, followed by Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen and six others who together designed many of the modern classics associated with Knoll’s dominant role in defining Modern furniture.

Hans Knoll contacted wartime manufacturers in hopes of enticing them to partner for postwar production of modern furniture. Kellet AirCraft Corporation was the first to sign on to the Equipment for Living line but specified that the furniture be constructed of aluminum. In May 1944, Knoll asked Rapson to design a line of outdoor furniture for production at Kellet. Three weeks later, Rapson flew to New York with sketches of an outdoor chair, a side table, a tea wagon, and others in tow. To be constructed of tubular steel, the designs were light and playful. Knoll was reportedly delighted and wasn’t expecting something so exciting. Walter Baermann, the firm’s Head of Design, said Rapson’s furniture had a “personality, a quality that must be kept and not lost, even in the smallest detail.” 

In the end, the financial details derailed the project and Kellet never produced these Rapson designs, but Knoll and Rapson were not deterred. “The Rapson Line” for Knoll had its first footings. Check back for articles following the development and marketing of the Rapson Line for Knoll.

Further reading: King Hession, J., Rapson, R., & Wright, B. N. (1999). Ralph Rapson: Sixty Years of Modern Design. Afton: Afton Historical Society Press.

Caroline Engel for Rapson-Inc.


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