Saturday, July 6, 2019

Mid-Century Modern Maniacs

A tribute to our Dad, Lewis Butler, and to all aficionados of "Mid-Century Modern" design--courtesy of Peter Butler.

Not all "Mad Men" (NYC Madison Avenue tradespeople) were in advertising, as popularized by the AMC series "Mad Men." There were many talented artists and designers, including a young designer from Long Island, a young artist who fled war-torn Europe, and a Michigan woman who excelled in a field which, in the 1950's, was almost completely dominated by men. Here's a brief story about these three incredibly talented individuals.

Here's Dad (senior designer and assistant to Florence Knoll) and his good friend and colleague, Heino Orro, with Florence Knoll at the Knoll Inc. Showroom, Madison Avenue, NYC in 1957. Three wonderfully talented individuals.

When her husband Hans died in a car accident in 1955, architect and furniture designer Florence Knoll took over the company they founded together a decade before, Knoll Associates in NYC. Knoll transformed the field of Interior Design and radically redefined office space with Modernist principles.  Gone were the traditional heavy, carved wooden desks in favor of lighter, more modern models. Knoll redesigned traditional conference tables into a boat-shape so that people could see one another to accommodate group discussions, and installed "floating" open staircases without risers. Knoll opened their first showroom in 1948 in NYC, followed by those in Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco, Paris, Los Angeles, and others.  They worked with famous designers like Eero Saarinen and Harry Bertoia, who produced some of Knoll's "star pieces."

When he was 26 years old, our Dad, having graduated from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn with a degree in Design, became a senior designer and an assistant to Florence Knoll in 1950.  With her architectural background and design flair, Florence Knoll developed the revolutionary "Planning Unit" which became one of the main engines of the company's success. Our Dad was one of the first designers who came to Knoll specifically to work in the Planning Unit.

"Florence would do the rough outline, and I would develop it and refine it further," Dad would later recall.

Some of my Dad's furniture designs for Knoll Inc. — at Madison Avenue, NYC.


Florence relied heavily on his designs for various pieces of office furniture, which were appropriately subtle and thoroughly modern. Ever interested in visual and structural simplicity, an identifying mark of our Dad's pieces are the wooden joints he often employed to avoid the use of excess hardware.


 Knoll Inc. meeting with Florence Knoll and my Dad, 
with glasses, upper right. — at Madison Avenue, NYC.

Enter Heino Orro, Dad's longtime colleague. Heino and his future bride Tosia narrowly escaped their native Estonia during the ravages of WW2. Her family was killed during the conflict and Heino brought the terrified young woman with him on a boat to Finland.  They eventually made their way to the United States and settled on Long Island.

Heino showed up at Knoll one day working as a textile vendor. Instead of the usual reams of swatches to leaf through, Heino created beautiful geometric framed art pieces from the various fabrics to showcase them. Dad and Florence were so impressed with his creativity and ingenuity that they immediately recruited Heino into the Planning Unit.

"We somehow managed to get the job done and on time," recalled Florence Knoll about her small team.  "I don't think I could have worked with a larger group. Heino Orro, Joe Whited and Lew Butler were with the P.U. (Planning Unit) until I resigned in 1965."

When Florence Knoll left the company, Dad was appointed head of Knoll's Planning Unit.



My parents became lifelong friends with Heino and Tosia, and our family still retains pieces of Heino's incredible artwork, gifted to my parents over the years.  More importantly, we retain many fond memories of these wonderful family friends. I cannot express the kindness and gentleness of this modest but very talented gentleman.

And our family is delighted to find Dad's furniture designs are growing in popularity--some for sale on several websites. You may want to take a look for yourself!

In 2002, Florence Knoll received the National Medal of Arts - the highest accolade for any artist.  Over 40 Knoll designs can be found in the permanent design collection of The Museum of Modern Art in NYC.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Mooney Family


Time to meet the family...the Mooney Family, circa turn of the century, 1900. Annie Mooney, the little girl to the right in the front, will grow up to be Uncle Jack's mother. How she met Uncle Jack's father is quite romantic...