A tribute to Lewis Butler, and to all aficionados of "Mid-Century Modern" design--by his son Peter Butler
Not all "Mad Men" (aka 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, another who had 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 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 had founded a decade before, Knoll Associates in NYC. Knoll transformed the field of Interior Design. It 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."
In 1950, our Dad, 26 years old and Pratt Institute (Brooklyn) graduate with a degree in Design, became a senior designer and assistant to Florence Knoll. With her architectural background and design flair, Florence developed the revolutionary "Planning Unit.” Dad was one of Knoll’s first designers who came specifically to work in the Planning Unit, which became one of the company’s main engines of success.
"Florence would do the rough outline, and I would develop and refine it further," Dad would later recall.
Florence relied heavily on Dad’s 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 Dad's pieces are the wooden joints he often employed to avoid 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 narrowly escaped his native Estonia during the ravages of WW2. He fled to Sweden, where he met his future bride Tosia, a refuge from Poland. They married and were relocated to Canada, from where they made their way to the US, settling on Long Island. When we knew them, they had a charming house and barn in Syosset, NY, not far from our homestead in East Norwich. (For more on Heino's story, see below.)
One day, Heino, a textile vendor, showed up at Knoll. Instead of the usual reams of swatches to sift through, Heino created beautiful geometric framed art pieces from the various fabrics to showcase them. Dad and Florence were so impressed with his creativity that they immediately recruited him for 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 Planning Unit until I resigned in 1965."
When Florence left the company, Dad became head of the Planning Unit.
A Lifelong Friendship
My parents became lifelong friends with Heino and Tosia. Our family still retains pieces of Heino's artwork, gifted to my parents over the years. More importantly, we hold fond memories of these dear family friends. Unable to have children, Tosia seemed fascinated by the six Dad and Mom had, and loved to interact with us. And I cannot express the kindness and gentleness of Heino, a talented but modest gentleman.
In 2002, Florence Knoll received the National Medal of Arts, the highest award for any artist. Over 40 Knoll designs can be found in the permanent design collection of The Museum of Modern Art in NYC. Our family is delighted to find Dad's furniture designs growing in popularity—easily found and some for sale on several websites.
When Heino was about 16 the German Army occupied Estonia. Since he was underage, he was forced to work in the motor pool, repairing vehicles. Because of his age, he was treated fairly well by the German soldiers. When the Russians advanced, the Germans fled and Heino made his way home. The house was empty and his family gone. (He later found out his family had survived but he never saw them again.)
He decided to escape to the coast, nearly twenty miles away, riding a bicycle with a flat tire. He then made his way to a fishing boat filled with people leaving for Sweden. Someone stole the distributor cap from the engine and was holding it for ransom. One of the passengers pulled a gun on the thief, threatening to shoot him if he didn’t hand it over. They got the distributor back and were on their way.
I believe the boat broke down in the middle of the Baltic Sea but they were rescued by the Swedish Coast Guard and taken to Sweden. There he met Tosia, his future bride.
After the war they were considered refugees and they had a choice of being sent to either Canada or Brazil. Heino later said that he didn’t want to be a lumberjack and he hated the cold weather so he chose Brazil. His goal was to get to the US and I believe they eventually got a visa and came here in 1955.
(Further family lore is of Heino’s father escaping the Russian revolution around 1917. Shot by the Russians, his father stuck his thumb in the bullet hole to staunch the bleeding and fled!)