Category: Furniture

Junzo Sakakura, Japanese Modernist

Junzo Sakakura (坂倉 準三)(b.1901), a Le Corbusier protégé, was credited as being one of the first Japanese architects to blend western modernism with traditional eastern architecture. 

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Junzo Sakakura

Sakakura graduated from the Tokyo Imperial University with a degree in Art History in 1927.  After developing an interest in architecture, Sakakura abandoned art history, travelled to France and embarked on a career in architecture.  After a two-year course in architectural construction, Sakakura entered Le Corbusier’s prestigious Paris atelier for a 5-year internship.  Under Le Corbusier’s tutelage, Sakakura assisted in urban planning and residential designs, as well as competitions, including Le Corbusier’s proposal for the Palace of the Soviets, the Russian Pavilion for the 1937 Paris International Exposition.  Sakakura’s talents were unmistakable and he eventually rose to the position of studio chief, counseling students in Le Corbusier’s absence.

After a brief return to Japan, Sakakura again journeyed to France in 1936 to begin finalizing and supervising the construction of his previously rejected plans for the Japanese Pavilion for the 1937 Paris International Exposition.  A submission by Kunio Maekawa had been favored by the Exposition Committee, but was ultimately rejected as being too modern and lacking any characteristics of traditional Japanese architecture.  This, of course, enraged Maekawa and he accused the Committee of “merely repeating the presentation of an obsolete style of architecture, which may well be an insult to the nation.”  Sakakura’s pavilion, built on the Exposition grounds at the base of the Eiffel Tower, was said to be “a delicate balance between modernist design principles and traditional Japanese aesthetics.”  Sakakura, having only two years of architectural engineering training, “locked himself away in a Parisian hotel” to finalize the plans for the pavilion, relying at times on the technological expertise of Le Corbusier and his staff.  Despite the obstacles architectural engineering sometimes presented, Sakakura’s design won the Diplôme de Grand Prix and brought the young architect world-wide recognition.

In 1939, when Sakakura returned to Japan, the Second Sino-Japanese War had “pushed the Japanese economy and military to the limit,” and Japan’s continued expansionist practices had forced western allies to freeze assets and impose embargoes that further limited resources essential for architectural development.  But while projects in Japan were scarce, the occupation of China’s Manchuria region provided opportunities for Sakakura and other young architects.  At the request of the Japanese government, Sakakura was asked to plan a new mixed-use suburban settlement on Nanhu (South Lake), China.  The South Lake Complex was reflective of Le Corbusier’s plans for Ville Radieuse on the Left Bank of Paris.  Deemed “too grandiose,” Sakakura’s plan was rejected and, like Le Corbusier’s plans for Ville Radieuse, went unrealized.  

In addition to the South Lake Complex, Sakakura began researching and developing prefabricated housing for the Japanese military.   

In December 1941, Japan invaded Thailand, bombed Pearl Harbor, and attacked Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong, as well as the US territories of Guam and the Philippines.     WWII had begun and in April of 1942, the US began aerial bombing on mainland Japan.   

While prefabricated housing had fundamental beginnings as early as the 1920s, Sakakura, following the lead of Jean Prouvé and Pierre Jeanneret, perfected a portable and easily assembled prefab structure for the growing Japanese Imperial Army.  By 1945, 60,000 meters of the housing had been produced and sent to the frontlines for use as barracks for the military, which had grown from 375,000 active troops to 5 million in four years.  

By 1945, Tokyo and other Japanese cities had sustained heavy damage from Allied bombing raids, including the total destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Millions of people became homeless, business and industry was in ruins, and malnutrition and starvation was rampant due to the destruction of rice crops and shipping blockades.  Realizing defeat, Japan surrendered to the Allies on August 15, 1945, and by September, the US began an occupation to establish democracy, and rebuild the economy and infrastructure of the country. 

In 1947, Sakakura opened his Tokyo and Osaka offices, so by the 1950s, when Japan’s economy had rebounded and rebuilding had begun, he was ready to be part of the revitalization of Japan.  In 1951, due to his ability to design structures using a minimum of materials, Sakakura won his first major commission, the Museum of Modern Art in Kamakura.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Sakakura designed over 300 projects including hotels, municipal offices, transit stations, recreational facilities, gas stations and department stores, and established himself as a preeminent modernist architect.  On September 1, 1969, at the height of his career, Sakakura died of heart failure at the age of 68.

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COLUMN 1 (Top): Hiraoka Municipal Office, Osaka, Japan, 1964 (Photo: Unknown); (Middle, left): Saga Prefectural Gymnasium, Saga, Japan, 1963 (Photo: Unknown); (Middle, right): Junzo Sakakura (Photo: Unknown); (Bottom): West Plaza of Shinjuku Station and Parking Lots, 1967 (Photo: Masao Arai Photographic Department, New Construction Company/ Sakakura & Associates); COLUMN 2 (Top): Lobby, Silk Center/Silk Hotel, Kanagawa, Japan, 1959  (Photo: Eastern Photography/Sakakura & Associates); (Bottom): Hirano residence, interior, Hyogo, Japan, 1962 (Photo: Shinkentiku-sha Photo Department Toshio Taira/Sakakura & Associates)
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COLUMN 1 (Top): Detail of Model No. 5016 Lounge Chair for Tendo Mokko, 1957 (Photo: Unknown); (Bottom): Model No. 3221 Side Chair for Tendo Mokko, 1953 (Photo Galerie Pierre Mahaux); COLUMN 2 (Top):  Antler table for Tendo Mokko, 1950s (Photo: Pamono); (Middle): Antler table detail (Photo, modified: 1st Dibs); (Bottom): Junzo Sakakura (Photo, modified: Agency for Cultural Affairs, Japan)

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Erik Gunnar Asplund, Swedish Grace

“Always in touch with the great and simple things that lie at the bottom of all human experience.” –Bjorn Linn

Erik Gunnar Asplund, born 1885 in Stockholm, Sweden, was a neoclassical (Swedish Grace) and functionalist architect. Regarded as a “sensitive interpreter of a changing society,” Asplund is credited with introducing functionalism to Sweden.

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Erik Gunnar Asplund
Asplund’s original aspirations were to be an artist, but it is said that his father encouraged him to pursue a “safer profession.” So, in 1905, Asplund enrolled at Stockholm’s Kungliga Tekska Hogskolan (KTH Royal Institute of Technology) where, in 1909, he earned a degree in architectural engineering, after which he enrolled at the Kungliga Konsthögskolans Arkitekskola (School of Architecture of the Royal College of Fine Arts) for three years of aesthetic training in accordance with Sweden’s requirements for architectural students. However, in 1910, having become disillusioned by the traditional teachings of the academy and their disinterest in recognizing emerging artistic movements and social issues, Asplund left the school and, with several fellow students, created the privately financed night school, Klara Skola, where progressive architects, Carl Westmann, Ivar Tengborn, Carl Bergsten and Ragnar Ostberg were invited to teach. After finishing his studies at Klara Skola, and brief positions at the Stockholm Municipal Building Authority and the architectural practice of Isak Gustaf Claso, Asplund opened his own private practice in 1913.
Due to a robust architectural competition system in Sweden, Asplund’s practice, as well as his reputation, developed quickly. Industrialization was sweeping Europe, and Sweden was undergoing social and political movements that reflected a desire for change. In addition to the public projects awarded through the competitions, he undertook a broad range of commissions including private villas and industrial buildings.
Asplund’s practice was never more than 4 to 5 employees as he wanted to maintain a “hands-on” involvement with every facet of the project, including designs for the furniture used in the completed project. He was said to be meticulous and paid “painstaking attention to detail.” Not only did he drive himself hard, but he expected his assistants to do the same. Asplund and his staff maintained a grueling 16-hour day; 8am to midnight, with a 4-hour break at 4pm. Regardless, a position in Asplund’s practice was coveted. Alvar Aalto was among the many applicants that were unsuccessful in their attempt to join Asplund’s renowned practice.
With the success of his practice, Asplund was able to self-fund his “Grand Tour,” a traditional pilgrimage taken by European architectural students in the final years of their studies. Having dropped out of the Academy prior to graduation, Asplund was barred from applying for Stipendieresa (travel scholarships), which were awarded to outstanding students. In late 1913, Asplund traveled to Paris, then Italy, where he spent 6 months recording the architectural sights and cultural experiences in over three hundred pages of notes and sketches. Upon seeing the ancient Roman temples at Paestum, he wrote in his journal, ”The temples need the height, the need to get there increases the reverence.”
Upon his return to Sweden and throughout the 1920s, Asplund’s work took a slow and deliberate departure from the Classical elements of architecture that had been the primary focus of so many Swedish Neo-classical architects during the beginning of the twentieth century. The emerging industrialization and democratizing of Sweden called for change, and Asplund fully embraced the Scandinavian humanitarian social movement that was developing at that time. The acceptance of those changes was most evident at the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition.
Built on the banks of Djurgården, an island in the Swedish harbor, the Stockholm Exhibition hosted nearly four million visitors between May and September of 1930. After Le Corbusier rejected an invitation to design and organize the Exhibition, Asplund was invited to fill the role Le Corbusier turned down. As head architect of the Exhibition, he displayed his most radical departure from his previous Neo-classical work and designed the entire exhibit in a functional style inspired by the Bauhaus.
In conjunction with the Stockholm Exhibition, Asplund, along with co-authors Wolter Gahn, Sven Markelius, Gregor Paulsson, Eskil Sundahl, and Uno Ahren, published Acceptera!, a modernist manifesto extolling the virtues of functionalism. Asplund said, “We have no need of the old culture’s outgrown forms in order to maintain our self-respect,” and went as far as to criticize his previous designs.
Throughout the 30s, Asplund continued his usual exhausting pace. Notable designs such as the Bredenberg Department Store, furniture for the Swedish Society of Crafts and Design, multiple summer homes, and the State Bacteriological Laboratory, were among the more than seventy projects Asplund had designed by the late 30s.
In addition to his architectural practice, he was a worldwide lecturer, and a professor of architecture at the Royal Institute of Technology and the Royal Art Institute of Stockholm (1931-1940). This demanding workload, however, took a toll on his personal life. In 1934, his first marriage to Gerda Sellman, already strained due to his wife’s increasing interest in fundamentalist religion, ended in divorce. Asplund then became embroiled in a controversial relationship with Ingrid Wahlman, the wife of friend and colleague, Lars Israel Wahlman, which ended in divorce for the Wahlmans and a second marriage for Asplund.
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Erik Gunnar Asplund
In the late 30s, Asplund completed the final plans for the Göteborgs Rådhus, a competition won in 1917. The design was revised to include such modernizations as glass elevators, water fountains and telephone booths. When designing chairs for the defendant’s “dock,” Asplund asked “why should someone who was innocent until proved guilty sit in a less comfortable seat than anyone else?”
In 1940, Asplund’s greatest architectural achievement was realized — Skogskyrkogården (the Woodland Cemetery) in southern Stockholm. In 1914, upon Asplund’s return to Sweden from his Grand Tour, he and Klara Skola classmate, Sigurd Lewerentz, entered and won a competition to design the Woodland Cemetery. Considered to be Asplund’s most important contribution to Swedish modernist architecture, the planning of the cemetery would take a quarter of a century to complete. Their approach was to integrate the cemetery, chapel and mortuary into the existing Nordic forest landscape. Comprising nearly 250 acres, the landscape is said to be an “emotional experience” and the Woodland Crematorium is said to be “one of the truly compelling buildings of the twentieth century.” The 25-year project underwent multiple changes, including the addition of two additional chapels and the eventual dismissal of Lewerentz from the project. The project was completed in late 1940 — four months before the death of Asplund.
Erik Gunnar Asplund died at the age of 55. His funeral was the first to be conducted at the Chapel of the Holy Cross at Skogskyrkogården. His ashes are memorialized with a plaque inscribed “hans verk lever” (“his works live”).
Skogskyrkogården was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.
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ROW 1: Paradise Cafe and Swedish Pavilion Entrance, Swedish Exhibition, 1930; Stockholm City Library (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Author Arild Vågen); ROW 2: Göteborgs Rådhus (Gothenburg City Courthouse) (Photo: Wikimedia Commons Author: B****n); Snellman Villa,1917 (Photo: Andreas Buschmann); ROW 3: Gunnar Asplund (public domain); Armchair (designed for the Göteborgs Law Courts, 1935 (Photo: Phillips); Skogskyrkogarden (Woodland) Crematorium Portico; ROW 4: Model 501 Göteborg 1 Chair, 1936 (Designed for the Göteborgs Rådhus (Gothenburg City Courthouse)(Photo: Archiexpo); GA-2 chair for Källemo, 1930 (Photo: Bukowski’s)

Neal Small, “Prince of Plastics”

Self-taught designer and early plastics pioneer, Neal Small (b. 1937) was known as the “Prince of Plastics” in his Chelsea neighbor where he opened up shop in the 1960s.

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Before he left plastic industrial design to concentrate on a quiet life in the woods of Maine, Small created a number of innovative and iconic designs, including the “Origami” magazine holder and the Model 5031 acrylic coffee table. The 5031 coffee table, crafted from a single sheet of acrylic, was lauded as one of the purest modern forms of the time. Small still resides in Maine, and if you’re lucky, you may catch a glimpse of him driving around town in his black Subaru…that just happens to be adorned with black rats. Plastic ones, of course.

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Tapio Wirkkala, Finnish Master of Many Mediums

Finnish industrial designer, Tapio Wirkkala (1915-1985), was a master in the many mediums he used for his designs in glassware, tableware, cutlery, jewelry, art glass, furniture and more.

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Tapio Wirkkala

An artist and sculptor at heart, Wirkkala’s work took a necessary, practical approach after the war and turned to industrial design. A recluse that preferred the isolation of the woodlands of Lapland, Wirkkala’s main inspiration was nature and the frozen landscape of his homeland. He translated that love of home into some of his most well-known designs such as the iconic Ultima Thule (Ultima Thule is a mythological distant place located beyond the “borders of the known world”) and Aslak (a Finnish boy’s name meaning “supporter of Thorgest,” a 9th century Viking chief) glassware for Iittala.

Wirkkala also created an extensive collection of porcelain and stoneware for Rosenthal Ag starting in 1956, a career which produced eight tableware services and over 200 porcelain decorative objects, and colorful, blown glass for Venini.

And while Wirkkala is known for some of the most beautiful, modernist housewares of the mid-century, he’s also known for many utilitarian masterpieces. A plastic ketchup bottle (Paulig Company), an incandescent light bulb (Airam), the Finnish markka banknotes (1955-1981), and the Finlandia “Frozen Ice” vodka bottle (1970-2000).

A modest man, Wirkkala was “a maestro without a maestro’s affections.”

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Row 1: “Avena” vase for Iitala, 1970; “Alpina” vase for Iitala, 1966; “Ultima Thule” glass for Iitala, 1968; “Kalvolan Kanto” vase for Iittala, 1948; Row 2: Model 9020 coffee table for Akso, est. 1958; silver pendant, 1957 (photo credit: Wright 20).

Franco Albini, Italian Neo-Rationalist

“There are no ugly objects, they need only be displayed properly.” –Franco Albini

Franco Albini (b. 1905) was an Italian Neo-Rationalist architect and designer. Neo-rationalism was a minimalist aesthetic movement that emphasized geometric forms and raw materials. Unlike its neo-classical predecessor, neo-rationalism eschewed ornamentation, and emphasized the practicality and functionality of a structure.

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After earning an architecture degree in 1929, Albini joined Studio Ponti é Lancia and became an assistant to Gio Ponti and Emilio Lancia. By 1931, and during the height of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime, Albini opened his own practice with partners, Renato Camus and Giancarlo Palanti. Together they designed “social housing” for the Instituto Fascist Autonomo per la Case Populari.

While many of Albini’s contemporaries fell victim to Mussolini, Albini persevered and explored new progressive design despite the watchful eye of the nationalist regime and the ravages of WWII bombing on Milan. By 1945, with the end of Mussolini’s regime and the reintroduction of democracy in Italy, Albini began a new era of modern design and introduced the iconic designs we know today. He received three Compasso d’Oro awards, Italy’s most prestigious design accolade. While Albini’s designs for Mussolini’s regime were out of necessity, his desire to “make rational order” of a city torn by war continued throughout his career through his large-scale civic architecture. Albini was awarded his 3rd Compasso d’Oro award for the Milan subway stations in 1964.

Considered a “founding father of Italian design” by many, Albini preferred to call himself a “craftsman.” “It’s through our works that we can best spread our ideas rather than by speaking.”

Franco Albini died in Milan on November 1, 1977.

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Luis Barragan, Mexican Modernist

“Any work of Architecture that does not express serenity is a mistake.” -Luis Barragan

Regarded the “most prominent” Mexican architect, Mexican Modernist, Luis Barragan (b. 1903), was known for his colorful, modernist homes outside of Mexico City.  Barragan, one of nine siblings from a wealthy Mexican ranching family, was an aesthete from an early age.  In a local newspaper, he was quoted as saying that he would notice “the play of shadows on the walls…and how the look of things changed.”

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Luis Barragan

After graduating from the Escuelo Libre de Ingenieros in Guadalajara in 1923 with a Civil Engineering degree, Barragan traveled to Europe and lived in Morocco where he was exposed to Mediterranean and North African architecture.  He was also introduced to the writings of landscape architect, Ferdinand Mac, as well as meeting Le Corbusier, both of whom would be influential throughout his career.  But unlike Le Corbusier, who believed a house should be a “machine for living,” Barragan believed his homes should be a “refuge” and not a “cold piece of convenience.”  Barragan eschewed the trend of functionalism and minimalism, and devoted his life to creating “emotional architecture.”  A gifted landscape architect, he developed his own style using “natural siting,” taking great care to incorporate the natural features of the landscape into his buildings.

Barragan’s designs were also reflective of the Mexican climate and culture.  The harsh climate necessitated “structural simplicity” and “few materials.”  The intense sun and wind, as well as economic restrictions were major influences.  Barragan, instead, used this to his advantage.  The walls of the courtyards would block the winds and serve as canvases for sunlight and shadows.  Walls were placed so that sun would cast a variety of shapes onto the courtyards throughout the day.  Using hidden openings to capture sunlight, shafts of light would serve a dual purpose of art and lighting. 

In addition to being a gifted architect and landscape designer, Barragan was a talented furniture designer, although he only designed for individual projects.  

His work has been described as “poetic,” “mythical,” and “monastic.”  Barragan’s devotion to  Catholicism can be seen in his work.  He created homes, as well as religious spaces, that  reflected quietude and meditation.

Barragan was an intensely private man so little is known about his personal life.  Anecdotes point to a kind, but somewhat eccentric man.  He was a generous gift-giver and he supported and encouraged fellow artists by commissioning works for his projects and personal home.  He wore English sport coats and ascots, and was known to cancel lunch plans “if the light was not right.”  

In 1980, Luis Barragan won the “nobel prize of architecture,” the Pritzker, “for his commitment to architecture as a sublime act of the poetic imagination.”

Luis Barragan died from complications due to Parkinson’s Disease in 1988.  

“Solitude.  Only in intimate communion with solitude may man find himself.  Solitude is good company and my architecture is not for those who fear or shun it.” -Luis Barragan

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Frederick Kiesler, Modernist Visionary

ml_Frederick Kiesler_200Frederick Kiesler (1890–1965) was a polarizing figure that stirred conventional thought and caused consternation with his outlandish ideas of curved walls and biomorphic furniture featured in his 1942 interior design for Peggy Guggenheim’s “Art of This Century” gallery. Kiesler arrived in New York in 1926 from his homeland of Ukraine, bringing with him avant-garde ideas learned as the youngest member of de Stijl. Kiesler was a multi-disciplined artist that believed “form does not follow function. Function follows vision. Vision follows reality.” Called “the greatest non-building architect of our time,” Kiesler’s unbuilt visions of a home that connected to its inhabitants through solar energy, sensory lighting and large screens splashed with art seem prescient of today’s interactive and electronic home innovations. Deemed a charlatan by some and a visionary by others, Kiesler’s evocative ideas continue to be thought-provoking.

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Column 1:  Frederick Kiesler; Marcel DuChamp, mixed media, 1947 (Photo:  MoMA); Column 2:  Multi-use Chair, 1942 (Photo:  MoMA); Nesting Coffee Table 1935-38 (Photo: MoMA); “Horse Galaxy,” Mixed media installation, 1954 (Photo: Jason McCoy Gallery, New York); Column 3: Dying Horse, bronze, 1963 (Photo: Jason McCoy Gallery, New York); Totem for All Religions, Wood and Rope, 1947 (Photo: MoMA)