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||In less than six months, Form and Function has become the destination for anyone looking for modernist furniture and objects. The New York store may be filled with rarely-seen gems like a cross between a design museum and a '50s party but you can actually walk in off the street and poke around without feeling uninvited. The friendly atmosphere is due entirely to the owners, and no wonder, as Form and Function was opened by Jim Walrod, a furniture dealer who'd experienced the "don't ask, don't touch" policy in other people's stores; Fred Schneider, who sings with the B-52's; and Jack Feldman, who, we found out, wrote the Barry Manilow hit, "Copacabana."
Fred and Jack had been clients of Jim's, and both shared his passion for ferreting out the great-but-neglected pieces that appealed to them personally. Together, they've created something special. Because at a time when everyone seems to be rediscovering mid-century modernism, and most stores stock classic but overly familiar pieces, Form and Function has become a place to find the unexpected. We went by recently, and Jim Walrod gave us a guided tour of his favorite pieces in the store.
PETER: How exactly do pieces end up here? Are people bringing them in to you? Or are you doing the detective work and going out to find them?
JIM: We barely buy anything that walks through the door. It's more about seeing something in a period photograph, in an interior, and asking, "What's that?" Then we do the research backwards from there, finding out what it is, where to get it ... It's a very missing-persons type of process.
PETER: So you know what you want.
JIM: Well, what is my job unless I'm actually going to put something in here that nobody has ever seen before? The night I opened, I had fifteen dealers who walked up to me and said, "What is this stuff? I've never seen it." And these are people who have been in this business for nine or ten years. And their galleries are filled with Herman Miller furniture. So it was shocking to me that they didn't have a clue about this stuff. That's why it's my responsibility to provide my clientele with more of an overall picture of what modernism was really about.
PETER: You were telling me what everything here had in common.
JIM: Basically, the forms didn't exist before 1942. Whether it was experiments in plywood, bent metals, attaching metal to rubber or to plywood, or the use of fiberglass being able to get more of a three-dimensional form from two-dimensional materials it wasn't really possible before World War II.
PETER: In architecture and design in general, there's a renewed interest in modernism now. Rem Koolhaas and Jean Nouvel have been around for a while, but there seem to be a lot of new people working who are recognizing the possibilities of technology and form.
JIM: I always wonder about designers working today. Most don't know if their stuff is an art or a craft or a piece of design. I never understood the idea of doing one table for a gallery. I don't know who it serves. If they experimented the same way as the great designers did, with materials that can be mass-produced, there would be a trickle-down effect, a more utopian effect, and they could get their stuff into homes and out in the world. So now, Koolhaas, god bless him for doing what he does. God bless Mark Newsome for doing what he does. And other designers that are actually working with current technologies.
PETER: A lot of the design we value today was a failure when it first entered the marketplace. Is almost everything doomed to commercial failure when it starts out?
JIM: I don't think so.
PETER: I guess there are Eames chairs.
JIM: There has to be cooperation between manufacturers and designers, and that's why the Eames chairs were successful. Charles and Ray Eames saw that a market was there, and they were actually working with a price point! I mean, there's a Noguchi radio from 1942 that was made for Zenith, and on the back it says, "Designed by Noguchi." He was a preeminent sculptor of the period who actually went into the design field to produce something that was marketable, that worked with new materials. It was priced so that it could be sold, and it was also something artistic that could be in anyone's house. It could be in a child's room but still look like a Japanese death mask! And it echoes almost every other piece of work that he was doing at that time.
PETER: Yeah, it's an amazing piece.
JIM: So a lot of it has to do with the designers themselves, but there's also no real place in the United States for designers to go with their work. They have to leave the country, and go to the Italians, to a company like Giuliati and Brazzini. At their own expense, basically, fly themselves there and show prototypes that they've also had to pay for. I don't know any young designers who can actually afford to even open the door a tiny bit to get their furniture produced. So when it does get produced, it's expensive so out of the realm of what an Eames chair sold for in its time.
PETER: And for somebody who likes to buy furniture, you can't get it in the United States anyway.
JIM: Any time you look through a design yearbook, and you see something you'd love to have, there's no outlet for it. And it's not even art furniture. This is contemporary furniture dealing with the technologies and thought of today.
PETER: It's so weird that in a place like New York, where you can get anything from anywhere in the world, you can't get furniture manufactured by an Italian designer.
JIM: Or how about Los Angeles? It's really sad. The overall idea of what design is now in the United States is Ikea, which is derivative of '50s furniture. Although '50s furniture, the real stuff, is seen through the eyes of people who have stepped away from Ikea, and are actually putting two and two together. When they see an Eames chair or a piece of Scandinavian furniture, they're like, "Oh, that's what this is!" But if the big design movement in the United States right now is Ikea, that's really sad. If that's the step-off point, everything is going to be derivative of '50s furniture or Scandinavian furniture and it's all Ikea-esque.
PETER: Since Form and Function opened, you've gotten a lot of attention. I always think it's fascinating when somebody is written up as just a phenomenon or a cool phenomenon especially for someone like yourself.
JIM: Well, that hipness is the least thing I wanted for this place. I mean, I've been stopped in galleries where I was almost asked to empty my pockets you know, because I'm younger. That's what I wanted to remedy here. I want the kid from Parsons to be able to come in and touch things, pick them up, ask a question. Because I also wanted to reexamine exactly what modernism is. I could have easily put 50,000 Eames chairs in here and just pumped them out the door. But that's not what I do. I wanted to show exactly what was going on during the period. And I wasn't just interested in looking at the best work made here in America, or the best work by the Italians or the French. I went back and examined what the French were looking at in the United States, at what the Italians were looking at in France. And they weren't the obvious things that you would expect.
PETER: Well, as someone who has a casually persistent interest in furniture design, it's so much fun, because I hardly know what anything is. It's like walking into a museum where you're looking at things that are obviously beautiful but don't fit into the official canon.
JIM: They really shouldn't. There shouldn't be one standard picture of what modernism is. There is no difference between an Eames chair and a flying carpet chair by Ettore Sottsass. The thought process is exactly the same.
PETER: Let's have a look at some of your favorite pieces.
JIM: This is the first piece of furniture produced by Charles and Ray Eames. It's a child's chair.
PETER: Why would they produce a child's chair? Was it a little game?
JIM: They were producing furniture in their house at that point. They couldn't do full-size pieces and they had to make their experiments cost-effective. So they produced 500 of these chairs, which are as flimsy as could possibly be. Once a child is past six or seven months, the thing is going to crack or shatter.
PETER: And they don't even sit up until six or seven months.
JIM: But here is the aesthetic of what modern furniture was going to be about almost in its most primitive, raw form, which I really love. It's three-dimensional because you have bows that come off of it, and they poked a heart in the back to actually do something lyrical with it.
PETER: What year is it?
JIM: It's from 1946.
PETER: So all this got started just after the war?
JIM: In the United States, it was the first time that artists were employed by large manufacturers. Isamu Noguchi, for example, worked for the Herman Miller Furniture Company.
PETER: How did that happen? Was that of necessity or desire on Noguchi's part?
JIM: It was the utopian desire to try to bring something artistic into the house at an affordable price, which is what the mass-produced furniture company was about. The Herman Miller Furniture Company produced what you see of '30s furniture in this country, which was bland, banal and just horrible no thought whatsoever went into it. Then a young man named Gilbert Rohde came along. He was a young designer, a Calvinist, who went into the Midwest almost like a snake oil salesman. He convinced the owner of Herman Miller that he wasn't doing God's will by giving this bland furniture to the masses, that there should be a more artistic approach. And he believed that you should educate people. So they hired him as the Artistic Director of Herman Miller, and the company boomed. They began doing an Art Deco-esque Machine Age line that people really went for. It was the most artistic mass-produced furniture then on the market.
Brody died fairly early, and then George Nelson became Artistic Director of Herman Miller. Nelson also served as a judge for the Museum of Modern Art's Good Design Competition, which was sponsored by Edgar Kaufman, who was one of the great champions of modern design of the 20th century.
PETER: He built Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water house.
JIM: And he was also a sponsor for the Case Study Houses in L.A. It was set up as a competition where students could go in with their best designs, and he would produce the furniture.
PETER: At MoMA?
PETER: Gee, they should bring that back.
JIM: Gee, yeah. And that's where all these forms came from originally. That's where the first collaborations between Eames and Saarinen came from. They were the winners of the 1943 Good Design Show. So to have an institution like the Museum of Modern Art actually pushing design forward, it's just an amazing thing. And it was George Nelson who found Charles and Ray Eames and brought them to the Museum of Modern Art.
PETER: As we talk, you're standing in front of this lamp which is so unbelievable, and I have no idea what the fuck it is.
JIM: [Laughs] It's Italian, from the late '50s. It's a robot form. It's incredible, but I don't think that any dealer in his right mind in New York would actually touch it. The way the marketplace is right now, it's not exactly the type of thing that would fly out the door.
PETER: Oh, really? If I had a few bucks, it would.
JIM: I had a few bucks, and it flew right out of where it was. I wasn't going to let it stay there!
PETER: But people buy all sorts of junk. This is just clearly a beautiful and complexly-thought-out and eccentric piece. What's wrong with it?
JIM: It doesn't fall into the realm of what '50s feeling is supposed to be. But it uses every single one of the technologies from that period, whether it be hollowed metal or locking devices or glass-blowing. And just because it's a tad off-center, it would take so much more of an explanation than just your standard lamp with an aluminum cone.
PETER: Another piece we can look at?
JIM: The George Nelson bench. We've all seen it. Usually we see them with black trapezoid legs that go down. This was one of the earliest examples, with aluminum legs, and it was only produced for a year. When most people see it, they think there's something wrong with it. So this is one of the pieces that has sat in the gallery the longest.
PETER: So it's the real experiment, the real way the piece was put together when he thought about it?
JIM: When I look at a piece of furniture, the first thing I want to see is the thought process behind it. And I like it when it's almost at its most experimental, when the screws are wrong, the slats don't make sense. You can see the thinking within the piece.
PETER: What about this table?
JIM: The first table by Charles and Ray Eames a complete design failure. You have to remember that the reason there are so few of a lot of these pieces is that they were failures as far as the design. This table has bent plywood legs, and the second you move it this way or that way, the leg is going to crack and be destroyed. Luckily, when we found this table, somebody had actually covered it in white laminate, which had to be carefully peeled off.
PETER: That must have been quite a job.
JIM: It was. So this isn't the most thought-out table. It's really incredibly charming because it's not. In fact, it's a very desired piece. The reason why I like it is that it's a complete failure as far as design, but by somebody who is thought of as the ultimate designer from that period.
PETER: How did they fix it?
JIM: It evolved having metal legs that pulled down. They never actually experimented with a wooden leg again after this. But mistakes are mistakes, and they always become charming.
PETER: And these lamps?
JIM: They're from the Heifetz Lighting Company, which won the Museum of Modern Art Good Design Award.
PETER: I don't know anything about that.
JIM: Nobody does. The Museum of Modern Art doesn't even know what these things are. In 1951, Marcel Breuer said, "Okay, you're sponsoring good design as far as furniture, why don't you do something with lighting?" So they held a competition, and the sponsor was the Heifetz Lighting Company. They called a bunch of industrial people, not even lighting designers, and said, "See what you can come up with." Well, there were 2,000 entries, and out of ten winners, nine were from the Heifetz Lighting Company! But they're beautiful, they did things that no American lighting company had ever done before. They are the best American lighting that was ever produced.
PETER: They're wonderful.
JIM: But the lamps were all scaled-up to display size in the Museum of Modern Art, so they were never actually produced for home use.
PETER: You know, when it comes to American furniture in the '50s, I've always found that you can't mix it with other periods because it has such a distinct scale.
JIM: Yes, it is very strange.
PETER: Do you think everything got scaled-down a little bit after the war for apartments and so forth?
JIM: Yeah. It was always very tiny and very slight. It was the first time GIs were actually going to be able to come home from a war and afford a house, and the idea of having something good and not cluttering a place had a lot to do with the size of things.
PETER: Do you think this functionalism from the war mentality sort of carried over?
JIM: Sure. But it's not easy stuff to live with. Most of the people who come to '50s furniture as a trend are going to find out really fast that it's not exactly the easiest thing or the most lush thing to live with. Most people just fall away from the collecting of it because they don't see the purity in it.
PETER: And does it tend to come mostly from the U.S. in the '50s and Italy in the '60s?
JIM: No. It all happened at once. The Italians were doing it at the same time as the Americans and the French. And they were all looking at each other.
PETER: But in the '60s in Italy, things really took off with Pop-influenced furniture.
JIM: When people think of Italian design, they always imagine this crazy Pop furniture, and that's exactly what they did. In America, we put Pop Art on the walls; in Italy they put it on the walls and the floors and made it into a total living environment. And it was a helluva lot cheaper than a Warhol or a Lichtenstein. It was something that could actually be purchased by people who were thinking in those terms. You could walk into an apartment and see a six-foot-high patch of grass that you laid in, that was sort of a happening-type sofa. Or think of Gaetano Pesci's plastic sofas that you invited your friends over to watch as they inflated into a form. So the idea of being able to purchase things like that is just amazing.
PETER: That didn't really happen in the US.
JIM: The thinking wasn't there any more. The artistic approach withered. Of course, things are coming from all over the place, but whether it's America in the '80s or London right now, there's always a hotbed where it's happening in any given moment, and that's usually because it's supported by the culture itself. As it was in Italy during the '60s and in Scandinavia also. It's not just about the Italians. Some of the craziest stuff was produced in Denmark by Verner Panton, who was a complete madman. He's not actually a madman, but it's really funny. Most of his designs were based on the Reitveld Z-chair.
PETER: When is this chair from?
JIM: It's from 1970. He did furniture with these forms and undulating shapes. He just recently died.
PETER: There are also interesting things from Japan in the '60s, right?
JIM: There's great stuff. There was Yuku, and Isozake was doing architecture at that point. And graphically there was great stuff. Yuku's posters are like visual, put-them-on-the-wall acid trips. People tend to forget that avant-garde thought wasn't just centered in one place. It was a world movement, and people were looking at and appreciating things wherever they came from.
PETER: There was a big push for modern furniture and apartments in England after the war. But did that just sort of not work out?
JIM: Well, there is great British modernism, and there are two pieces here ...
PETER: ... that actually work?
JIM: [laughs] British modernism is some of my favorite stuff. You had the Festival of Britain in 1951, which was all about modernism.
PETER: That was kind of a world's fair organized around the idea of modernizing?
JIM: Oh yes. They showed tons of modern furniture. This cabinet here is by Robert Heritage, who is one of the better-known British modernists. It looks like a sea chest with pod legs. [laughs] It's so twisted that I would almost dare someone to tell me the difference between the cut-and-paste theory and this. It's in full effect on this piece!
PETER: I'm actually having a little trouble looking at it. If you think about a compromise between really rigorous ideas and decorating, does this transcend that?
JIM: It transcends it because it's so off-the-map. And here's another piece by Heritage. This chair comes from a silly place. It almost looks as though it's Bauhaus-esque. But he uses Herm¸s leather throughout. So it was like he didn't want to let go of the past, of what British design was about, whether it was a seafaring chest or an Herm¸s leather. He tried to incorporate that past into his work, but ultimately it's a failure in terms of what I generally look at modernism as being, which is the use of materials with an artistic approach.
PETER: But it's strong and it has a sculptural will at the same time ...
JIM: Oh, definitely.
PETER: ... that kind of makes up for that.
JIM: It's a beautiful chair. Although that cabinet looks like it landed on the Moon! [laughs]
PETER: It's a ... thought-provoking piece.
JIM: The other thing people forget is that during this period there was such a baby boom that designers were forced to work with children's furniture. Here's Wendell Castle's "molar chair." He's someone who is known as an arts-and-crafts furniture designer. This is a child's chair in the form of a molar. He's American. He's actually still working, and has gallery shows of his furniture.
PETER: When is this from?
JIM: 1969. And there's also a big one which is a double, which was actually more of the tooth. But this one's so much more lyrical as far as the size and scale of it.
PETER: Can we talk about these sofas that are so beautiful?
JIM: Oh, they're incredible. This one was designed by Luigi Colani. When people talk about avant-garde designers of the '60s and '70s, they generally think of people like Sottsass and Pesci, but Colani's thought process was well beyond what even the Italians accepted and they accepted a lot whether it was Carlo Molino or Sottsass, all the way to the anti-design movement, Super Studio and Archizoom. But they just could not get Colani. Everything was based on the approach of aerodynamic as seen through the eyes of the Ivory Coast.
PETER: Great description.
JIM: He eventually went on, during the mid-to-late-'70s, to produce a ton of product in Japan, where they accepted him with open arms.
PETER: But this is really different. It doesn't have an African motif on it or anything.
JIM: Oh, absolutely not. But it's fluid in nature. It's not a Westernization of African form but what the purity of African form actually is. For me, the huge problem is when contemporary design stays where it is, as just being Westernized, and skims the influence of something instead of actually getting it from the roots. And when that's the case, it has nowhere to go. In fact, when you look at the roots of modernism in this country, it's more like the history of mid-century immigration. Nobody who is actually purely American had anything to do with modernism.
PETER: I always claim that American film, which is supposed to be so American, was basically made by Europeans.
JIM: Absolutely. The same thing with furniture. Eames, Neutra ... Look at Greta Grossman, who came here from Germany. Here's a table of hers from 1948. She was probably the most influential American designer at that point as seen through the eyes of the Italians and the French, and completely forgotten about in the lineage of American furniture. When you look at a Herman Miller catalogue from the late '40s, all the lighting that was used is Greta Grossman's. I've never understood why the importance of her work wasn't appreciated for the longest time. She's almost completely forgotten, but was ridiculously important during the period.
PETER: It's a beautiful table.
JIM: When I first started to find out about her years ago, I used to see her stuff in the Asempi catalogues, which were Italian, and there would be a quarter of a page for a Charles Eames chair, but they'd have an entire page for a table or a desk by Greta Grossman. It's easy to see why it was very influential to the French. One of the great women in modernism.
PETER: What's that incredible drawing up there?
JIM: Ah, Richard Arbib! Richard Arbib was a product designer. He designed the Cadillac tail fin, every single Hamilton electric watch, and he also dated Betty Page! [laughs] He worked in eighty different product categories. He was a Futurist and just an incredible visionary. This drawing is for an electric car that he designed in the '60s. He was also instrumental in designing the fin of the Smart Bomb. He designed just about everything that's become iconic through movies like Men In Black.
PETER: Is there anyone that you're excited about who's coming up now?
JIM: You know, there are kids who are cutting up cars in Miami and lighting them underneath with neon, painting them different colors and making little Art Deco environments for themselves, and nobody has even told them it's design. There are kids who cut up low-rider bikes and don't know anything about arts-and-crafts, they just know what's passed on to them as car culture. They incorporate that into something they can translate into their own design. Those are the people I'm excited about actually seeing where design goes as seen through those eyes. I love the idea that there are kids who have no idea what architecture is, but they're translating what they see around them into their own little mini-environments, into worlds of their own.