By the 1940s, Mid-Century modernism had hit its stride. Of a group of early pioneers of talent and initiative, which included Hans Knoll and Jack Lenor Larsen, a great emerging designer was Harvey Probber, born in 1922 in Brooklyn. While still in high school Probber decided to try his hand at furniture design and at 16 sold his first design—a sofa—to Superior Upholstery for $10. He commuted into Manhattan to acquire additional customers at the wholesale showroom New York Furniture Exchange. Largely self-educated in furniture design, construction and frame making, Probber’s only formal education was evening classes at Pratt Institute— working by day as designer at Trade Upholstery for $35 a week.
After a two-year stint in the Coast Guard in the 1940s, Probber had a brief secondary career as a cabaret singer. When it became clear that furniture making provided the steadier income of the two careers, he started Harvey Probber, Inc. in 1945, after which Probber became one of the country’s premier designers. His work embraced an opulent and elegant approach through the use of exotic woods with hand-rubbed finishes, lacquered pieces, bright colors and rich upholstery fabrics– a departure from Bauhaus-influenced designers’ often, spare approaches to materials. “Probber was a modernist in beautiful materials” said Evan Lobel , owner of Lobel Modern Gallery in Manhattan.
Harvey Probber ebonized mahogany and rosewood oval dining table and chairs
In 1947 Probber brought his line to Grand Rapids, Michigan, a center for the furniture manufacturing industry. In 1948 he opened a showroom at 136 Fifth Avenue in New York, and within a decade Harvey Probber, Inc. had become a leader in contemporary furniture in the U.S. Several of his designs were chosen for MOMA’s Good Design exhibition in 1951, including his elastic sling chair.
Most notably, Probber was largely considered “a pioneer in the application of modular seating” (quote attributed to Stanley Abercrombie and George Nelson, 1955). In Probber’s own words, “the key to salvation was in bits and pieces of plane geometry… they were meaningless alone, but when fused to conventional shapes, profoundly altered their character”. Nineteen elements, in the form of wedges, half circles, quadrants and corner sections which could be assembled into any desired configuration by clients in his showroom became known as the Sert Group, named after Spanish-born architect Josep Lluis Sert (who later became head of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design). Probber furthered the concept by the introduction of “nuclear furniture”, tables and pedestals, which, like his seating, could be clustered into varying and flexible configurations.
Four piece modular sofa, Harvey Prober, Inc.
In 1957 he purchased an abandoned textile mill in Fall River, Massachusetts. He equipped the facility with a metalworking shop for fabricating stainless steel , an upholstery shop and laminating press for plywood and curved wood pieces thereby creating a start-to-finish manufacturing facility. Again, Probber employed a modular approach in that clients were allowed to customize almost any design in the collections according to specific requirements of size, color and finish. In the 1960’s he introduced a line of case goods, — with many variations on one basic design, such as finishes, bases and hardware—differences which were largely cosmetic, and therefore economic to produce.
By the 1970s Harvey Probber, Inc. had abandoned the residential market for the more lucrative field of contract furniture. One of his designs was a crescent shaped conference desk– of which a custom made variation was made for then-President Lyndon B. Johnson’s personal use. Probber won two Best of Neocon Gold Awards from the Resources Council of the Institute of Business Designers, one in 1977 for his Houston executive swivel chair, and another in 1981, and continued to explore his passion for modular seating.
In a 1958 interview, Probber described “the quality of aging gracefully” as design’s fourth dimension.