Plycraft, Goldman and the Cherner Chair

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Plycraft, Goldman and the Cherner Chair

Researching mid-century modern design often turns up intriguing stories that read like the greatest noir mysteries. In its heyday, bathed in cigarette smoke, Mad Men-esque office politics and liquid lunch-fueled moments of creative genius, it was also an arena of misattribution, talent poaching and court cases.

Norman Cherner armchair, designed for Plycraft, USA, 1958; walnut

One such research session into George Mulhauser turned up a fascinating thread on that addressed Plycraft, its shrewd founder Paul Goldman, and a ‘who created what?’ list of some of the best know and most loved mid-century furniture creations.

Paul R. Goldman, best known as the founder and president of Plycraft, Inc., Lawrence, Massachusetts, died August 12, 2003, in Los Angeles, aged 91. Due to grey areas regarding designer attribution and studio ownership, he is also, often incorrectly, credited with designing most of the famous furniture created by Plycraft from the 50s to the 70s.

Goldman began by building sailboats before moving into the woodworking business in Lawrence. With his initial venture, the Plywood Corp., Goldman developed Plytube, a molded plywood tubing. With this, he designed and manufactured Plytube products for the US military during World War II and the Korean conflict, including masts for the signal corps and dummy aircraft decoys, among other things.

George Mulhauser Mr Chair and ottoman, designed for Plycraft, USA
George Mulhauser Mr Chair and ottoman, designed for Plycraft, USA

After the war, he started making molded plywood furniture and in 1953, started Plycraft, Inc., in Lawrence, making fiberglass-covered boats.  Plycraft produced furniture until 1993 when Goldman was sued (and lost) by the EPA for environmental negligence. He paid a $15,000 fine, and took out a full page apology in local papers for his sins. A year later, the Plycraft building at 139, Canal St. was consumed in a blaze, apparently started by a homeless man.

Plycraft’s assets were sold to American Attelier, which currently produces the Modern Rockwell and the Modern Lounge chairs.

There exists a lot of misinformation about Goldman. He is often referred to as “the father of plywood technology” and a pioneer in the furniture industry. Goldman supposedly designed his own machinery to mold plywood veneer into complex shapes, enabling him to create beautiful and comfortable furniture.

He is also credited with producing a molded chair for Herman Miller, yet he is not listed as a designer or contributor by the company.

Several other chairs, many now considered mid-century modern classics, including the Mr Chair, the Cherner chair and the Rockwell chair, once attributed to Paul Goldman, are now known to have been created by other designers.

In fact, the Rockwell chair is actually the Cherner chair. Once produced by Plycraft, it has been claimed by the heirs of Norman Cherner, who have gone on to found the Cherner Chair Company, and now include reissues of the chair among their catalogue.

Norman Cherner armchairs, set of six, designed for Plycraft, USA, 1958
Norman Cherner armchairs, set of six, designed for Plycraft, USA, 1958

The Rockwell chair, first produced in 1958, is named as such because it appeared in a painting by the renowned artist, Norman Rockwell, on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in September, 1961. However, the story surrounding the Cherner/Rockwell chair still remains somewhat complicated.

When Plycraft originally started producing the Cherner chairs in 1958, the chair was manufactured under the Rockwell name; Goldman allegedly deliberately obscured the authorship of the design. Several designers were originally given credit for the creation, including George Mulhauser, Bernado or Bernardo, and even Goldman himself.

Interestingly, the saga of the Cherner/Rockwell chair began with a design by the ubiquitous mid-century master, George Nelson. In 1957, Nelson’s Pretzel chair (originally designed in 1952) design was scrapped by Herman Miller as being too expensive and fragile.

Norman Cherner was one of many mid-century designers focused on making affordable design a reality, due to an enormous demand for housing in the postwar-era United States. He created a prototype for prefabricated housing that, although not commercially successful, he used within his own home and studio in the late 1950s.

He published books on the subject of affordable design throughout the 1950s, including, Make Your Own Modern Furniture (1953), How to Build a House for Less than $6000 (1957), and Fabricating Houses from Component Parts (1958).

However, it was his plywood chair design that brought him true attention.

With exposure to the Pretzel chair, Plycraft (who had been subcontracted by Herman Miller to produce the Pretzel chair) now had the materials and techniques for constructing plywood furniture. Nelson advised Plycraft to redesign the chair in a manner that would be more sturdy and better suited to production.

Norman Cherner submitted his design only to be later informed that the redesign project was also being scrapped. Six months later, he spied his chair on a New York showroom floor, with the designer being named as Bernardo.

Norman Cherner armchairs, pair, designed for Plycraft, USA, 1958; walnut plywood
Norman Cherner armchairs, pair, designed for Plycraft, USA, 1958; walnut plywood

Cherner sued Plycraft in 1961, eventually won ownership of the design and was granted backdated compensation. Bernardo, it turned out, was a fictitious creation of the marketing department at Plycraft. Yet, to this day, due to much confusion and legal back and forth, the chair is still often attributed to the mythical Bernardo, to Goldman himself, or simply labelled as the Rockwell chair.

The Cherner chair’s swooping arms are said to have been taken directly from Nelson’s initial Pretzel chair design, but it is the seat’s construction that sets it apart; its structural elements, such as the thickening of the ply in the waist section and the molding curves designed to hug the body make Cherner a design visionary in his own right.

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