Debate has been sparked over the last couple of years among insiders as to the longevity of “industrial” as a decorative genre. Like any stylistic movement, this one will make way for the next, whatever that may be. Inexpensively produced cookie-cutter furniture pieces — generally manufactured in India or China — have entered the market, sometimes giving design enthusiasts pause before they invest in an original item with historical provenance.
Artificially distressing steel and wood to give the look of decades-old, utilitarian factory items is not uncommon. Even fabricating gear-shaped patterns in steel to embellish stools and tables is not unheard of. It’s a way to loosely capture a factory look without, perhaps, going through the time, effort and expense of seeking out an original.
The idea of reproduction furniture is hardly a new concept, but does it kill a design movement when copies or non-authentic items enter the market? I say no. From what I can see, Herman Miller, Knoll, Emeco and many other furniture brands have done very nicely, thank you, simply by providing well-made originals, manufactured to a high standard. The debate over the integrity of materials used in new originals versus vintage ones we’ll leave for another day, but so long as there’s an interest in authentic design, quality and durability, industrial pieces will remain relevant. I’ve long used the example of the Toledo stool, which is now an icon of 20th century design and will hold both its aesthetic appeal and collectibility long after the movement that thrust it into the limelight has passed. The key is to focus on what you like and buy quality.
When this old cast-iron base — removed from a decommissioned wire-spinning machine — was first spotted, the pressing question was: How can this fixture be transformed into a functional dining table? Through some trial and error (and a good deal of grease removal), the custom table was completed via its pairing with a large section of refinished antique bowling alley.
While admired today for their aesthetics, vintage and antique industrial furniture was considered utilitarian in its day. It was built using durable materials and therefore fabricated to withstand considerable punishment. Though it is appealing to unearth an unusual piece like this shop bench, it is doubly worthy of attention when the item possesses its original and untouched configuration and presents in superb condition.
The Industrial Workbench and Equipment Manufacturing Company was a later incarnation of The New Britain Machine Company, headquartered in New Britain, CT. They began churning out heavy-duty industrial furniture at the beginning of the 20th century and by the 1940s were known as, I.B. (Industrial Bench). The olive hew finish of their products was even referred to as, “IB Green”.
The discussion of quality is a common thread when referencing items of this era and I.B. prided themselves on creating equipment of a higher standard than many of their peers.
The heavy-gauge tubular steel leg sections are welded together, making a single-piece, rigid leg. This results in less sway, irrespective of whether or not the table rests against a wall. The legs and expansive feet are totally closed thus ensuring that dust and other unwanted waste does not accumulate in cracks and crevasses. A variety of optional extras existed including, rear and side plates (to ensure that materials did not fall from the work surface), maple or plain steel tops, lower shelf and drawers, complete with sliding inner tray.
This clean, original example not only possesses its factory configuration, including a drawer and lower shelf, the IB Green finish is excellent and the maker’s labels are clear and visible on the trademarked positioning of the two front legs.
*Special thanks to the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the National Museum of American History Library for their generous contributions to this post.
Much is made of a handful of manufacturers’ interpretations of the task lamp. Some have been highlighted in this blog: Ajusco, O.C. White, Edon, American Fixture Co. and more. These producers adhered to a strict code of pared-back design and unadulterated utility.
Add to this group Weldon Manufacturing Co., a quiet achiever in the brass, drafting-style light arena. This New York company created ranges that included desk, clamp-based and floor lamps.
This example, with a dual-clamp base, maximizes the ease in which the fixture can be relocated. While this feature proved advantageous in drafting scenarios, it was also embraced in workshops and garages alike. Also, the wide, embossed wing nut proved an ergonomic method of tightening the joint around the lamp’s telescopic arm.
An occupational hazard of repairing and restoring old wares is that one becomes a magnet for a diverse collection of tools, parts and hardware. As time passes, one tool box is filled, then another and another. The resulting game of multiple choice when searching for the right item can be harrowing.
When the time came to upgrade to a larger source of storage, Dorset Finds was pretty thrilled to stumble across a heavy-duty rolling work station.
The only thing better than a tool box with 25″ deep drawers is one with a solid butcher block top and a retrofitted shelf. Other customizations include a row of hooks that line one side of the piece; perfect for organizing readily used tools and parts and keeping them off the work surface. Frequently misplaced in other examples is the original solid steel lock plate, that when dropped into a lip on the lower front of the unit, forms part of a mechanism which secures all the drawers. As we found out, large cast iron casters are also a godsend when shifting the full cabinet from one side of the workshop to the other.
Regular visitors to this blog are well aware of the tributes Uhl Toledo products garner here.
Possessing the strength and durability of an American-made tool of the mid-20th century and enjoying a classic design status on par with the Eames lounge chair, the Toledo stool is a timeless piece of furniture crafted from steel and bent plywood.
Through our travels, Dorset Finds has unearthed dozens of Uhl product variations: round, all-steel versions, short, medium, tall, fixed-height, double-width backrests, wooden casters, plastic casters, standard and extra-large footrest rings… When it came to ordering your stool from the manufacturer, the number of options appears to have been almost endless.
Though research provides images of the near-mythical “A-frame” Toledo stool, we had not seen one in the flesh until recently. Similar in silhouette to the traditional model, the A-frame’s vertical steel supports lean in toward the top creating a pyramid. A wider center of gravity and larger, 18.5-inch footrest ring (rather than the standard 16-inch) give this piece a stockier stance while retaining all the elegance of its sister models.
The mortality rate among vintage office furniture is high to say the least. It’s a steady stream of out with the old, in with the new. In most cases, the need for physical files has been superseded altogether by their digital descendents. Streamlining the way we utilize office storage has meant that only in rare circumstances have filing units survived the test of time (and punishment). Our interiors are made all the better for their presence.
John and Wilson Berger started the Berger Manufacturing Co. in Canton, Ohio in 1886, producing lengths of metal conductor pipe in their basement workshop. The United Furnace Company merged with Berger in 1921 and Berloy was born. It quickly developed a strong presence in the market with its lines of shelving, storage, lockers and steel furniture.
The set of eight modular file units pictured possesses its original, dark military- green finish. A patent date of 1918 is embossed, making this a very early production run. Each 26-inch-deep section locks to the one below via a steel rail system and further secures its connection with the closure of a latch located below a rear carry handle. A brass metal card frame adorns the face of each file.
* While a hard drive may be a damn sight smaller and lighter to transport, you’d be hard-pressed to find one as good-looking as this set.
The transition of the drafting stool, from a staple of the office environment to a prominent home decor fixture, has been swift. Its functionality and versatility is unquestionable.
Likewise, the drafting lamp, which historically held its place mounted to drafting and illustration tables, has repositioned itself as a useful tool in the domestic arena.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous of the drafting light manufacturers is Dazor of St. Louis, founded in 1938 by Harry Dazey and Washington University professor Albert Perbal.
During World War II, the company became widely known when the U.S. government selected Dazor’s products to replace much of the costly overhead lighting that had previously illuminated its offices. Not only did Dazor pieces fulfill the much-needed directional light application — thanks to its patented Floating Lamp system — they were also considered the more energy-efficient option in the market. (What? There was a time when the U.S. government was genuinely interested in energy efficiency?)
At the 1938 World’s Fair in New York, General Electric highlighted the uses of the Dazor lamp in its display.
B.K. Elliott (Pittsburgh), the drafting and surveying equipment retailer, touted the patented Dazor Floating Lamp in its 1948 sales catalog as working “like the human arm.” It says: “A strong spring force, acting through a shifting fulcrum and parallelogram on both sections of the double-arm, equalizes the varying forces exerted by the arm, thereby balancing the arm in any position.”
Pictured is the earliest, patent-pending version, which provides fascinating insight into the lamp’s inner mechanism. Later, this section was completely encased to avoid dust intake. It reveals heavy-duty bolts and a large, sprung steel coil, which is the muscle that powers the arm’s reach.
At Dorset Finds we’ve been vocal about our appreciation of the Ajusco lamp. For more that a century, the family-run company, based in Mequon, Wisconsin, has churned out quality industrial lighting solutions. Not only do these virtually indestructible pieces perform the invaluable task of directing light to a specific work area, the patented Ajusco-Loc fixture design, with it’s three-pronged reinforcement, means that even under the most harsh conditions, socket breakages do not occur.
This exceptional pair were cleaned then stripped of their original decaying finish, leaving a desirable matte patina. After being rewired, each light was mounted to solid steel repurposed factory gears. The restoration of these lamps has given them a life of their own. Intertwined, they create drama with almost limitless flexibility of movement.
In the latter stages of the 19th century, brothers Joe and Clem Uhl came up with the idea of a durable steel seating option while working in the bike shop they ran together.
It’d be nice to say that their concern was for forest conservation, given that in this era the primary material used in manufacturing stools was wood. But that would be a bit of a stretch. In reality, they knew firsthand the benefit of being able to plant your caboose on something sturdy yet comfortable, without fear of the structure giving way after weeks, months or even years of utilitarian use.
The brothers Uhl foresaw that industry-grade steel furniture would surpass timber, which historically had dominated the market. Harnessing the strength of cold rolled steel, fabricated into U-shaped chair and table legs, their company, the Toledo Metal Furniture Co., stood (or in this case, sat) without peer. So strong were their convictions that they were on to something, they guaranteed their products as the strongest, handsomest and most durable office furniture on the market.
Pictured is an early example. Imperfections such as dents and dings from heavy use are present in the perforated seat. Stripped of its original paint, this piece was buffed to reveal its coveted raw metal patina. Rather than the trademark Toledo footrest ring, rudimentary steel straps are located midway up the 30-inch stool to provide leg support. Primitive feet are affixed; later models employed ball-jointed glides.
If your desk is anything like mine, bills, invoices and pesky Netflix envelopes seem to conquer an unsatisfactorily large amount of real estate. Discovering storage solutions that hide quantities of clutter are a godsend.
The Art Steel Company of the Bronx, N.Y. manufactured a range of administrative-grade storage and filing solutions in the early 20th century.
Conveniently, this piece — which, aesthetically, looks like an old book made out of army green steel — is small enough occupy little surface space on a desk, yet substantial enough to accommodate approximately 150 sheets of standard-size letter paper. This is an early example with the original “Art Steel Co. N.Y.C.” label, rather than the later embossed logo.
The predecessor to the more familiar, adjustable Draftsman stool, this early Uhl version rests at a fixed seat height of 27 inches. Rather than utilizing a spring lever to adjust the level, this example, which dates from approximately 1915 to 1920, requires the removal of four bolts from a steel grid connected to the chair’s base.
The differences don’t end there. The bent plywood seat and back are almost twice the thickness of the newer maple versions. There’s also a depth and richness to the wood grain not found in newer varieties. A butterfly screw — rather than a round, molded plastic grip — holds the adjustment bracket to the backrest (missing is a silver bead that should cap the end of the bolt). Instead of large pivoting glides, smaller, more primitive, stationary feet protrude from the leg shaft. The gray steel base has seen its fair share of factory-floor mishaps, but the integrity and durability of this piece remains.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, the stools above will not be unfamiliar. Dorset Finds has shone the spotlight on the highly coveted Draftsman stool, manufactured by the Toledo Metal Furniture Co. — or Toledo stool — many times, and we’re always pleased to bring you an unusual or rare configuration of this classic.
Ergonomics and the Machine Age are not often thought of in the same context, but this is one area where the Toledo stool shines. The curved steel arm brace holds the bent plywood back, providing support to the lower back without being too rigid. With a turn of the round knob that holds the backrest in place, the user can click the mechanism up or down for the desired position. In addition, this particular model has a 21″ in diameter footrest ring rather than the usual 16″, thereby providing greater foot and leg support. Already a powerhouse of versatility and function, this piece boasts enhanced mobility via the smooth rolling casters, which — like modern office chairs — allow one to move short distances without even having to get up.
Please though, no office hockey…
O.C. White Advertisement, 1936
Industrial lighting enthusiasts can identify a good task light at a thousand yards. Plenty of early 20th Century lighting manufactures created what are now highly sought after desk items but in this case, there is nothing more coveted to the avid collector.
With prices now clocking four figures, the desk light that sees more prospective buyers leaping flea market trestle tables to make a purchase is that of O.C. White.
Be sure, these articulating lamps were not meant to be pretty ornaments but rather, heavy-duty lighting tools that no factory work bench in the U.S. was complete without during the 1920s to 1950s.
O.C. White was established in 1883 when Massachusetts dental surgeon, Dr. Otis C. White patented his first adjustable joint. By the end of the 19th Century the company had become the pioneer in the area of task lighting. In 1939, with the advent of luminescent light technology, the company turned its hand to developing lighting for the stitching trade, hospital floor lamps and physicians examination units. Today, the company continues to manufacture a wide range of lighting out of their facility in Thorndike, Mass.
This example comes with an aged, green shade and original 8-Ball knuckle; the company’s trademark. Though darkened and worn down, the fittings are brass and stamped with the maker’s mark.
I’m a sucker for a stool. No surprises there. But the Toledo Metal Furniture Company made some of the coolest and most durable factory seating of the Twentieth Century. Various models of varying heights were produced using steel, and in some cases, plywood or hardwood seats.
Compared to pneumatic lift systems commonly found in similar contemporary stools, the Toledo spring-lever lift mechanism may seem a bit archaic but there’s something to be said for hearing that sound of steel teeth locking securely into a steel support bar to secure a desired seat height.
This example of the Draftsman stool is labelled and retains its solid footrest ring near the base. The solid round maple seat has been given a light polish and then sealed for many more years of use. It’s an ample 15″ in diameter and swivels freely. It’s also great to see that all the feet are original on this piece and perform perfectly.
At Dorset Finds, we’re on a permanent search for comfortable office seating solutions to park your caboose. Herman Miller may not be in your budget but there are plenty of other mid-century options that offer great design and comfort without the price tag. The General Fireproofing Company of Youngstown, OH, manufactured timeless classics that are available today at any budget.
Founded in 1902, The General Fireproofing Company manufactured office chairs and desks and became the largest producer of commercial office furniture in the world. The Goodform line of seating was introduced in 1930 and featured a jet-stream aluminum design; a style that works in a contemporary setting as much today as it did then.
One of the great things about aluminum furniture from this era is that it can be buffed out to show its original sheen. This example has black perforated upholstery in very good condition and the seat and back adjustments are working well.
This item is currently for sale at Modern Anthology, Brooklyn.