Strangers Until The End
by Mark Pearson
The exhibit flyer read: “At the Schwenkenfelder January 15 to May 5, 2013: Modern Design in the Valley. An exhibit of the work of a colony of extraordinary furniture designers who settled in the Upper Perkiomen Valley in Southeastern Pennsylvania.” My father, Max Pearson, was one of those Knoll designers, so I went to see his work at the Schwenkenfelder Library and Heritage Center. Mostly, I went to remember my father who had died the previous year.
The permanent display: a printing press, rakes and hoes, wood-framed looms and thrashers, rough-hewn chairs, a grandfather clock, was shoved temporarily to the wall, supplanted by the work of modern furniture designers – the displaced antique machinery waiting for the strange visitors to leave, like the land the outmoded tools were meant to tend, abiding forever.
There was one Pearson chair in black naugahyde, the artificial leather Knoll used to cover some of its chairs. It looked a little worn, lonely in its corner. It was the same design that was in the Knoll au Louvre exhibit in 1972. It sat surrounded by the works of Don Albinson, Bob DeFuccio, Jim Eldon, Harry Bertoia, Richard Schultz.
I remembered floating on my back in the Schultz’s pond, drifting in the warm layer of water at the surface, daydreaming, looking at the sky, the water covering my ears, the world muted, wishing I could stay twelve years old forever, and then moving enough to stir the blanket of warm water that enveloped me so the cold spring water chilled my skin and brought me back to the world.
We were this small community of artists and their kids plunked down in the middle of Pennsylvania German farm country. We were strangers, but it didn’t matter. We had our world and the farmers had theirs of plows and chickens and cows and theirs was always a reminder that you had to work to get your food and put a roof over your head and take care of your family. It seemed outside of that, little else mattered to them. To me, they appeared stone faced and surly when we saw them in their fields or at the market. Our fathers worked too, but they seemed to inhabit a world that was somehow free of the mean demands of survival. That’s not true of course, but when I was a boy that’s the way it seemed, at least until Knoll shut down its design department and my father was out of a job and we learned what it meant to be hungry as we waited for the next paycheck.
When I was eight, we moved to an old stone house perched on the side of a steep hill and took root there ourselves like wild thistle in rocky soil. The house was covered in brown stucco that crumbled when we kicked it. When my parents bought it, it had no plumbing, potbelly stoves for heat and smelled smoky, stale, the flowered wallpaper yellowed. This was in the sixties; the rest of the country was turning psychedelic; the old man and woman we bought it from picked wild mint on the hillside and shot deer from the living room window. My father gutted the place, stripped the wallpaper, tore out a faux archway to open up “the parlor”; he made it modern with his discerning eye, created clean lines, white walls, filled it with Knoll prototypes, his own and others’ designs. The bookshelves held books and models of chairs, tiny designs in progress. He let us play with them and we seated our stuffed animals in them until he took them back to transform them into life-sized versions.
The quiet museum contrasted the creativity I remembered in Knoll’s design and development department. There was a sense of playfulness, the experimental inside D&D; it smelled like wood, plastic, and glue; the designers worked in three-sided cubicles, open to the center of the room where band saws, table saws, sanders, and laminated wood structures clamped to work benches occupied an inventor’s landscape. Someone once told me that my father thought all of the pipes in the place should be clear. Ideas grew into furniture. “I don’t think they knew what to do with us,” Richard Shultz told me when I saw him recently. “They just put a bunch of creative people in a room and let us go,” he said. “I spent a year working on some airport seating they never used.”
Their creativity wasn’t confined to industrial production: they built an over-sized toboggan. I remember it taking shape, the laminated front and the long seated area – enough seats for fifteen it seemed. The long strip of wood, shaped and sanded then varnished. It hung in a storage area until the first blizzard of the season covered the land with two feet of snow, and the designers like some lost tribe of Bohemian Eskimos, wrapped in scarves, donning berets, went out to a hill one of the upholsterers owned. After a few runs the toboggan cleared a path, worked up to speed, bucking loose the rider in the last seat as it flew over bumps.
The designers came from around the United States: California, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. They’d studied at Cranbook and R.I.T., Illinois Institute of Technology, Pratt, and the Philadelphia Museum School, and other design schools. According to Dick Schultz, Knoll hired Harry Bertoia first, and he moved out of New York City in the early 1950s like some modernist pilgrim, set up shop in Bally, PA , transformed wire into furniture. Then came Schultz and the others. My father, mother and I arrived in Bally in 1959 from Rochester, N.Y., where my father studied at R.I.T.’s School for American Craftsmen, and rented a house a half mile from Bertoia’s studio .
Summer nights we gathered and the parents talked, dads around a keg of beer, mom’s sipping wine on lounge chairs. The kids played hide-and –seek and flashlight tag on moonlit lawns or chased fireflies.
As kids, our weekend field trips were not what kids would normally choose: our parents often took us as a group to museums: to the Guggenheim, to New Hope, PA, to visit George Nakashima’s studio, to Philadelphia to watch Charlie Chaplin films, camping on Cape Cod with days on the beaches and nightly forays into Provincetown.
We lived amid German farmers, old world people who migrated to southeastern Pennsylvania in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds to escape religious persecution. Their barns, painted with colorful hex signs, defined the landscaped and they spoke a dialect of old German. When they spoke English, it was spliced with antiquated German phrases that made their English nearly incomprehensible to an ear unaccustomed to the singsong accent that rose at the end of every sentence, seeming to make a question out of every utterance.
Knoll International had German roots, too. Hans Knoll was born in Stuttgart in 1914, and his wife, American born Florence Knoll, who ran the company after he died in 1956, worked briefly for Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius.
Growing up in farm country, but not being a farmer was a strange kind of existence; I loved the landscape, the rolling hills, the steep wooded hillsides, and the valleys, plowed and sowed with corn and wheat — manicured, living carpets. It seemed we all lived in old farmhouses, but the barns were turned into studios and tenant farmers tilled the fields.
Last winter, a group of us gathered for dinner at the farmhouse Dick and Trudy Schultz bought in 1953. It was a week before they signed the final papers to sell it. I had returned to the area the year before. Two of the designers who worked with my father were there, Dick Schultz and Bob DeFuccio. Dick and his oldest son, Peter, had recently sold their company, Richard Schultz Design, back to Knoll and they were moving out of the area. In their case at least, what Knoll had created and let go had been taken back into the fold. Their part of the story had come full circle.
The place was as I remembered it with some changes: one of Dick’s new sculptures – a metal pyramid – stood amid the pine trees; pines that had grown significantly in 35 years; their trunks towered, revealing the white house at the end of the blue gravel driveway. As children, we played hide and seek in the dense patch of pine forest that hid the house from the dirt road that wound down the steep hillside.
Dick Shultz was one of a few of the designers still connected with the area. Some had died, most of the children moved away. I’ve lost touch with nearly all of them, but I still remember that time and place we shared as children. It was a remarkable childhood and driving back through the pine woods with my own children brought it back to me.
That evening like those moments floating in the pond over forty years before went too quickly. Trudy Schultz, soft spoken, quick to smile, thought about their sixty years in the house and said: “We were strangers until the end; we did not eat at five O’clock; we went to New York and to Allentown! Imagine that.”
The end I think was when they brought in some business types to manage the creative process, Dick Shultz said as he reflected on the closing of D&D. He seemed to have changed little in 35 years; he still overflowed with curiosity and energy for design and art that seemed to crackle and whir around him as he spoke.
The year Knoll shut down D&D, my father and Dick Shultz teamed up and scrambled to sell some designs. They created some cardboard furniture among other designs, but nothing really sold. Dick kept on and eventually his company succeeded.
My father, needing a steady paycheck, went to work for a series of companies, designing more furniture and the seats for the 1977 Silver Anniversary Corvette, finally finishing his career as head of design with David Edward Limited in Baltimore, MD. He stuck with furniture until the end.
I once asked him why he didn’t take some of his own designs and start his own company the way Dick had. “I just wanted to design furniture,” he said. “I didn’t want to deal with the rest of it.” That’s the way he was. My mother once said, “I don’t think he ever did anything he didn’t want to do.”
My father could be stubborn, hard -nosed, something that had served him well on the wrestling mats where he won three Big Ten titles for the University of Michigan, was voted the outstanding wrestler in the tournament as a senior and made it to two NCAA finals.
The designers were really sculptors, artists who had found a home and a focus in the world of modern furniture design. With families, they turned to furniture design to put food on their tables, but everywhere around their houses were the creations no one would ever sit on. In my father’s case, it was found object sculptures, made of plaster and stone, plastic and wood, spray painted black or maroon. They are all lost now, victims of our family’s many moves, or they just crumbled over time, or were left behind, or thrown out.
My father is gone now too, taken by Alzheimer’s in December of 2011. Until the end, he would eye the details of furniture, turning it over, running his hands over the fabric just as he had always done. He was an artist and he left me with the notion that to be an artist was the highest calling in the world and I believed him.