A reminder of the notorious side of the furniture industry will be showcased this October at the 2021 León Exchange 21st Online Auction. Six Norman Cherner chairs are going under the hammer from the collection of vintage furniture dealer Mr. Chair.
Iconic for its renowned framework, the Cherner chair was deemed the pinnacle of style from its inception. The story of this acclaimed creation begins with ingenuity but quickly followed by deception and betrayal and, ultimately, justice.
Despite its deceptively simple-looking wooden frame, the Cherner Chair is actually a result of numerous unique manufacturing techniques. Not only is it constructed on exceptional design principles and craftsmanship, the chair itself has a compelling history. It was once at the center of a controversy that would eventually show its manufacturer in a less than flattering light.
A tale of deception
In the 1950s, George Nelson of the Herman Miller Company was working on producing lightweight chairs out of plywood. Created by Nelson’s office in 1952 and produced by a Massachusetts-based company Plycraft, the initial “Pretzel” Chair came into fruition. Unfortunately, the chair was considered frail and costly that Herman Miller decided to discontinue its production in 1957.
Plycraft would then acquire the materials and learn the techniques for constructing plywood furniture, essentially refusing to let the already existing components go to waste. Nelson recommended architect and designer Norman Cherner to devise a more durable and affordable Pretzel-type chair that would conveniently make use of Plycraft’s existing equipment.
Paul Goldman, owner of Plycraft, hired Cherner. But after the latter submitted his design to Goldman, he was informed the project had been dismissed.
A few years later, Cherner walked inside a furniture store in Manhattan only to discover his chair on display for sale, except it had a different name: Bernardo. It turns out Plycraft continued to produce his design but created a fictional designer name. Cherner sued Plycraft in 1961 and won. He obtained royalties and his well-deserved due credit, and Plycraft owner Goldman eventually admitted “Bernardo" was a fictitious character.
Immortalized by Rockwell
After winning the lawsuit for his design, Cherner finally had his name tied to his signature piece. Luck was definitely on his side when in 1961– the same year as the lawsuit–the renowned painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell, whose works heavily depict American culture, immortalized Cherner’s distinctive chair on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. The painting, titled “The Artist at Work”, solidified the Cherner chair as an icon of sixties style.
The early-production Cherner chair’s molded plywood shell was of 7 plies at the outer edge, with 15 at the top of the piece. The legs were built from laminated wood, further utilizing the use of layers, wherein each layer maneuvers in the same direction, unifying each unit.
Its graceful arm was warped backwards, steam-bent into a flawless form. Remarkably, this segment was made entirely from solid wood, instead of plies such as the other parts. Before it was bent, the arm extends at almost six feet in length. The result was a flowing, ribbon-like figure that elevates the sculptural anatomy of the chair.
Those early chairs evoke a subtle asymmetry, as the manufacturing involved a hand router to trim each shell manually. Comparable to an artwork, a Cherner’s balanced composition comes off as very pleasant to its beholder’s eyes. It exudes quiet strength and overall exquisite aesthetic. It involves arranging both positive elements and negative space in a manner that one design area complements another. All of its elements—medium, composition, and execution—correlate as a seamless whole.
Cherner’s design is one done with an eye for masterful discipline, noble style, and superior workmanship. He innovated a revolutionary chair through the pliable, experimental material of plywood, which allowed for the crafting of seamless, artful forms. His Cherner chair is considerably a contemporary masterpiece with its anthropomorphic form and enduring presence on the contemporary design landscape.
For Torto and Meryll Canga of Mr. Chair, the Cherner collection they’re putting up for auction—six chairs in all—is an extraordinary find and tremendously significant. The scarcity of the Cherner chairs in particular is well-known, as is the limited number of those bearing the controversial “Bernardo” name. The pieces, says the couple, are in their untouched, unrestored, original condition. The provenance of this collection are the children of the original owner.
Norman Cherner, like most modernists, believed in the potential of modern design to surpass trends and outlast eras. His place in modern design history remains secure because of the groundbreaking chair that bears his name.
[The León Exchange 21st Online Auction 2021 is happening this October 15-17. For more information, visit Leon Gallery online https://leon-gallery.com/auctions/León-Exchange-21st-Online-Auction-2021. To discover more vintage mid-century modern furniture and accessories, follow @mrchairph on Instagram or visit www.mrchairph.com for more information.]