Harvey Probber (September 17, 1922 – February 16, 2003) was an iconic American furniture designer who is credited with inventing sectional, modular seating in the 1940s. A "pioneer in the application of modular seating,” many of his ideas have been adopted by other designers.
Early life and education
Harvey Probber was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1922. While attending Samuel J. Tilden High School, he took a part-time job in a used-furniture store, and was inspired to try his hand at drawing ideas for furniture. Probber sold his first sofa design when he was just 16, for $10. After high school graduation, he accepted a job as designer for Trade Upholstery, a small manufacturing facility on West 17th Street. 1940 was the beginning of American modernism, a time characterized by young designers with talent, initiative, and a willingness to take risks with new ideas. Probber was one of an early band of pioneers in a field that included D.J. DePree of Herman Miller, Hans Knoll, Georg Tanier and Jack Lenor Larsen.
Design career and Harvey Probber, Inc.
Probber established Harvey Probber, Inc., in 1945 and in the middle years of the twentieth century, Harvey Probber became one of America’s leading designers. Though he considered himself a modern designer, his approach to modernity favored exotic woods, highly polished lacquer, hand-rubbed finishes and opulent upholstery fabrics—materials largely abandoned by more radical, Bauhaus-influenced designers. Probber’s designs, like those of Edward Wormley, Tommi Parzinger, were sought after by customers who wanted modern furniture with elegance. In 1947, when showroom space wasn’t available in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, he took his line to Grand Rapids, then the center of the furniture manufacturing industry. In 1948, seeing the potential in the interior design market he opened a showroom at 136 Fifth Avenue, catering exclusively to designers. In little over a decade, Harvey Probber, Inc. became one of the country’s leading contemporary furniture firms. His elastic sling chair and Nuclear upholstered groups were chosen for MoMA’s Good Design exhibition in 1951, and he won several prestigious Roscoe industry awards.
Probber’s most significant design breakthrough came when he was exploring approaches to seating furniture and found that, “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.” These “bits and pieces” became templates for the line he named the Sert Group (after architect Jose Luis Sert). It consisted of nineteen different elements that could be assembled into any desired seating configuration.
Probber referred to the concept as a modular system, and the individual pieces as modules. Although what was then called “unit furniture” dates to the first decades of the twentieth century, Probber’s modular seating was the first of its kind. Taking the concept further, he introduced “nuclear furniture”—which included occasional tables with interchangeable pedestals, in different shapes and sizes that could, like seating, be clustered in varying configurations. In the 1960s, he extended the idea to case goods, making it possible to offer many variations on one basic design… the same case was available in a choice of finishes, legs, bases, heights, and hardware. Differences that were cosmetic rather than conceptual were economical to produce—evidence that Probber’s business acumen matched his design ability.
By the 1970s, Harvey Probber, Inc. had opened trade showrooms in major design centers across the country, and had relinquished the residential market for the larger and more lucrative contract furniture field. During this period, Probber's work was awarded two "Best of Neocon" Gold Awards from the Resources Council of the Institute of Business Designers for the Houston Chair (1977) and the Advent III Customization Program (1981). He never abandoned his interest in seating modules, however, and continued to explore variations of the concept.
The Harvey Probber Design Archive recently signed an agreement with M2L to reintroduce his iconic furnishings to the American market. In Fall of 2013, a selected group of Probber designs will be reintroduced in a licensed collection by M2L under the name "M2L BRAND for Harvey Probber." The first line of products will include a lounge chair, sofa, occasional table, bench and desk from the Architectural Series and the Deep Tuft sectional sofa.
In his own words
"Design has a fourth dimension—the intangible quality of aging gracefully."—1958 Merchandise Mart Conference Address.
"Too often in our search for newness, we have overlooked the essentials. As always, the essentials are people."—1958 Merchandise Mart Conference Address.
"Fashion is a word invented by the avaricious to prey upon the insecure."—1988 Interior Design article.
The above text was adapted from the foreword to the exhibition catalog, Harvey Probber: Modernist Furniture, Design, and Graphics written by author and historian Judith Gura, and is used with her permission. The exhibition took place from October 3–30, 2003 at Baruch College/CUNY in New York City.
1. "The Birth of the Modular" by Judith Gura for Interior Design.
2. "A Dream of A (Designed) Couch" by Julie Lasky for The New York Times.
3. "The Fairest of Them All" by Aaron Gell for T Magazine.
4. "Sink Into an Iconic Sofa" by Jim Sutherland for The Wall Street Journal.
- Hamilton, William L. (March 2, 2003). "Harvey Probber, a Designer Of Furniture, Is Dead at 80". The New York Times. Retrieved September 9, 2013.
- Stanley Abercrombie, George Nelson: The Design of Modern Design (1955), p. 321.
- Harvey Probber, interviews with Judith Gura, Fall, 1988. Miscellaneous autobirographical notes, typed and handwritten, undated. Probber family archives.
- Trade Upholstery shop, promotional letter to customers, December 10, 1941. (The salary figure, from Probber’s notes, seems high for the time).
- He was linked with these and other august names in references of the time (e.g., Interior Design, May 1979, p.32).
- In 1957, home furnishings editor Grace Madley referred to him as “one of the nation’s leaders in contemporary furniture design.” (The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 2, 1957), and his work was featured prominently in other media of the time.
- Harvey Probber, interview and subsequent conversations with the Judith Gura, Fall, 1998.
- Interiors, June 1951, p. 120 (The Good Design exhibitions took place from 1950 to 1955).
- The Roscoe awards were presented annually by the Resources Council, an authoritative trade association of suppliers to the interior design industry
- Harvey Probber unpublished article, undated. Probber family archives.
- His first case goods were introduced in 1951 (Interiors, June, 1951, p.120), but the modularity and flexibility options were added in later collections.
- As of 1967, there were showrooms in five major cities, with the New York showroom occupying a 12,000-square-foot space in the D&D Building at 979 Third Avenue (Interiors, December 1967, p. 118, July, 1962, p. 98, February, 1957, p. 98).
- "Sink Into an Iconic Sofa," The Wall Street Journal (Friday, April 5, 2013) : http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324685104578388701615057198.html