Alexandra Lange is a critic, journalist and architectural historian based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Architect’s Newspaper, Icon, Metropolis, New York Magazine and The New York Times. You can find her writing about architecture, parenting, film and much more on her blog, hosted by Design Observer. Her most recent book, Design Research: The Store That Brought American Living to Modern Homes, is a beautiful history of how common items in our homes were introduced to America by one man.
Architect Benjamin Thompson initially practiced as a member of The Architects Collaborative — a firm created with Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius — designing a number of small, modern houses for families in the Boston suburbs in the 1940s and early 1950s. As he helped his clients furnish their homes, he realized they needed a place to buy the sofas, tables and china that would suit their new, open-plan lifestyle. He began buying his favorite pieces in Europe and America, and his small showroom in Cambridge, Massachusetts grew into the first Design Research store (more colloquially known by its abbreviation, D/R) in 1953. He would later open stores on 57th Street in New York City and Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, each filling a striking building with more items for the contemporary home of the time.
The Design Research store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1969. Image from Ezra Stoller/Esto
As I researched the book with my co-author Jane Thompson — Ben Thompson’s widow and partner in his architecture and planning firm — I found myself wanting many of the objects. One chapter in the book, “A General Store of Good Design,” reads like the most fabulous catalog of all time. Though you can’t completely recreate the atmosphere of the D/R stores, you can still find many of the store’s wares on Etsy.
If people know D/R for nothing else, they know it for Marimekko. Ben Thompson saw the brightly patterned cotton dresses and fabrics at the Finnish Pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. He imported them to the USA the next year. There they coincided with the incipient feminist movement, freeing women from girdles and pantyhose, serving as an unofficial pregnancy uniform for many women in Cambridge. There’s lots of Marimekko on Etsy and most of it new. I usually prefer the vintage pieces — the quality of the cotton is much higher — and the vintage patterns, which are more graphic.
Marimekko is still in business and creating new patterns, some of which have the verve of the old designs. The company has also inspired many contemporary designers, including Anna Sui, Amy Butler, Alexander Henry, and others working with large-scale prints and bright colors.
Along with Marimekko, D/R also imported a number of other Finnish products, including Finel’s classic enameled kitchenwares and lots of Iittala glassware. I love Tapio Wirkkala’s Ultima Thule line, which looks like glasses have melted out of blocks of ice, giving it a quirky natural quality.
You can see Finel (and Marimekko’s) influence in much of the enamel jewelry that turns up on Etsy today, making use of bright colors and bold shapes.
In the 1950s D/R was also known for its import of Danish design, which included many teak accessories and bentwood furniture by Hans Wegner. Benjamin Thompson mixed the soft Danish teak with harder-edged American furniture made by Knoll and Herman Miller.
Comfort was always important to Thompson, along with the quirks of handmade objects. He particularly liked the Arabia Valencia china pattern, which looks like folk art but was designed in 1960 by Ulla Procope. Dansk, an American company that employed Danish designer Jens Quistgaard, also capitalized on the Scandinavian craze with lines of teak, enamel and metal housewares.
In the 1960s, the warm modernism of Scandinavia had become widely known, and Thompson and his team moved on to the next new thing — Italian design. The products he chose were just as cleanly designed — casual and useful as the pieces from the north, but made of modern plastics, rather than wood. Many of the lines he sold, in china, wood and plastic, stacked for greatest efficiency, like these Heller melamine bowls designed by Massimo and Lella Vignelli.
[Vintage Plastic Amac Boxes from Cosasraras]
Thompson did not believe all good design had to have a pedigree and often picked up inexpensive and useful things at markets from Mexico to Malta. He sold Peter Schlumbohm’s 1941 Chemex coffee maker with a minimum of moving parts (Pyrex carafe, bentwood grip, leather tie). He also carried the plastic boxes that every girl I knew growing up in the 1970s kept on her bureau. They were originally intended for pills.
Under the D/R name, Thompson also designed a line of furniture made in pedestrian butcher block, believing it would hold up in college dormitories for the same reason it made such excellent cutting boards. This furniture rarely turns up for resale, but everyone can use a good-looking cutting board.
Thanks so much to Alexandra for sharing her design insights. Check out her blog and her most recent book, Design Research: The Store That Brought American Living to Modern Homes.