Rockwell and Cherner. (Or how a commercial illustrator created a mid-century icon.)



It’s not often that a visual artist transforms the career of a furniture designer – and that’s only part of what makes Norman Cherner’s story remarkable.

In 1952, George Nelson (yes, that George Nelson, of Herman Miller® design director fame) designed the Pretzel Chair, which was, briefly, manufactured by Massachusetts-based Plycraft. It soon became clear that the Pretzel was too difficult to reliably produce on a mass scale and the company abandoned the project. But in 1957 they asked Norman Cherner – then known mostly for his pre-fab housing – to create something similar, using the same bentwood technology as the Pretzel. The result was the Cherner Armchair, with its thin waist and wide arms. And then things go sketchy: After delivering the design to the Paul Goldman, the head of Plycraft, Goldman told him the project was cancelled and production wouldn’t happen. But it did. Goldman continued to produce Cherner’s design, attributing the design to a certain “Bernardo,” undeniably a fabrication.

Understandably, Cherner was rather shocked to discover his design sitting in a showroom in New York. He sued Goldman in 1961, winning the case and receiving royalties. That same year, illustrator to the masses, Norman Rockwell, pictured the Cherner Armchair in his September 1961 cover of the Saturday Evening Post, in an illustration called “The Artist at Work” (above). This was all it took to catapult Cherner into the design spotlight, as demand for the Cherner Armchair soared. It’s an interesting example of how accessible modernism used to be – at the time, the Cherner Chair sold for $50 to $60. The work of someone like Norman Rockwell, whose art expressed pure, unadulterated mass appeal, was entirely of a piece with many of the tenets of modernism. Functional, commercial, accessible, mass produced – these things defined both modern design at that time and Rockwell’s illustrations.

Despite the success of the chair it went out of production in 1972. In 1999, Cherner’s sons, Benjamin and Thomas, launched the Cherner Chair Company to bring their father’s iconic work back into production. To learn more about Norman Cherner’s life and see the Cherner Collection (which is on sale during the Dining Sale), click here.

Posted by Emily Fasten.