Icons of Design History: Schindler’s Unit Furniture

April 29, 2015

The architect Rudolph M. Schindler is famous for houses that, in the twenties and thirties, were pioneering designs of breezy “embrace-the-open-air” architecture–now such an integral part of the Los Angeles lifestyle. But even as he was developing features such as terraces, patios, garden fireplaces, and al fresco sleeping porches, Schindler was breaking ground on the way we live indoors. Like his mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright, he believed that the architecture of a building should be seamlessly reflected in its décor. An architect must look at a house, Schindler wrote, “as an organism in which every detail, including furniture is related to the whole and to the idea which is its source.”


Lot 130, Rudolph M. Schindler, Unit chair and ottoman (2), Executed 1936

Lot 130, Rudolph M. Schindler, Unit chair, Executed 1936
May 17, 2015 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 130 includes two seminal, history-making pieces of Schindler furniture design: a Unit chair and ottoman set. These come from the Elizabeth Van Patten residence, a two-story hillside house in the Los Angeles Silver Lake neighborhood, designed and built from 1934 to 1935. During his architectural career, Schindler devised more than 200 pieces of furniture, both built-in and freestanding.

Lot 130, Rudolph M. Schindler, Unit chair and ottoman (2), Executed 1936

Lot 130, Rudolph M. Schindler, Unit ottoman, Executed 1936
May 17, 2015 Modern Art & Design Auction

The Van Patten Unit chair and ottoman are essentially prototypes for what Schindler envisioned as a line of pieces that would reconcile the efficiency of the production line with the needs and tastes of an individual person. In his 1935 essay “Furniture and the Modern House,” Schindler described how the modular components– “units”– of his furniture would be machine made, but could be combined and arranged to suit each owner’s requirements. To an ottoman unit with a slotted base, for example, you could add a curved wooden backrest with cushion, and attach a tabletop, as well, to give yourself a place to write, or set down a cocktail.

The Van Patten house was one of the first two Schindler projects to include his novel Unit designs. The architect tried persuading several Los Angeles manufacturers to put his components into production, but to no avail. Not until 1950–with the Charles and Ray Eames designed ESU storage unit and its interchangeable, add-on parts–would a similar modular furniture scheme come to market. As usual, Schindler was ahead of his time.

Gebhard, David, Patricia Gebhard, Marla C. Berns, and Rudolf M. Schindler. “Introduction.” The Furniture of R.M. Schindler. Santa Barbara: U of California, Santa Barbara Art Museum, 1997. 52-56. Print.
Sarnitz, August, Julius Shulman, and R.M. Schindler. R.M. Schindler: Architect, 1887-1953. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1988. Print.

Lot Information:

Lot 130
Rudolph M. Schindler
Unit chair and ottoman (2)
Executed 1936 for the Van Patten house, Los Angeles, California
Unit chair: 27″ x 35.5″ x 34.5″; Ottoman: 15″ x 21″ x 21″
Together with receipt addressed to Miss Van Patten, dated March 16, 1936
Provenance: Miss Van Patten, Los Angeles, California;
Private Collection, Los Angeles, California
Literature: Berns, Marla C. The Furniture of R.M. Schindler. Santa Barbara: University Art Museum, University of California. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997. 57, 124.
Estimate: $20,000 – $30,000

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