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Friday, August 31, 2012

Selling Modernism: Rapson-Inc.

Much of my blog focuses on the designers of modern furniture and accessories. This is the first in a series of posts about how those pieces reach the public once they have been manufactured. The series will take a look at some of the pioneers in retailing of modernist design, as well as businesses around the world today that sell exceptional modern home furnishings.

In 1940, Elliot Noyes, a student of Walter Gropius and the first curator of the Industrial Design Department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, organized a competition called Organic Design in Home Furnishings. The participants included the world's most talented modernist designers and architects. In the years following World War II, their designs went into production, but there were few retail outlets selling the products.

Ralph Rapson and his wife Mary decided to open a store that would sell specifically this type merchandise. Rapson continued to work as a practicing architect and architecture professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and, in his spare time, he selected the designs for the store. Mary was responsible for the financial, promotional and operational end of the business.

Rapson-Inc. opened in 1950 at 282 Dartmouth Street, one block from Copley Square in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston. Mary proposed that their inventory be made up primarily of Rapson's own designs, along with pieces acquired on credit from Knoll Associates, with whom her husband had been collaborating on several projects.

The long, narrow store was decorated with Angelo Tasta's fabrics hung from ceiling to floor, Knoll chairs hung on the wall, storage cabinets of Rapson's design to display smalls and a living room vignette used to show customers how to incorporate modern design into their own homes.

In the early 50s, Rapson received a commission to design a number of American embassies throughout Europe, so they closed the store and moved abroad, but in the late 1990s, Toby Rapson, Ralph's son and business partner at Rapson Architects, worked with Ralph and a team at the firm, along with master craftsman Jonathan Loeck, to put some of Rapson's designs back into production.

After Ralph Rapson's death in 2008, Toby Rapson separated the furniture design business from the architecture firm, and Rapson-Inc. was reborn, using the original bowtie logo from 1950. The company now makes furniture from the large collection of original Rapson designs, determined to produce a top-quality product by remaining mindful of Rapson's observation that "there's a lot of half-assed Modernism out there."

From and

Rapson Inc., circa 1950

Rapson Inc., circa 1950

Rapson, Inc., circa 1950

Rapson-Inc. logo


  1. This must be what heaven looks like.

    1. I started to say, "Ah, to have been there when this all started." Then I realized that technically I was, so I guess I should say, "Ah, to have been old enough to remember when Modernism was in its infancy." :)

      It put an interesting perspective on things to see that Rapson's store was not all that different from the first store we opened on Exposition Avenue...and, 18 months later, we're in a larger location and selling Rapson furniture. I have a great deal of respect for my SIL's hard work and accomplishments.