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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Charles Pollock

Charles Pollock (1930-2013) was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After moving to Ohio, his family eventually settled in Detroit, Michigan. He attended Cass Technical High School, where he studied art and design.

When he was in his mid-teens, his family relocated again, but he decided to stay in Detroit to finish his studies. During that time, he worked part time for the Chrysler Corporation, which he considered a great education in manufacturing products.

Because of his excellenet performance at Cass Tech, he received a full scholarship to the School of Art and Design at Pratt Institute in New York. While touring Pratt, George Nelson noticed one of Pollock's wire sculptures and was impressed with it. Pollock took the sculpture to Nelson's studio and presented it to the designer as a gift, telling Nelson that he would like to work for him when he graduated.

However, after graduating, Pollock was drafted into the U. S. Army, where he was chosen to be the art director of the Infantry Magazine. He also taught art classes at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Upon returning to New York, Pollock took a job with Donald Deskey, the well-known designer of the Radio City Music Hall. He soon had an opportunity to join the George Nelson Office, where he perfected the art of swaging, a technique for bending cold metal which he had started developing while still a student. Although Nelson was initially given credit for the Swag Leg Collection for Herman Miller, he eventually acknowledged Pollock as the designer.

After working for Nelson, Pollock opened his own studio in Brooklyn. Because of the success of the Swag Leg Collection, Florence Knoll began became interested in Pollock's designs and began a business relationship with him...$20 a month for rent and a small development allowance to continue working on new products. His first design for Knoll was the 657 Sling Chair. His most famous design was the Pollock Chair, released by Knoll in 1965 and still produced today.

When Florence Knoll retired in 1965, Pollock went to Europe, where he spent many years skiing, sculpting and painting. In 1982 he introduced the Penelope Chair for the Italian company Castelli. It was a major breakthrough, because it was one of the first passively ergonomic chairs produced with simple parts.

Pollock's designs were characterized by continuous curved lines, functionality and affordability. He received the IBD Bronze Medal Award, the Dutch Institution for Industrial Design award and the Pratt Institute's Excellence by Design award. His work is exhibited in many museums worldwide.

Pollock had been diagnosed in the 1950s as having bipolar disorder but had continued his design work. However, when a chair he had designed for Olivetti was never produced because of the company's financial problems, he retired from industrial design and shifted his focus to painting and sculpting.

In 2010 Jerry Helling, president of Bernhardt Design decided he wanted to meet Pollock and find out about his life, because the Pollock Chair was one of Helling's favorite designs. He found a list of 30 Charles Pollocks and began narrowing down the list till he found the designer. What resulted was a surprise to him and to Pollock: the creation of a new line of chairs and Pollock's return to industrial design at the age of 81. The CP Lounge Collection was introduced in 2012.

Pollock died in a fire at his home in Queens, NYC on Tuesday, August 20, 2013.


Swag Leg Chair by Herman Miller (1958)

657 Sling Chairs by Knoll (1960)

Pollock Chair for Knoll (1965)

Penelope Chair by Castelli (1982)

CP Lounge Chair for Bernhardt Design (2012)

Charles Pollock and Jerry Helling with the CP Lounge Chair

If you have a chance, I urge you to watch this video. It tells the story of Jerry Helling's search for Charles Pollock and Pollock's subsequent return to designing furniture. It is very moving, especially in light of the recent death of the designer.

Finding Charles Pollock


  1. A great loss. He chairs are truly classic.

    1. Yes, it is a great loss. Apparently he still had the potential for more great designs. As far as I know, the fire is still under investigation.

  2. What a great tribute, Dana, he sure was an amazing designer. His chairs are all gorgeous. To me, the greatest beauty of them all is the CP lounge chair.

    1. I agree. The CP Lounge is inspired. For him to come back to the design world in his 80s, after a 30-year hiatus, and still have so much creativity and vision to offer makes it especially tragic that we've lost him.

  3. Oh my gosh, what terrible news! I'm a big fan of Pollock's designs. Thanks for the great post and tribute.

    1. It would have been sad enough to have lost him as a result of natural causes at his age...but for him to lose his life in a tragic fire is so much sadder.

  4. A loss that cannot fully be expressed in words. His creative genius will live on in the preservations of his designs.

    I had one of those executive desk chairs until a few years ago. Nice chair. Now I wish I had the room to keep it and still had it.

    1. When asked by a New York Times reporter what he thought when Bernhardt Design contacted him, he said, "Finally, someone remembers me?" At least he had the opportunity to find out that he was not forgotten and that he could still produce beautiful furniture, which truly will keep his memory alive.

  5. Hi Dana,
    The thing that stinks about getting your blog in email format is I just read it in my inbox and I miss the comments. I just wanted to tell you that this post about Pollack made me cry, in a good way. It's a great story, although very sad. I would have loved to meet him. I love his designs although I never knew who actually designed them until now. They did a really nice job of capturing Pollack's enthusiasm and essence in the video, which also brought me to tears. The thing that really intrigues me is that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the 1950s when mental illness was so poorly treated. I'm sure the medical field put him through the ringer with their crazy cures. I'm curious to know more about that, is there any info on his experience with being diagnosed and treated in the 50s?

    1. The video brought me to tears too, as did the New York Times interview. After so many years of feeling forgotten, he was finally found by Jerry Helling and had another chance at design. I'm sure that made him incredibly happy. To have that cut short is tragic.

      I don't know anything more about his diagnosis and treatment than I mentioned in the post. I do know treatment could be horrific back then. Before I started teaching English in public schools, I did a brief stint in the early 1970s teaching typing and shorthand in a private business school. One of the students had been forcibly institutionalized by her wealthy Catholic husband for no other reason than that she had asked for a divorce. The treatment she described for what they diagnosed as "depression" was horrible. After several commitments, she quite literally escaped her marriage and came from Massachusetts to Texas so her husband couldn't find her. The Texas rehab commission was funding her training because of the memory loss she suffered from the shock therapy.