Today, retailers like Design Within Reach, Crate & Barrel, Habitat, IKEA and Target have all popularized the idea that good design should be accessible to everyone. But the concept was first introduced over a half century ago by Design Research, the influential modernist mini-chain that mixed design objects from Charles and Ray Eames, Alvar Aalto and Arne Jacobsen with eclectic folk materials and textiles from around the world and helped introduce the modern ‘lifestyle’ to postwar Americans and their homes.
The first Design Research store was established in 1953 in Cambridge, Massachusetts by the architect Ben Thompson, who later ran D/R with his wife, Jane Thompson, the founding editor of I.D. and an architect and urban planner. D/R expanded throughout the 1960s and at its height had locations in New York, San Francisco, Beverly Hills and Philadelphia, among other cities. The architecture of the stores, designed by Ben, was just as distinctive as its wares: Thompson’s iconic 1969 D/R store/headquarters on Brattle Street in Cambridge was constructed of floor to ceiling glass, turning the entire store into a display case, bringing the shop out into the street. (In 2003 the building received the prestigious Twenty-Five Year award from the American Institute of Architects.) But in 1970 the Thompsons lost their controlling share in the stores, and by 1979 they were closed.
In 2006, Jane Thompson brought several scrapbooks of Design Research ephemera to Pentagram and asked Michael Bierut and his team to help her tell the remarkable D/R story. The resulting book,Design Research: The Store That Brought Modern Living to American Homes, is out now from Chronicle Books. Written and edited by Jane Thompson and Alexandra Lange, and with an introduction by Rob Forbes, founder of Design Within Reach, the book is an ‘autobiography’ of D/R told through reminiscences by Jane Thompson and D/R staff, collaborators and customers. This year Jane Thompson was honored for Lifetime Achievement in the National Design Awards.
The writers and designers worked through boxes and binders of artifacts, photographs, documents and other materials in Thompsons archive. Many members of the team had a personal connection to the store, making the project a labor of love. Thompsons daughter Sheila McCullough worked with her mother on the books concept. Alexandra Lange, who has longstanding interest in modernist design, lived in Cambridge in the 1970s and remembers her family shopping at the store. Tamara McKenna, Pentagrams coordinator on the project, grew up in Boston and made frequent trips to D/R as a child. Bierut himself had fond memories of visiting the Cambridge store when he was living in Boston while working on a design internship with Chris Pullman at WGBH.
This personal approach extends to the book, which is organized as a lively oral history assembled from reminiscences by Jane Thompson and D/R staff, friends and collaborators from around the world, with excerpts from Ben Thompsons memoirs. The book features personal photographs, period advertisements and pages from D/R catalogues, and includes special sections on D/Rs collaboration with Julia Child—the store helped furnish the sets of Childs TV show ‘The French Chef’—and D/Rs beloved Marimekko, the bright, bold prints and apparel imported from Finland, which became a phenomenon after Jackie Kennedy was photographed wearing a pink Marimekko dress in 1960. The cover of the book is wrapped in a Marimekko-inspired pattern that helps turn the book into an object that might have been found in the store.
The book also includes a section of updates from D/R ‘graduates’ who went on to establish their own stores and design careers, including Pauline Dora, Nancy Hemenway, Lu Wendel Lyndon and Maynard Hale Lyndon, Julia McFarlane, Astrid Vigelan, Sandra Smith Griswold, Larry Kroin, Raymond Waites, and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco and David Wasco.
Project Team: Michael Bierut, partner-in-charge and designer; Yve Ludwig, designer; Tamara McKenna, project coordinator. Edited by Ruth A. Peltason, Bespoke Books.“
(Via New at Pentagram.)