Obituary: Charles Pollock / Designed modern-style 'Mad Men' office chairs

June 20, 1930 - Aug. 20, 2013

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Charles Pollock, an industrial designer whose vision of "a simple line in space" led him to develop sleek, functional chairs that became a hallmark of executive suites in the latter 20th century, died Aug. 20 in a fire in New York City. He was 83.

The fire struck the Queens apartment he used as a work studio.

Mr. Pollock's partner, Sheryl Fratell, said he had left their Manhattan apartment the day before to work in the studio, where he often stayed overnight.

Mr. Pollock's crowning achievement was an office chair characterized by a single aluminum band around its perimeter that held it together, structurally and visually. Massive numbers of the chairs have been sold since its introduction in 1963, and it remains a major piece of the prestigious Knoll Collection. Often simply called the Pollock chair, it has been displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution and the Louvre, and has made millions in royalties for Mr. Pollock.

But for a designer who as a youth doggedly sought out giants of midcentury design -- Eero Saarinen, Charles Eames, George Nelson and Florence Knoll -- and got to work with all of them, the big idea wasn't money.

In an interview with the BBC after Mr. Pollock's death, Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum in London, called him "the opposite of the celebrity designers of the 1980s -- a kind of anti-Phillipe Starck." Mr. Pollock, he said, had produced designs for only a few chairs, but "what he did design was beautifully considered and detailed -- designs that have that elusive quality of timelessness."

Mr. Pollock seemed to many to have vanished from the scene after designing several chairs in the 1960s and one in the 1980s that many consider classics. Some thought he was dead. But Jerry Helling, president of Bernhardt Design, a North Carolina furniture maker, kept thinking of Mr. Pollock's "really cool" chair, he said in an interview Friday, and became obsessed with finding him.

As it turned out, Mr. Pollock "was frantically working all those years," Mr. Helling said. He just wasn't selling anything. Mr. Pollock jumped at the chance to create a chair for Bernhardt, Mr. Helling said.

What he came up with was the CP lounge chair, a sleek, contoured design. Mr. Pollock likened it to an old Jaguar. "The profile of the frame makes it look racy and fast, but you look inside and you see hand-sewn leather and burl," he said. "The chair has speed and craft."

The chair generated favorable comment at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York in 2012 and was honored the next year by the Red Dot awards, an international competition.

Charles Randolph Pollock was born in Philadelphia on June 20, 1930, and moved with his family to Toledo, Ohio, as a child. As a boy, he made a motor in his basement using odds and ends. The family settled in Detroit, where Mr. Pollock attended Cass Technical High School and won poster contests. At 16, when his family moved again, to Muskegon, Mich., he chose to remain in Detroit, living in a boardinghouse, working on Chrysler's assembly line and going to school.

After graduation he received a scholarship to Pratt Institute in New York, where he used wire to fashion his furniture designs. George Nelson, considered a founder of American modernism in design, admired one of his sculptures when he came to lecture. Mr. Pollock went to his office and presented it to him as a gift, telling him he would like to work for him when he graduated.

But first he served in the Army, teaching art classes and working as art director of Infantry magazine. After his discharge, he went back to Mr. Nelson, who hired him. Together they developed the "Swag Leg" collection of chairs, characterized by three elegantly curved metal legs.

Mr. Pollock then approached Florence Knoll, a celebrated designer who studied under Mies van der Rohe. She initially refused to meet with him but relented after an interior design magazine published an article about him. On the day of his interview with her, he brought along a prototype of a lounge chair he was working on and collided with her as she was coming out of the elevator, knocking her down with the chair. She hired him anyway.

He soon talked Ms. Knoll into paying $20 a month for a studio in a run-down part of Brooklyn, where he worked on the executive chair for five years, making it over and over again, improving it each time.

The Pollock chair, made of comfortable-looking leather and chrome, was an immediate success and came to be a mainstay of the modern office. As the television drama "Mad Men" edged from the early into the late 1960s, the chair appeared in the offices it depicts -- exactly when it should have.

The chair is still prized by collectors. Even though the royalties he earned from the chair decreased the need to work, Mr. Pollock kept designing and making paintings and sculptures.

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