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adventures with a scrap artist

Illustration of Louise Brigham's box furniture for "Ladie's Home Journal", 1910.

Recently, in the course of preparing an exhibition in Los Angeles, I stumbled across an early 20th century designer and teacher named Louise Brigham. I’d never heard of her, and I’ll bet you haven’t either. She turned up in a hundred-year-old copy of the Ladies’ Home Journal, which probably isn’t high on anyone’s reading list. In it was an article by Brigham entitled “How I Furnished My Entire Flat from Boxes.” The accompanying illustrations showed rooms filled with early-modernist furniture, strikingly more austere than either the conventional furniture designs of the day or the then-avant-garde Mission and Prairie styles being popularized by Gustav Stickley, Frank Lloyd Wright, and others. Brigham was inspired in part by the rectilinear designs of the Austrian architect Josef Hoffmann, but her work has a raw simplicity that won’t surface again until the 1930s, in the ‘crate furniture’ of Gerrit Rietveld.

A living room ca. 1900.

But what really startled me was that all of the furniture was built out of recycled packing crates—the soap boxes, canned-corn boxes, and gelatin boxes that would otherwise have been tossed on a scrap heap. Brigham had, in fact, designed an entire program of such furniture and published a book about it the prior year, entitled Box Furniture. In this book, she gives not only plans for a hundred different pieces of furniture, but also instructions in basic carpentry and color schemes for entire rooms.

Gustav Stickley plant stand, 1900.

Unlike most design in any period, Brigham’s book is aimed squarely at working people of very limited means; her intention was to bring both practical skills and advanced design to those who might otherwise not be able to afford either. She wrote Box Furnitureat a time when the average American worker earned less than $400 a year and a single piece of new furniture could cost a week’s wages. Brigham went on to furnish her own New York apartment almost entirely from box furniture, as a kind of model and advertisement for her system, at a total cost of $4.20.

Gerrit Rietveld crate stool, ca. 1934.

She also proselytized for her system widely in Europe and the United States, and she built a number of pieces into settlement houses, as she was an active champion of the settlement movement. She founded a workshop for teaching basic box-furniture carpentry to boys (and later girls), the Home Thrift Association; it had its first headquarters in New York’s Gracie Mansion. I was intrigued by what seemed an early appearance in the United States of an ethos of sustainability in design and wondered why I hadn’t heard of Brigham. Perhaps I had come across her and just forgotten? But when I went to google her, I discovered that very little has been written about her since her heyday, apart from a tiny handful of recent articles that argue for her as a pioneer of sustainable and affordable design. She did not even have a Wikipedia page. She does now, because I wrote one for her.

Louise Brigham's design for a quadruple desk.

I got so interested in Brigham that I dug out the contemporary newspaper articles on her, and I got a copy of her book (it’s also available as a PDF download from several websites, including Google Scholar). Working from these sources and two fine articles by Larry Weinberg and Jessica M. Pigza, I’ve reconstructed as much of her life as I was able to in a little over a week of digging, but huge gaps remain. I’m working on filling in some of the gaps, because the questions that occurred to me when I first saw Brigham’s work are still unanswered: What kind of person was she? What was her family background? What kind of art education did she get? Why did she not become a professional designer to the well-to-do like her friend Hoffmann? Did her ideas directly influence the De Stijl designers, and if so, how? How did she get involved in the settlement house movement? And most of all: how is it that this visionary spirit has all but disappeared from the historical record?

Louise Brigham, Wikipedia entry

Louise Brigham's Wikipedia page

Box Furniture received a good deal of initial exposure; it went through several editions and was translated into a number of foreign languages. It is one of the earliest design projects to incorporate the idea of modular or sectional units and to organize an entire program around both social and aesthetic objectives. It is a direct precursor of today’s do-it-yourself and sustainable design movements, as well as of consumer-assembled kit furniture such as Ikea produces. Yet none of Brigham’s work is known to have survived, and her box furniture project is all but unknown today, barely rating a footnote in the canonical story of 20th century furniture design.

The reasons for this erasure deserve closer examination, as part of the larger story of women’s role in the history of art, design, and technology. Right now, there are too many gaps in the story of her life to draw secure conclusions. So I invite anyone who knows something of Brigham to contact me, or to add to her Wikipedia page. And everyone in the Los Angeles area is invited to visit a small exhibition about her work that I’ve created—in tandem with another writer, Ruth Coppens—at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry. Entitled Evidence of Evidence,  it will be up until March 30th. (I’ve written a bit about how that exhibition came about here.)

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