Thinking Outside the Box: Louise Brigham’s Furniture of 1909
Originally posted on December 10, 2009, this short article was intended to assess the contribution of a largely forgotten Progressive-era designer and social activist, and to help generate interest in her work. We revisit Brigham on the anniversary of her death.
“To all who care for simplicity and thrift, utility and beauty, I send my message.”—Louise Brigham, from “Box Furniture: How to Make Useful Articles For The Home” (1909)
In a manner somewhat analogous to Samuel Gragg’s bentwood chair of 1808, Louise Brigham’s “Box Furniture” jumped ahead of its time, or, as it were, outside the box. Globe Wernecke’s unit bookcases preceded box furniture, but as a comprehensive system attached to a design theory and a social agenda, “Box Furniture” appears to be the more important precursor of the mid-century’s low-cost modular wall units and case pieces—in short, of much MoMA-driven “Good Design.” For good measure, “Box Furniture” also anticipated the resource scenarios of Buckminster Fuller’s Spaceship Earth (1930’s), Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962), and William McDonough’s “Cradle to Cradle” (2002).
Conceptually, Brigham’s book is closest to McDonough’s. Brigham’s self-proclaimed task is to render humble materials into beautiful and useful objects for the home. Brigham’s materials are used boxes—she specifies bean boxes, canned fruit boxes, and gelatin boxes, among others, for projects ranging from cupboards, desks, and chairs to planters and music stands. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but there is no question that “Box Furniture” exhibits simplicity, thrift, and utility. However clumsy or derivative the Mission styling of the furnishings appears to us today, the concept behind it is much in vogue—repurposing as a key step toward sustainability. In 1909, in America, scant attention was paid to this issue. As the New York Times reported, “Box Furniture” might “be taken as one of the few indications of the birth in this country of a tendency toward less wastefulness of raw materials.” Interestingly, in the preface to the book, Brigham locates the genesis of “Box Furniture” at a base camp 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle—a frozen tundra where there were boxes (from delivered provisions) but no trees. What is interesting is that Brigham sensed a need to paint this scene at the outset, to project “Box Furniture” into a situation of resource scarcity, as if this were the best (or only) way to gain attention and acceptance. Despite protestations that box furniture “can be used with artistic effect in the homes of wealth and culture,” the rationale for “Box Furniture” aligned more with domestic conditions of relative deprivation, i.e. with workers’ houses, schools, and hospitals.
Indeed, Louise Brigham was a Progressive-era activist, artist, and social worker with experience in the settlement house movement. She was versed in the gospel of service, citing Jacob Riis and “How the Other Half Lives” as a particular influence. Inevitably, “Box Furniture” was tinged with the aura of paternalism that characterized these efforts.
Brigham’s educational platform, for example, speaks more to vocational training than art education; it is more about keeping boys (and girls) off the streets than about cultivating a generation of designers or design conscious citizens.
Still, despite such Progressive-era baggage, “Box Furniture” contained forward-looking concepts: affordability, the use of humble materials, unit or modular design, and participation would all figure into the design cosmology of the mid-century, while repurposing, as mentioned above, is today a highly topical issue. Part of this forward push involves the box itself. Chapter titles like “The box taken partially apart so that it loses its original shape” and “The box taken entirely apart and the material used in construction” point toward the radical achievement of de Stijl architecture—the deconstruction of the box. In its simplest form, as with the fireplace bookcase for the boy’s room (pictured here), box furniture has a Loosian austerity and geometry that anticipates Rietveld’s later crate furniture and the modular box furniture schemes of the resource-challenged 1970’s. Even with Mission styling literally tacked on, the box has still been deconstructed and reconstituted; the underlying concept is still visible.
Brigham mentions Holland and Germany as two of the countries she visited to spread her ideas. Could “Box Furniture” have been in the mix with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wasmuth Portfolio of 1910 as an American influence on post WWI European modernism?
In a small way, this post did help bring attention to Brigham. It caught the attention of several academic writers, including the artist and women’s historian Antoinette LaFarge at UC Irvine, who in 2011 began exploring Brigham’s place in the history of technology, design, and women’s work. Lafarge included several references to this post in the Wikipedia entry she initiated on Brigham. Then in 2014, Brigham was the subject of a paper entitled “Box Furniture: Thinking Outside the Box” that traces Secessionist influence on Brigham and further contextualizes her career.