This installation view of “Paul McCobb: America’s Designer” shows the range of his production, including furniture, rugs, textiles, and a graphic print. (photo by Jim Barcus)
Johnson County Museum Exhibit Celebrates the Career of Post-War Designer Paul McCobb
Unless you are “of a certain age,” the name Paul McCobb may not trigger any memories. But if you recall home décor of the 1950s and 1960s, his work may look familiar if you visit the “Paul McCobb: America’s Designer” exhibit at the Johnson County Museum.
The exhibit title is not an exaggeration. When he died, in 1969, “The New York Times” referred to him as “the” American designer. He was repeatedly recognized by the arbiters of fine design for mid-century modern architecture.
Visitors will be struck by the influence of 19th-century Shaker furniture, and how McCobb’s works resemble modern Scandinavian design in their elegant simplicity. But “The New York Times” may have described his work best: “By careful attention to detail, a selective use of materials, an analysis of function and a sensibility for balance and scale, Mr. McCobb provided post-World War II Americans with a multitude of contemporary designs for the home that fulfilled esthetic and budgetary requirements.”
McCobb was born in 1917 in Medford, Mass., attended Boston’s Vesper George School of Art, and after a brief stint in the Army Corps of Engineers Camouflage Unit during World War II, launched his career in interior design with Martin Feinman’s Modernage Furniture in New York City.
While working at Modernage, McCobb met B.G. Mesberg, with whom he founded the Planner and Directional furniture lines, which were among the best-selling furniture lines of the 1950s and early 1960s.
McCobb embraced industrial, futuristic design and mass production as a means to produce high-quality, low-cost, modular, functional, and versatile furnishings for a post-war, booming, middle-class housing market.
McCobb designed every home furnishing imaginable, including radios and televisions, kitchen cabinets, living room furniture, china and textiles — examples of which are also included in the museum’s 1954 All-Electric House.
“Paul McCobb, America’s Designer” was organized by the museum’s curator of interpretation, Andrew Gustafson, in partnership with McCobb collector Sam Hildreth, whose collection constitutes nearly the entirety of the exhibit.
So why an exhibit on McCobb at the Johnson County Museum? Museum Director Mary McMurray explains that it is consistent with the museum’s mission, which, in part, is to focus on Johnson County and its post-war suburban development.
Gustafson agrees and adds that it is important for the museum to highlight aspects of the county’s history that may be less well known but important for county residents’ better understanding of their past. Indeed, most of Hildreth’s collection was found in Johnson County.
Hildreth acknowledges that following McCobb’s death, his work was largely forgotten, eclipsed by major competitors like Charles Eames, George Nelson and Eero Saarinen. But he points to signs of renewed interest in McCobb’s work including the licensing of McCobb furniture designs from FORM Portfolios to outlets such as Crate and Barrel.
If you don’t think you have ever seen interior designs from the 1950s and 1960s, watch, or rewatch, the television series “Mad Men,” and look for the furniture in the earlier shows.
“Paul McCobb: America’s Designer” continues through Jan. 7 at the Johnson County Museum, 8788 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information, 913.826.2787 or JCPRD.com/museum.