American-born industrial designer Arthur Umanoff worked prolifically during the midcentury period, wielding cutting-edge materials with a forward-thinking attitude that helped forge the sleek, simple aesthetic of the era. Nearly 70 years later, Arthur’s approachable designs have proven timeless: On sites like 1stDibs and Incollect, his pieces are highly prized by midcentury-modern collectors.
Arthur launched his career in the 1950s at The Elton Co., designing pieces such as walnut-veneer, modular storage cabinets and the Swing Chair, which had a shifting seat made possible with ball-bearing swivels. For Shaver-Howard Furniture in the 1960s and ’70s, he left his mark with furnishings constructed with jet-black wrought iron frames, slatted wood, and natural fibers. And for Contemporary Shells Inc., there’s his reinterpretation of the famous fiberglass tulip chair and table, along with his burl wood-and-chrome tables. The Pratt Institute graduate also designed clocks for Howard Miller.
Now, midcentury-modern aficionados won’t have to look too far to own one of Arthur’s streamlined, accessible designs: Copenhagen-based company MENU has licensed five of his most celebrated pieces—a trio of planters, a pendant, a side table, a candle holder, and a wine rack.
The collection, which replicates his work from the 1950s and ’60s for companies like The Elton Co. and Shaver-Howard Furniture, was launched in early September. It’s expected to arrive in European stores in October and November, and will make its way into stores stateside in the next few months.
"I think some of his best designs were done in the 1950s for Elton," says Wendy Umanoff, who’s based in Richmond, Virginia. Arthur’s daughter, she’s the lighting designer behind Umanoff Design, helping MENU get the collection off the ground. "My father’s earlier work wasn’t very ornamental. It was no-frills, and there was a simplicity in his designs."
"The mix of materials is so intriguing, and the way that his products stand out, they are iconic in a way and don’t really look like anything else," says MENU’s design and brand director Joachim Kornbek Engell-Hansen, who has always been fascinated with the midcentury aesthetic. "That made me really interested in Umanoff."
The partnership between MENU and Umanoff is a natural fit. Upholding the modernist principle of stripping away unnecessary ornamentation and focusing on the product itself, MENU’s designs are straightforward and beautifully executed, much like Umanoff’s midcentury pieces.
"The principle of ‘less is more,’ Umanoff managed that in a super-fine way for a lot of his products," Engell-Hansen says. "His designs stand out as icons even though they are simple."
Engell-Hansen refers to Arthur Umanoff’s wine rack, which is one of his favorites in the new MENU collection, as exemplary: "It’s super simple. It’s just a few lines and a mix of three different materials."
Bringing his classic designs back into production, MENU has created a dialogue linking midcentury and contemporary design.
"His designs and the materials he used are still really prominent today," Wendy says. "Organic materials are so popular right now. Natural materials don’t go away, and he was in touch with that early on."
For companies like Shaver-Howard, Arthur used wrought iron to create the framework for his pieces, ensuring hardiness while maintaining a restrained silhouette. He also incorporated natural materials like rattan, woven fibers, leather, and wood, which gave his pieces an affable warmth and approachability.
"Modernism isn’t considered warm and fuzzy, so these materials helped to warm up a house," Wendy says of pieces like his iconic lounge chair with a contoured birch slat seat and woven fiber backing for Shaver-Howard.
"The objects that [MENU] chose, they tell a story in your home," Wendy says of the collection. "They are intimate pieces, and personal. There are special moments that happen around pieces like that. And it’s interesting that they are midcentury designs, but they feel so present."
Related Reading: A Design Duo Made in Heaven: Norm Architects and Menu
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