NEW YORK — A lifelong New Yorker, John Mascheroni has been designing furniture for his entire working career. With his furniture a part of MoMA’s permanent collection, Mascheroni’s work has been recognized for its design acuity and bold modernism.
Born in 1932, Mascheroni studied Industrial Design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and initially worked in his father’s furniture factory where he learned to make reproductions of European antiques. Mascheroni opened his own furniture design practice with a showroom in New York’s famed D&D Building and, later in his career, designed for manufacturers.
Working with Lazar Furniture for the past two years, Mascheroni is vibrant at 90, with energy and a commitment to design that works. We reached out to Mascheroni to ask him about his perspectives on the industry, his design heroes, and what makes a design work.
How do you approach your furniture design from a functional standpoint?
First, I look at trends. It’s interesting because furniture design and styles are a rolling circle. They go back and forward and back again. Fortunately, since about 10 years ago, we suddenly began to embrace modernism again. The simple reason was that some of these pieces started showing up in auction sales. Designers had never experienced this style, and they weren’t exposed to it before. Midcentury became an important factor.
In addition, trends have to adapt as, for instance, seat depths have changed dramatically. They used to be 21 to 22 inches for a sofa. Now they’re at 24 inches because people are much taller. Also, people no longer sit on their seat, they curl up on them and bring their knees up.
Then there’s the other part that is regional taste. East Coast, Midwest and West Coast are totally different. Florida (a big area for Lazar’s customers) is in its own zone. Customers there love glitz more than anything else. There are so many new millionaires, and they don’t want to look like old Palm Beach which was a very lofty environment back then. Like Newport.
On the West Coast, customers like a duller finish. It’s a different lifestyle. Laid back, more environmentally oriented. They like textural things they can touch and feel more so than the East. Coast. You have to pay attention to these tastes.
My job is to please the audience via the manufacturer. Fortunately, I have a great manufacturer who comprehends that and is on the same page.
As they say, everyone loves their children equally, but there are still favorites. Which of your designs over the years gave you the most pride/joy?
Easy. The first one is a design I did in 1966 called the Tubo table. Tubo, because the material I used was a 3-inch diameter aluminum pipe, not solid. I chose it because stainless steel is very cold. I wanted something that had a look and feel more like silver. So, I designed a table and had it produced for my own business at the time, and it became very popular. There was an etagere, a chair, two or three other pieces in that collection.
The piece was distinctive because of the dimension of the material. Everyone was using very thin material in those days and tubing was no bigger than 1-inch and ½-inch square or ½-inch round. Instead of using clear glass, I used a bronze glass.
The pieces were produced in Long Island City in NYC. At that time, I found a company that was really quite good; they were doing a lot of work for the contract industry and designers, including sculpture for Noguchi.
The table is now in the collection of MoMA in New York. I was lucky because one of their board members who was a graphic designer saw the table and said, ‘I want you to present it to the museum,’ which helped.
The other piece was an acrylic chaise that I made in 1969 or so. The interesting thing about this piece is that unlike most designers who were using cut-and-glue acrylic, it was an origami-like flat sheet of acrylic that was folded up, self-supporting and the arms popped out. The back was folded down and up to support.
I had an excellent fabricator; they are still in business in uptown NYC on Dyckman Street. There weren’t many made because what happened in 1974. During the oil embargo, the price of acrylic tripled, quadrupled, and that was the killer. It was too expensive to produce.
You’ve worked with so many materials — wood, metal and plexiglass, among them — what did each material provide to you in terms of designability or creative exploration?
The materials dictate to you what you can do with them. They have individual properties for their use. Wood can be carved, sculpted, cut, but the joinery is always the same thing with dowels, fastening devices, wood to wood dovetail, and it all ultimately requires fastening by glue or something mechanical like screws, nails, etc.
Metal can be bent, rolled, welded or mechanically fastened. Today there are many processes that were not available when I was starting out. For instance, the development of laser cutting allows you to do facades of buildings with filigree that you couldn’t do years ago. But for laser cutting metal furniture, you need the manufacturer to have the machinery to do so and it’s expensive.
Sheet acrylic can be cut, polished and glued. I had several pieces with cut and glue, but I preferred doing with a sheet that was heat-formed acrylic that can be cut and bent. It gives a more fluid design than a bunch of sticks joined together.
Upholstery is a whole different world, it’s like the human body. Your flesh is hanging on a skeleton. The skeleton is the frame beneath the upholstery. Now, frame design is done on a computer. It’s something which I was not taught, and I liked to get into a factory and watch the C&C machine process. It’s like a model airplane made out of balsa wood. The machine cuts out parts and then assembles and upholsters the piece.
You have said you were probably most influenced by Ray Eames and George Nelson. Are there any other design luminaries you admire?
Oh my God, yes. Seriously, Scandinavian designers: Their approach to producing a chair has a very sculptural way of working with wood. Hans Wegner, Arne Jacobson – they were very aware of the human body. Others include Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Mies van der Rohe. Jean-Michel Frank had a sense of scale and proportion better than most designers of that period. Carlo Scarpa and his son Tobia Scarpa. Carlo was doing a lot of great designs in the 1950s to the 1970s.
Ward Bennett was a brilliant designer. He did some beautiful pieces. He was a modernist but in the classic sense of the word. He would take an antique and reinterpret it in the modern style, take a British bank chair and make it into something quite beautiful. He mentored Joe D’ Urso, who came on later. Phillipe Stark as well.
Currently, I admire designers like Patricia Urquiola; she’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant.
How did you go about creating your designs. Where did you find most of your inspiration?
I love a challenge. A piece that’s was shown at market came from a challenge. One of the showrooms that Lazar sells a lot to asked for a sofa-back table. They wanted a long, narrow table but needed to be able to put a lamp on it for a large room that needed to float the sofa and table in it.
I came up with a design, and the specific design evolved into a collection including the console, lamp table, cocktail table and a dining table. It’s in polished stainless steel tubing because tubing is stronger than solid material and less expensive. It has limitations in that the table has a bend in it. There are restrictions on how tight you can make the bend because it will bend and fold like a cardboard tube.
At other times, the material inspires me. Or in going back through history I look at something that I loved from a previous period and reinterpret it into today’s look. I have a dictionary in my head of designs, especially since I spent so much time living with the ‘Louises.’
Philippe Stark borrows from history, especially in his famous Ghost chairs, which were very authentic pieces similar to Louis XVI style but with an elliptical back, not rounded. I was at one point making reproduction Louis chairs, but Philippe got to it in acrylic before I did.
You’ve said modernism is your strength. What is it about modern design that compels you?
Modern design eliminates embellishments and stays with the form. When I design upholstery, I design a mannequin in plain white because I’m focused on the form, shape and function. If it’s a sofa, it could either be a sofa against a wall or if it’s free floating, it should have some movement to it, serpentine, or elliptical or something similar.
It could be another designer’s piece, an element that I like that I evolve into something different. Artists and musicians have been doing this for centuries. I have a book of painting by Picasso based on Matisse. Picasso is not copying, and Matisse serves as an inspiration where he evolves his own design.
Majority of great jazz musicians have evolved in this way as well. I went to the NYC high school for music and art at 135th Street and Convent Avenue right across from City College. It was delightful. I mixed with artists, sculptors and musicians.
How did your knowledge about the manufacturing process inform your designs?
I was always fascinated by machinery. Why something does what it does. And I applied it first by using it and working with it. Some of my first pieces I made were for my wife’s and my first apartment. I made a pair of chairs in walnut, and I hand-sculpted the arms.
Understanding the manufacturing process gave me a hands-on approach to designing wood furniture. I would also watch metal manufacturing to see how it was done. This enabled me to learn the process from start to finish.
What piece of advice do you wish you had received when you were starting out in the business?
Go to business school. I’m very serious. I had no business experience when I took over the family business when my father retired and as a result made many mistakes. And mistakes mean money. Not someone else’s money, your money. Your income. That is terribly important in terms of design education.
You never know when a designer becomes successful, you have to hire other people. You now have a crew, and you have to make decisions based upon what job you’re getting, what you’re going to charge and what profit you’re making. That is a major issue that I experienced.
What advice can you offer to those folks who are interested in becoming designers/craftspeople like you?
Learn about the manufacturing process. Try to absorb it so you can use it as a vehicle for what you design. So that the pieces can be made and can be used. There are limitations to every design you do: based on what the manufacturer can do, what is available and what they can’t do. Visit factories. Industrial design for me was far better than interior design. Designing and drafting are so important. That was one thing I lacked; I had to learn industrial design at Pratt Institute in an evening course.
That opened my eyes enormously. One of our instructors was John Pile who worked for George Nelson. We used a book called “The Theory of Visual Thinking.” It taught how to approach design visually and comprehend what makes a design successful or fail. It taught me how to see when something is well-proportioned and well-scaled and when it’s not. Look at how many ugly cars are out there!
In industrial design, you also learn manufacturing processes; that’s where I learned about plastic, acrylic and metal.
Coming from a family where your father was a furniture maker, have you ever had moments where you thought, “Gee, maybe I should pursue something else instead?”
Absolutely. Probably the No. 1 was to design cars. Automotive design. I was always sketching cars. The other one was advertising. Several of my classmates went into advertising and they were the real Mad Men.
I ended up doing what I did, and I’m very happy with it. Currently, more so than ever. Tom Powell, the president of Lazar gave me a quote, ‘The best seeds remained unfulfilled in dry soil.’ Since joining Lazar where I’ve been for two years, I’ve become more enthusiastic and more creative than I have in years. All because of the person I’m working with.
A relationship that is so important in the industry. A person who is knowledgeable about the manufacturing process and at the same time a great marketing person. He knows what is good, immediately. But he doesn’t make decisions unilaterally. He also uses some of his better clients as a sounding board.
Consider the fact that you’re including your best clients as part of the process. They have their finger on the pulse of what is happening at the moment. I also find my work with Ronnie Murphy who runs the factory, invaluable. Ronnie is extremely knowledgeable about all of the manufacturing processes.