"You're meant to be a fat man in a suit," croaked Charles Pollock when he first set eyes on Jerry Helling. As Helling, president of Bernhardt Design recalls, it was a perfect icebreaker to his long search for the legendary product designer. "I thought 'this guy's cool'."
Back in 1965, Pollock designed a chair for furniture and accessories firm Knoll that would become the most successful office chair of all time. Before that he worked for George Nelson's studio in the 1950s where he designed the classic Swag Leg Chair and in 1960, his first product for Knoll, what many consider a mid-century collectible, the 657 Sling Chair. He came back to attention in 1982 with the Penelope Chair, this time for Italian firm Castelli. After this, he disappeared into obscurity. No one could say what happened until Helling went looking for him.
"There were people who told me he was dead. There was no Google information other than wrong information. There was another Charles Pollock who died but he had owned a reproduction company in LA and also false information about him being Jackson Pollock's brother," says Helling.
But the mythologies circling Pollock only served to spur Helling. "When you can't have something, you want it even more." Helling went to an online search agency thinking there was a good chance Pollock would be
in New York.
A list was made of Pollocks who lived in the tristate area of Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. He stripped it down by age category to a possible seven names. Detectives were hired to search court records until they came across one name they thought might be Pollock. Helling then searched public records for a list of addresses that this Pollock had lived at and began visiting each address.
"I found him at the third address." It was an apartment building on the Upper West Side for "older gentlemen" run by the New York authorities. But, there was a minor hiccup. The building's doorman declared that the man in question wouldn't answer his phone or buzzer. "He sounded like the right guy," recalls Helling.
Undeterred, he delivered a message to the building in the hope of a response. Two weeks later, Helling received a call from a gravelly voiced man. "This is Charles Pollock." After a 16-month quest, Helling was lost for words.
"I wasn't sure what to say to him after looking for him for so long."
Two weeks later they set up a meeting. Helling recalls Pollock was shocked to see him as Pollock hadn't seen a furniture industry person in a long time.
His idea was "still big guys from the Midwest in three-piece suits - very conservative." Their first conversation was surprisingly about art. To Helling's surprise, Pollock produced a painting he had completed for him in advance of their meeting. In fact, Pollock had originally studied art at the Pratt Institute in New York before being nudged by a tutor to take up design. The product designer had for the past 30 years reverted back to painting and sculpting. They spoke about the past - the greats of the design world: Eames, Nelson, Knoll.
Pollock also came armed with ideas for products. "He was ready to go from that first meeting," Helling says. Every time Helling would return to New York to meet with Pollock, the sheer number of ideas proved problematic.
"He had so many ideas from not having anything produced for so long - drawings, concepts, he would sketch ideas in front of me - it was really a problem of too much. He wanted to do everything that had been stored." And so the process to develop the new CP Lounge Chair began, a six-month gestation between the initial meet and the final concept. Much of it was about bringing Pollock into the editing process, a series of careful conversations about Pollock not wanting to reproduce or rehash ideas but staying true to his design heritage. "He wanted something simple to relate to this continuous line he loved on the Pollock chair," says Helling.
Why did it take 30 years to come back to the design world? Helling attributes this chiefly to Pollock's bipolar condition (he was diagnosed in the '50s). This was a challenge during the design process. "The idea of things being finished is a difficult concept," says Helling. "Everything's a work-in-progress with that condition. 'I'm gonna do it tomorrow, it's gonna be better,' but it was getting to that point of him saying it's good. Once we got there we started prototyping." Pollock missed a scheduled meeting, which proved fortunate. "They found him half-dead in his apartment with a fever of 104 and he spent the next three months in hospital," Helling recalls. He delivered prototypes to the hospital for Pollock to edit and approve. "The final product is so close to the sketch."
The design process was a discovery for Pollock. "At Pratt we were taught to sketch, model and build, and that has always been my discovery process," says Pollock. "Sixty years later with this chair, I did my first production drawing and Bernhardt made the prototype." Regardless of new methods, his design is focused on one thing. "Designing using a continuous line leads you in one direction: towards simplicity. Your eyes follow the line around the perimeter of a chair and it appears to be floating in space."
The CP Lounge Chair may prove to be another design icon. In the meantime, he's working on a series of tables for Bernhardt. "He's excited about what's transpired in the past year. He's working and respected." Helling says. No one can argue with that.
657 SLING CHAIR
Pollock established his own design firm above a drug store in Brooklyn in 1958 and it was here that he created the 657 Sling Chair, his first design for Knoll. The chair was in general production from 1964-1979. The chair, constructed of a cast steel frame with a leather sling seat, is now a collector's piece and is often sold by auction and the subject of many design groups. The Sling Chair forms part of the decorative arts and sculpture collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
After the Sling Chair, Pollock spent the next five years designing and developing a new concept for office seating, supported by Florence Knoll who gave him US$20 a month for rent and a small development allowance. In 1965, the Pollock Chair was released and quickly became a visual symbol of the modern workplace, and one of the best-selling office chairs that helped start the path of corporate styling. Notable at the time for Pollock's patented invention of rim technology, the chair is still in production by Knoll, testament to its timeless appeal earning a place in the Louvre in Paris.
Produced for Italian company Castelli as a chair for guests or meetings, the Penelope Chair was one of the first to consider ergonomics - the user was able to sit in the "bent knee style". Another development was Pollock's use of mesh as a major component of its construction. In its original form, the chair utilised a folded mesh construction, which following advice from the Castelli design studio, was replaced with a steel mesh treated with a thermo plastic resin. It would be another 20 years before other designers adopted mesh as a common medium.