Charles Pollock (1930–2013)

Charles Pollock.

CHARLES POLLOCK, creator of what is roundly considered the best-selling chair in the history of modern office design, lived several lifetimes in the course of his eighty-three years. While his talent was legion, Pollock was also bipolar, which ruled out the traditional apprenticeship-to-partner-to-namesake-studio track followed by many of his peers. But then he rarely followed established patterns: He made small fortunes and lost them, and left behind little in the way of archives. Anecdotes of his unfiltered, larger-than-life persona abound, but given the unconventional circumstances of his life—and later, his death—it’s difficult to get a true picture of the man behind the legacy.

Charles “Chuck” Pollock was born in 1930 in Philadelphia, and as a young man worked on the floor of the Chrysler factory in Detroit. He attended the illustrious Cass Technical High School, then Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, on scholarship, graduating in the school’s first industrial design class in 1953. He impressed George Nelson enough to earn a spot in the legendary designer’s atelier, and helped develop Nelson’s signature Swag Leg profile. Pollock notoriously caught the attention of Florence Knoll by knocking her over—literally—with a chair prototype. She hired him, seeing promise in a draft of what would become Pollock’s 657 Lounge, introduced in 1961. Just two years later, Knoll released Pollock’s seminal Executive Chair—which sports a pedigree both academic (residing in MoMA’s permanent collection) and popular (featuring in the décor of AMC’s Mad Men). In a later interview, Pollock described his process as one of intelligent fiddling: “You don’t make this arm shaped like that because it is beautiful just by itself. You are integrating an awful lot of different elements all at once… I mean, you just fiddle with it forever and run back and forth to the factory and talk to Mrs. Knoll forever until finally it just gels.”

Charles Pollock’s designs for Penelope, produced by Castelli.

The Executive Chair proved so successful that Pollock lived off royalties for almost two decades while traveling around Europe and tinkering with nascent design ideas, sculptures, and prototypes. While skiing in Italy, he met the Castelli family—owners of an Italian office furniture manufacturing company since 1877—who produced his steel-mesh and wire-frame Penelope chair in 1982. Though he kept developing ideas in the intervening years, the passive ergonomic structure he created for Castelli was Pollock’s last full-fledged design to hit the market until 2012, when his CP Lounge chair—produced in collaboration with North Carolina–based Bernhardt Design—earned him late accolades and introduced his name to a new generation of design aficionados. The designer was still hard at work when he died in a fire at his Queens studio in August 2013. And even now, the powerful momentum of his extraordinary talent continues to move forward; Bernhardt will release a new piece, which he designed during his last year, this May, during the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York.

Kelsey Keith is a senior editor at Dwell magazine.