Charles Pollock (1930–2013)

Charles Pollock in 2012.

HAVE YOU EVER KNOWN someone so talented in their chosen field that their formal education seemed redundant?

In 1949, after two years at St. Lawrence University, I entered Pratt Institute’s foundation year in the school of art and design. I found myself in a three-dimensional abstraction class with a very tall student with the head and body of an Italian Renaissance David. I remember that once the instructor, Rowena Reed Kostellow, started reviewing his work, everyone else just assumed her time would be occupied for the remainder of the class, and we should just leave. Yet there was no animosity because we all knew his work was exceptional and he was good-natured, loud, quirky, and driven. That student was Charles Pollock. Today, he is renowned as a designer of beautiful furniture, but his road to that success was one of unbelievable difficulty.

In the 1950s, after graduating from Pratt, I was a designer with the George Nelson office, recognized for its work in architecture and furniture along with product, interior, and graphic design. One of our clients was Herman Miller, a furniture company manufacturing top-of-the-line avant-garde residential and office furniture. The Nelson office had done some iconic designs, among them the Coconut Chair and the Marshmallow Sofa, and Charles Eames and Isamu Noguchi were among those designing furniture for them. With a classmate from Pratt, also in the office, I decided to convince George that he should hire Charles (or “Chuck,” as his friends called him at that time). George agreed, and Chuck took his seat directly behind me. Unfortunately, Chuck had had bipolar disorder all his life and, although I had only been remotely aware of it, in an office environment his quirkiness proved to be a problem. His conversations with himself were shared with everyone, to the point that George asked Chuck to see if working at home would be an acceptable solution. So the seat behind me became empty.

Time went by and I married, had a daughter, and continued designing. I noticed Chuck’s designs advertised but never with his name attached and wondered why. Much later, after several chance meetings with some who had stayed in closer contact with him, I found that he had married and divorced. He had given up everything, including an expensive East Hampton house. Nothing mattered to him but his work. He once said he was married to his work, and it is what kept him going. Without it, he might not have survived all those years.

About ten years ago, Charles invited me for dinner to his studio, which was filled with his drawings, sketches, models, and other paraphernalia. I arrived and we talked and talked. Eventually he said he had to check on something in the kitchen, and just then the odor of burning potatoes drifted into the room. So we went back to talking and forgot about dinner. The conversation was more nourishing than the meal would have been.

I’ve always thought of Chuck as a force of nature. His early years might have destroyed a less strong character. Even at the end of his life, with typical age-related health problems and requiring a walker, nothing reduced his determination. And, in spite of his talent, it was only very recently that he was able to take his well-deserved place in the design world. “Who is Charles Pollock?” I would hear someone ask from time to time, and for years, no one really knew. Imagine my joy when I received a call three years ago from Jerry Helling, president and creative director of Bernhardt Furniture, a major manufacturer of a quality product, inquiring about a “Charles Pollock,” the fourth “Charles Pollock” he had chased down, who seemed to be the designer of a beautiful Knoll chair he had seen in offices and conference rooms all over the world. Jerry Helling’s refusal to stop looking led to the beautiful and successful chair design introduced by Bernhardt at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City in the spring of 2012. Chuck’s name is now associated with that design, and finally with many of his other timeless designs, all exhibited at that show. Some manufacturers still refuse him credit for work done in the past. But times are changing. Today the profession of industrial design is gaining importance—partly due to Chuck’s own pioneering work. This means that designers are included from the very beginning of a product’s development and that, more often, credit is given where it’s due.

Lucia de Respinis is a professor of industrial design at the Pratt Institute, New York.