Design has a fourth dimension; the intangible quality of aging gracefully. — Harvey Probber
I’d never heard of Harvey Probber before we acquired his dresser. But the moment David and I laid eyes on its sleek lines, dark, sumptuous rosewood veneer, and perfectly matched grain, we wanted it.
A little research: Probber emerged as a leading designer when American modernism flourished in the mid-20th century.
Harvey Probber is part of that unsung second wave of mid-century modernists. Though he hasn’t achieved the ‘label’ recognition of Eames or Noguchi, I think he’ll become considerably important on the secondary market over the next few years. — James Zemaitis, former director of 20th-century design at Sotheby’s. Source
Our son Michael fielded the initial inquiry. A woman wished to sell her father’s Harvey Probber dresser. A quick look at the outlandishly inflated prices on 1stdibs led to two discoveries: original Harvey Probber pieces are rare and expensive.
I set up a time for us to meet the client at her dad’s retirement community. David and I discussed the highest amount we could offer, stopped by the bank, and hoped for the best.
The dad had acquired the piece in the 1960s and loved it. His room in the nursing facility provided just enough space for a single piece of furniture beyond his bed and nightstand. This was what he kept. But alas, he faced a move to a smaller room. The seven-foot credenza with original glass top couldn’t join him. Because of her father’s health issues, the daughter served as negotiator.
We told her the amount of cash we could offer and her face fell. I found myself apologizing and explaining that we’d have to cover the costs of transporting and cleaning it — and it needed a lot of cleaning. Beyond that, we’d pay rental costs to display it until we sold it to someone proud to own a Harvey Probber.
She had to discuss our offer with her two sisters. Sure, that’s fine. And she’d get back to us, one way or the other. But as we left, David speculated that we’d never hear back. I reassured him that we did what we set out to do. We made a reasonable offer, up front with no gimmicks. What more could we do?
A few days later she phoned and agreed to our offer. I’ve got to tell you, we were amazed.
Probber used exotic woods for his cabinets and tables. This dresser, with finely crafted details, is rosewood:
We immediately dropped it off at our booth at Avonlea Antiques and Design Gallery. The legs showed damage from a senior citizen’s walker, a constant presence in the dad’s life. Mop buckets could have caused the nicks, too.
David used Timbermate Woodfiller on the legs, filling in and evening out the corner edges. He applied ebony stain over all 8 legs. When dry, he sprayed a clear semigloss lacquer and topcoat on the legs.
Next came Howard’s Restor-a-finish on the wood surface. David carefully hand rubbed until the finish shone. The dresser had a few scratches, but the Howard’s minimized them. And David polished obsessively. His reward was a luxurious finish.
Have a look: This generous top middle drawer holds jewelry.
The maker’s label:
David achieved this brilliant sheen:
Harvey Probber (1922-2003)
So, who was Harvey Probber? While in high school, Harvey took a job at a used-furniture store and soon began to sketch his ideas for furniture. At 16, he sold his first sofa design for the glorious sum of $10. After high school, his formal training was limited to a few evening classes at the Pratt Institute. He learned furniture production on the job at Trade Upholstery in NYC.
The key to salvation was in bits and pieces of plane geometry . . . they were meaningless alone, but when fused to conventional shapes, profoundly altered their character. — Harvey Probber
After World War II, he started his own business, Harvey Probber, Inc., in 1945, and spent the next four decades designing furniture.
His greatest contribution came from developing modular furniture in the late 1940s. That is to say, he developed upholstered unit furniture — 19 pieces — that could be juggled into endless configurations. He named this the Sert Group in homage to architect and city planner Jose Lluís Sert. Expanding on that concept, he developed Nuclear Furniture, which included various shaped occasional tables with interchangeable pedestals.
Imagine rearranging your living room with these quadrants, half-circles, corner sections, and wedges. Oh, it would be magical. Check out the examples provided:
In 2012, licensed by the Probber estate, M2L began manufacturing selected authentic reproductions from Harvey Probber’s collection.
Probber ‘s designs won awards. The Museum of Modern Arts, for instance, selected his Elastic Sling Chair and Upholstered Nuclear groups for their 1951 exhibition.
Starting in the 1970s Probber focused exclusively on contract design. He always maintained his interest in modular seating, urethane foam and luxe upholstery fabric. It’s a delight to review his eclectic designs:
Thanks for your interest in Harvey Probber and our absolutely gorgeous rosewood dresser. Until next time!
Ann Marie and David