Drexel

Drexel Profile Dining Set: Back to the Future

Autumn offered the perfect time to move the Drexel Profile dining set into our booth at Avonlea Antiques and Design Gallery. Families planning a holiday gathering may discover they need a larger, more stylish table. And this is quite the set.
Drexel Profile Dining Table 1956

Estate Sale Acquisition

While scouring ads for our next lead, David and I stumbled across a promising find. An estate sale company had posted photos promoting their upcoming sale, and it looked right up our alley. This dining set had two things going for it: it was manufactured by Drexel and  is an impeccable example of Mid-Century Modern in design. The upholstery on the handsome spindle-back chairs appeared to be in excellent condition — and better still, possibly original.

Here’s a photo of the set at the estate sale. In person, the dining set proved even more impressive than hoped. I was floored (and more than a bit miffed) to see this heavy metal container on the bare wood!
Drexel Profile dining set

Estate sale prices are highest on the first day, yet David and I ventured out expressly for that dining set. While I flipped a few of the chairs over, David got down on his back and wriggled under the table to confirm its Drexel heritage. We bought the table, 6 chairs, and 3 leaves. A bit pricy, but what a fabulous design!

When David and our son Michael drove back to pick up the set, David decided to purchase the matching Drexel Profile buffet. Altogether, we made a significant investment in these pieces.

Designer John van Koert (1912 – 1998)

Stymied by my research efforts, I asked librarians in Florida and North Carolina for help with the elusive van Koert. We kept returning to his New York Times obituary, the most informative. During his career, Van Koert designed jewelry for Harry Winston, flatware for Towle Silversmiths, furniture for Drexel and later, Serried Ltd. in North Carolina. He died at the age of 86 in 1998.

Post-World War II modernist design, especially Scandinavian, appealed to van Koert. He served as director of the “Design in Scandinavia” exhibition that traveled through the U.S. and Canada between 1954-57. Brimming with more than 700 objects used daily, the exhibit featured items by Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish designers.

Design in Scandinavia exhibition
By Brooklyn Museum (Brooklyn Museum) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
The show promoted Scandinavian design, a term synonymous with

beautiful, simple, clean designs, inspired by nature and the northern climate, accessible and available to all, with an emphasis on enjoying the domestic environment. Source

Towle Contour

A few years earlier, the president of Towle Silversmiths, looking to branch out into this new, modern direction, hired van Koert as head designer about 1949. Under van Koert’s leadership, Robert J. King designed the Contour pattern for American sophisticates appreciative of the contemporary aesthetic. The flatware debuted in 1951, with beverage service appearing in December 1953.

Towle Contour Flatware
Towle Contour Sterling Silver Flatware. Source
Towle Contour beverage set
Towle Silversmiths
Newburyport, MA, active 1882 – present
Robert J. King, American, born 1917
John Van Koert, American, 1912 – 1998
Contour beverage set, 1953 (designed 1951-52)
Silver and polystyrene
Source

The Drexel Profile collection marked van Koert’s first foray into furniture design and Drexel touted his experience in modern design.

The distinctive style of Profile reflects John Van Koert’s work in the silver industry. “Contour,” the notable sterling flatware pattern designed for the Towle Silversmiths, has much the same sculptural feeling in its modeling. Contour met with instantaneous success and in a very few years has become the classic among modern flatware patterns in the United States. Drexel Profile catalog, c. 1956, p. 7.

Drexel Profile: Age, Style and Wood

Drexel manufactured the Profile collection between 1955 and 1961. Our set dates from  1956. Profile information comes from its catalog with this cover, which I’m estimating around 1956:
Drexel Profile catalog c 1956 cover

There are no abrupt angles in Profile. Tapered legs curve gracefully into the tops of tables and backs of chairs. The sculptured look is emphasized in case pieces by a gentle curve that joins the case at the top, the latter extending slightly outward both in the front and back.  Drexel Profile Catalog, c. 1956

Walnut and pecan wood form the basis of Drexel’s Profile collection. The catalog claims Drexel used the “finest walnut” on the larger pieces, such as the table and buffet. The chairs are a combination of pecan wood with walnut veneer.

Drexel produced three styles of Profile dining chairs: the spindle back, a panel back, and an upholstered back. I’ve been told the spindle back is the most desirable.
Drexel Profile Dining Chair

This page from the catalog shows our dining table and chairs:Drexel Profile catalog c. 1956

The dining table conveys an aerodynamic sensibility, very typical of an era celebrating fast cars and jets. I love the flared legs stretching out from table and chairs — very dramatic. Also, the tabletop’s two outer lines visually lengthen it. Once the 3 leaves are added, this table goes on to infinity.
Drexel Profile dining table

Drexel Profile Buffet

Although the Drexel Profile buffet’s shorter legs attempt to replicate the flare, its silver hardware and swooping lines pack the real punch. Here’s a photo on the day David and Michael retrieved the set:
Drexel Profile Buffet

A better view, I think, of the swooping lines of the upper buffet. The swoops appear not only in the front, but in a modified version at the back as well.
Drexel Profile Dining Set

As for the hardware, the Drexel Profile catalog (c. 1956) reads:

The flowing silver plated hardware, as elegant as fine sterling, especially reflects Van Koert’s work in silver design.

Drexel Profile dining setDrexel Profile dining set

All in all, this is a gorgeous set. When we first brought it into the booth, a customer asked if we would sell him the table only. We declined. Let’s try to keep this set together a bit longer.

Ann Marie and David

 

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4 Characteristics of Mid-Century Modern Dining Table Sets

MCM Dining Table Sets

After several barren weeks of estate sales devoid of bargains and success, our luck finally changed. We bought 2 Mid-Century Modern dining table sets in one weekend (along with several additional pieces), to add to the 3 dining sets we have distributed between our booth and warehouse.

This seems a good an opportunity to discuss what characteristics we look for.

  1. Clean Lines

    Mid-Century Modern dining table sets should convey a sense of lightness, sleekness. The shape should capture your attention. As a rule, MCM tables and chairs are more compact and, therefore, perfect for smaller spaces. Once you begin studying tables and chairs, their differences become evident.

  2. Manufacturer

    We always check the name of the manufacturer before buying Mid-Century Modern dining table sets. That means one of us is slithering around under the table and tipping over a chair. If we find a name like Drexel or White Furniture, we’ll stop our investigation right there. An unknown manufacturer, however, isn’t dismissed; we just double our efforts to make sure the pieces structurally sound and aesthetically appealing.

  3. Wood Grain

    Although MCM designers experimented with other materials such as plastic, glass, vinyl and shaped plywood, the tables we buy are made of wood. Tabletops are covered with good, wood veneer, which is a thin slice of actual wood. This process changed in the 1970s when furniture companies began to incorporate particle board and MDF to save money.

  4. Condition

    How much work will the pieces require? Our biggest expense is outsourcing a table for sanding and refinishing. Are the pieces sturdy? If any legs are wobbly, can we easily fix them? We hope for good padding and original fabric on the seats. Both of these, if problematic, can be remedied. All these elements, however, add to costs that can lower our profit margin

Now that we’ve covered the characteristics we consider when evaluating MCM dining table sets, let’s look at our sets.

  1. Drexel Profile

This dining set belongs to Drexel’s Profile Collection, designed by John Van Koert. Drexel manufactured Profile between 1955 – 1961. This set dates from 1956 and includes table, 6 chairs, and 3 leaves.

Mid-Century Modern dining table sets

First, look at its shape: tapered legs, gentle curves, borders on the table top, and chair spindles. It’s Drexel made, so the quality is excellent. Rich brown color, made of pecan and walnut woods. When we encountered this piece at an estate sale, I froze in horror seeing  that heavy metal container on the bare wood.

The chairs look great. I made sure to dust between every one of those exquisite spindles. One chair has a small stain on the fabric, but I think we can clean and avoid the recovering process.

Mid-Century Modern Dining Table Sets

2. Caldwell Furniture Company

Caldwell Furniture of Lenoir, NC, manufactured this table and chair set in 1961. My research hasn’t led me to any rich details on Caldwell’s. The company started in 1906 and Thomasville bought it in 1968. Despite knowing very little about the manufacturer, this is a well-designed table.  I like the way each side gently bows. Caldwell Furniture, Lenoir NC

The tabletop had sustained topcoat damage. Davis stripped the top and outsourced the table and its 2 leaves for refinishing. The final result reveals a highly grained walnut with contrasting light and dark grains.

Here are 3 of the 4 recovered chairs. The backs remind me of bow ties. We recovered, and seriously upgraded, the 4 dining chairs seats, which we wrote about in a previous post. At present this MCM dining set sits in our booth at Avonlea Antiques and Design Gallery.

MCM Dining Table Sets

3. White Furniture Company of Mebane, NC

White Furniture, known for high quality, manufactured this set, probably in the late 1970s. It came with 6 chairs and 2 leaves.White Furniture MCM Dining Table & Chairs
The chair spindles gently curve, the legs taper. The oval top contrasts with the square and rectangles of the chair and there’s an Asian sensibility to these chairs.  David believes the wood is walnut but we haven’t studied it enough to identify the finish. As for the condition, the table needs refinishing.

The square cushions are in great shape, generously padded and covered in a white vinyl. I’m not a fan of vinyl, but it can be useful if children are anywhere near food. Here’s a chair detail:

Mid-Century Modern Dining Table Sets

4. B. F. Huntley of Winston-Salem, NC

My research hasn’t led to any unusual discoveries. A small business, Huntley’s started in 1906, sold to Simmons in 1929, burned in 1935 and reemerged as Huntley once again before Thomasville bought it in 1961. Although the table has a series of stenciled numbers on the bottom, each company had its own system of identification. I can’t say definitively when Huntley made this set without a code to decipher the numbers.

This drop leaf table came with 6 chairs and 1 leaf. Ironically, a previous owner had the table refinished but neglected/forgot the leaf. As a result, the leaf doesn’t match the table’s newer finish. David claims the table needs work, and Michael tells me the seats need recovering.

Mid-Century Modern Dining Table Sets

When David and Michael picked up the set from the estate sale, they — and the sales rep — realized it was a drop leaf. The rep claimed, had she realized that when pricing, she’d have marked it higher.

What I appreciate about the chair design is the “H” back, and the upper back slat reminds me of a surfboard. At a glance the padding and fabric looked OK to me but I haven’t studied it. I know at least one of the chairs wobbles.

Mid-Century Modern Dining Table Sets

5. Drexel Today’s Living

Milo Baughman designed Drexel’s Today’s Living Collection, Our set was manufactured in 1952. The shape of the table holds interest because its thickness narrows down from the center.  I wrote about our struggle to acquire these pieces at an estate sale.

Milo Baughman Drexel 1952

The woods are elm and beech; the finish is beech. Between its wood color and the matching orange fabric, there’s a sense of lightness. Happily, we kept the chair seats as is.

Lastly, our son Michael will choose one of these Mid-Century Modern dining table sets for his personal use. He narrowed his selection down to two sets (#1 and #5), both manufactured by Drexel, Michael’s considering either the Drexel Profile set by John Van Koert (4 chairs, 3 leaves) or the Drexel Today’s Living set designed by Milo Baughman (6 chairs, 2 leaves).

If Mid-Century Modern dining table sets appeal to you, which would you choose?

Ann Marie and David

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Finding Milo Baughman at Drexel

Acquisition

A few weeks ago, my son and I ventured into an estate sale madhouse. A lot of times a seller mistakenly identifies a sale or item as Mid-Century Modern (MCM) when it isn’t. My son  makes a game out of it, Ignorance or Malice? The rules are fairly self-explanatory. I just think it’s an attractive hook used to lure interested shoppers. Since there does seem to be so much confusion, I put together a primer on MCM.

But this sale wasn’t like the others. What it had were numerous photographs — posted earlier in the week — of an incredibly cool household.

The pack of buyers frothed rabid that morning. Fortunately Michael and I signed in as numbers 3 and 4 among the early dawn enthusiasts. Michael was still on crutches — a broken ankle from rugby. The melee didn’t favor his physical impairment, and being out of practice with first-day estate sales because of his job, the cutthroat frenzy took him by surprise.

The first people swarmed into the home like locusts — and we were among them. I reached the dining room first. I came face to face with the lovely table pictured below. “Where’s the price tag on this dining table?” I like to think that I presented my question in a calm and civil manner, but chances are the hapless worker witnessed a wild-eyed customer shouting incoherently about tags. After a chaotic few seconds I located the tag snatched it up. Others crashed toward me. This was the craziest sale I’d ever attended.
Milo Baughman Drexel 1952
Later, I learned Michael had headed to a bedroom but couldn’t grab sale tags speedily with his crutches hindering him. Faster shoppers outmaneuvered and frustrated him. We left the sale after an hour or so, only to be confronted by a line of shoppers still waiting to be ushered into  the home for the sale.
Milo Baughman Drexel 1952

We also purchased the matching china cabinet and lots of smalls over the next few days as prices dropped.

Research

Research came next. Who manufactured the dining set? The table, cabinet and chairs  provided a big clue: Drexel, all made in 1952.

Matching those exact pieces on the internet proved difficult. I came across suggestions that pioneer modern furniture designer Milo Baughman (pronounced MEE-lo BAWF-man) designed the set, but I wanted irrefutable proof. By training, I am a researcher.

Days later I cheered when I found a Chicago Tribune newspaper article from June 22, 1952, focused on Chicago’s big summer show of new furniture and accessories. It offered the first proof that linked Baughman with Drexel’s Today’s Living Collection. The important part of the article is in bold:

One of the largest new collections ever to be shown at once was brought out by Drexel Furniture company and includes a new Precedent group, “Precedent ’53,” of 35 pieces, designed by Milo Baughman in silver elm and beech. . . Baughman designed another modern group in elm and beech, with a spice finish, called “Today’s Living.” It is designed for young families with limited space. Source

I researched on Google, Google Scholar, our local library — they informed me I had exhausted their knowledge. I sent emails to Drexel Heritage with photos, especially the numbers.

Today's Living Dining Table -Stenciled Numbers
Today’s Living Dining Table – Stenciled Numbers. 100-4 is the model; 752 identifies the month and year the table was made: July, 1952

Drexel Heritage sent a pdf of the 1955 Today’s Living Catalog, which helped us verify our pieces.
Drexel's 1955 Today's Living Catalog Buffet
See? Our buffet numbers match the catalog number.
Drexel Today's Living Buffet numbers
Drexel 1955 Catalog Today's Living

Verification

My key question remained: Did Milo Baughman design the 1952 Today’s Living Collection for Drexel? And– at last — the confirmation email to me from Drexel Heritage:

“Yes, from the information we have that is correct.”

Baughman worked at Drexel in 1952, just a sliver of his successful life. The next year he moved on to Thayer Coggin, where he acquired his stellar reputation, and continued with them for the next 50 years. In the 1960s and 1970s designers at the High Point Market eagerly awaited the unveiling of Baughman’s newest pieces.

Several museums feature his designs, including New York City’s Whitney. The Furniture Hall of Fame inducted Baughman in 1987.

We’ll leave you with examples of his later designs. First, the man himself:
Milo Baughman

Burl Buffet by Milo BaughmanBurl Buffet by Milo Baughman / Thayer Coggin. Source.

T-Back Lounge Chair by Milo Baughman
T-Back Lounge Chair designed by Milo Baughman for Thayer Coggin. Source.
Circle Sofa by Milo Baughman
Circle Sofa by Milo Baughman for Thayer Coggin. Source.

We’re so fortunate that Drexel Heritage is still a functioning furniture manufacturer. Despite this fact, however, the Drexel rep still couldn’t provide me with a copy of the 1952 Today’s Living Collection catalog.

Researching source material such as catalogs and information on notable designers can be difficult, but this story has a happy ending.

Thanks for stopping by, and we love reading your comments.

Ann Marie and David

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