MILO BAUGHMAN: Long-Lasting and Distinctively American

Rosewood case sofa by Milo Baughman - photo by 1stDibs

Milo Baughman was an American furniture designer best known for his chair, sofa, and table designs. He is considered one of the best modern furniture designers of the 20th century, thanks to his iconic designs. He excelled at creating pieces that were distinctive and had long-lasting appeal, all without sacrificing affordability. His designs are still being copied and revived by furniture designers today.

Early Years and Education

Milo Baughman – photo by Circa Who

Milo Baughman was born on a farm in Goodland, Kansas to Milo Ray and Lila Dilling Baughman. Baughman did not stay long in Kansas though, as he and his family moved to Long Beach, California a year after he was born. Baughman grew up in Long Beach, and as a young lad, he exhibited great interest and talent in the visual arts.

At the age of 13, Baughman was challenged by his parents to develop an architectural plan for a house that the family was building. He was challenged to do both the interior and the exterior of the house. Baughman stepped up to the challenge and designed a house that his parents lived in for more than 30 years.

Baughman graduated from Long Beach High School in 1941. Shortly after that, he enlisted in the army. He joined the Army Air Force, where he would serve until the end of World War II. While in the Air Force, he put his designing talents to good use as he was periodically commissioned to create plans for the construction of officers’ clubs.

After his service in the military, he went back home to Southern California where he continued his education. He went to the Art Center School of Los Angeles and at the Chouinard Art Institute to study product and architectural design. Chouinard Art School would later become known as the California Institute of the Arts.

Early Career

Milo Baughman End Table for Arch Gordon, circa 1957 – photo by 1stDibs

After leaving school, Baughman found work at Frank Brothers.

Frank Brothers was a specialty store specialising in modern design furniture. It was, in fact, one of the first of such type of store in the region. Baughman’s first professional work was as an interior and furniture designer for the store.

It was during this time that he met Georgia Christensen, who founded and published the Furniture Forum. The Furniture Forum became an important publication highligting modern design, featuring photos, dimensions, and pricing. Designers were also presented on the Forum, along with their biography and signature pieces.

In 1947, Baughman left Frank Brothers to pursue a solo, independent career.

Milo Baughman Designs Inc.

Desk for Glenn of California, 1949 – photo by 1stdibs

Baughman established his eponymous design company. His first clients were Glenn of California Furniture and Pacific Iron, where he was commissioned to design furniture. His work pushed these companies to the forefront of a new modernist movement based in California. Baughman is also said to have started a distinctive Los Angeles style of furniture design that used materials like walnut, birch, and aluminium in its construction.

Baughman was invited by Drexel, another large furniture manufacturer based in North Carolina, to design for them. Starting in 1951, he created three collections. This invitation lured him into the East Coast for some time. While there, he sought to establish a foothold in North Carolina, which was the centre for furniture manufacturing in the US.

He collaborated with another manufacturer, Murray Furniture of Winchendon Massachusetts, which released The Milo Baughman Collection in 1952

Milo Baughman T-Back Lounge Chair from Thayer Coggin – photo by Cliff Young Ltd

Baughman co-designed modern upholstery pieces with his then-wife Olga Lee. He didn’t have much success promoting this line until he met with Thayer Coggin. Coggin saw great potential in Baughman’s aesthetic and thus began a 50-year partnership. Baughman will design furniture for Thayer until the former passed away in 2003.

From 1953 onwards, Thayer Coggin Inc. launched Milo Baughman furniture collections at the High Point Furniture Market, often to critical acclaim from the design community. Most often, the collection would spark a design and style trend that others would follow, thus cementing Baughman’s reputation as a forerunner of modernist design. By the 1960s, his name would be synonymous to modern furniture.

Move to Utah and Role as Educator

Rosewood Table by Milo Baughman from Thayer Coggin, 1960s – photo by Pamono

Baughman converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 1965 and remained a devout believer until his passing. This paved the way to his other career, that of an educator. In 1969, Brigham Young University invited him to establish a Department of Environmental Design at said school. There, he became the chairman of the department and adjunct professor. He did so for six years, all the while still pursuing his professional design business.

Baughman then moved to Virginia for 12 years, after which he moved back to Utah. Upon his return, he came back to Brigham Young University as a senior lecturer and continued to teach there for another nine years.

Baughman also lectured in other schools, including the Rhode Island School of Design, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, North Carolina State University, and the University of Tennessee.

Baughman would remain in Utah for the rest of his days, moving his design studio there.

Design Style and Philosophy

Mid-Century Style Black Upholstered Milo Baughman Lounge Chair, c. 1950’S – photo by Urban Remains Chicago

Like other modernist designers of his time, Baughman’s designs were all about simplicity and functionality. He practiced restraint and resisted novelty ideas that would not stand the test of time. As a result, his creations were forward-thinking, distinctive and never pretentious. Plus, they were always on the affordable side.

As to his design philosophy, Baughman was a great believer in the benefits of good design. He is known for his claim that good design is equal to enduring design. His works focused more on residential furnishings, particularly lounge chairs.

Awards and Recognitions

During his lifetime, Baughman exhibited in a number of museums around the United States, including the Southeastern Center of Contemporary Art located in Winston-Salem in North Carolina and the North Carolina Museum of Art.

In 1985, his designs were included in the High Styles: Twentieth-Century American Design Exhibit which was shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

In 1987, he was inducted into the Furniture Hall of Fame as recognition for his work in the field of furniture design.

Death and Legacy

Milo Baughman passed away on July 23, 2003, due to natural causes. He was 79. At the time of his death, he was survived by wife Carolyn Fotheringham, his four children, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

He also left behind a body of work that became emblematic for furniture design of the 60s and 70s. His designs became so iconic that they are still used, copied, and built upon by furniture makers and designers up to this day.