PAUL McCOBB: Simplicity and Function Does the Job

Paul McCobb Among His Furniture - Photo by Mid Century Modern Groovy

American Furniture Designer

Massachusetts-born Paul McCobb was an American furniture and industrial designer best known for his contributions in modern furniture design during the 1950s and 1960s.

Childhood and Education

Paul McCobb – Photo by Montreal Digs

Paul Winthrop McCobb was born on the 5th of June, 1917, in Medford, Massachusetts to Raymond Winthrop McCobb and Winifred Leontine Caufield. His father was a salesman who dealt in men’s furnishings.

At a young age, McCobb was exposed to the arts and developed a liking to it. He studied both drawing and painting at the Vesper George School of Art in Boston. He, however, was not able to complete his studies as he was enlisted in the army at the beginning of the Second World War.

In the army, he was a private assigned to the Camouflage Corps of the Army Corps of Engineers. His stay in the army was not long. He served only from December 5, 1942, to sometime in 1943. He was discharged because of medical reasons.

Work and Career

Walnut Modular Wall Shelving System with Desk by Paul McCobb – Photo by 1stDibs

The earliest known time when McCobb worked was in 1937 when he was hired by the Jordan Marsh Department Store as an interior designer. It was a job that was secured for him by his father, who was a buyer of the store at the time.

After the war, he moved to New York and worked for Martin Feinman’s Modernage Furniture. It was during this time that he developed his interest in modern furniture design. His name became quite prominent due to the work he did for Feinman as a design consultant. While working for Feinman, he met B.G. Mesberg, who will later become his partner in furniture making.

By 1945, McCobb had established his own industrial design company, the Paul McCobb Design Associates. His design company not only designed furniture but other objects such as radios, televisions and clocks.

In 1950, he and Mesberg created the Planner Group. Together, they would create and sell furniture throughout the 1950s and 1960s. McCobb would work on the design while Mesberg handled the distribution. This proved very profitable for both partners, giving them the means to launch other lines. The Planner Group continued to be in production from 1949 to 1964.

The Planner Group

Fiberglass Origami Chair by Paul McCobb – Photo by 1stDibs

The Planner Group was the first line of furniture that came about from the partnership of McCobb and Mesberg. The Winchendon Furniture Company manufactured the line. The line proved to be very popular with post World War II middle-class families, who wanted simple, practical, and most importantly, affordable furnishing for their homes. They followed the minimalist aesthetics that was quite in vogue during the period.

One distinctive design was the Planner Group Wall Storage System. This shelving system is made of wood but is set on a steel frame. Some of the models incorporated drawers and even benches. The line also includes a number of chairs, some made from moulded plywood while some were upholstered with webbing and other materials. A standout in this line was the Origami fiberglass chair, which was made with steel and moulded fiberglass that simulated the “folds” of the traditional Japanese paper art.

McCobb and Mesberg will follow up the Planner Group with other lines such as the Directional Group made by Calvin Furniture, the Predictor made by O’Hearn Furniture, and the Calvin Group made by Calvin Furniture. While all these lines proved successful, the Planner Group remains the most popular of them all.

Non-Furniture Designs

While his furniture designs made Paul McCobb a household name, it was not the only thing he designed. In the 20 or so years that his company operated, McCobb would also design a number of items that were not strictly furniture. For example, McCobb was commissioned to design televisions and radios for CBS-Columbia. He would create Hi-Fi consoles for Bell & Howell. He would also design lamps and wallpaper for his own company.

Product Development and Aesthetics

Paul McCobb Calvin Group Dresser – Photo by Invaluable

Besides his design work, he also worked as a consultant for a number of leading companies, helping them design the aesthetics of their products. His clients included Goodyear, Singer, Columbia Records, Alcoa, and many more.

McCobb also went on speaking engagements throughout the United States. He also made appearances on radio and television talk shows. McCobb even had his own syndicated design column that appeared in newspapers across the country.

He was also generous with his talents and made it a point to pass on his knowledge by teaching design at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art.

Awards and Recognitions

During the height of his career, McCobb would receive the Good Design Award from the Museum of Modern Art in New York no less than five times, from 1950 to 1955. He would also be honoured by the Philadelphia Museum of Arts, who conferred on him the Contribution to Better Design Award in 1959.

Design Philosophy

Spindle Back Side Chair by Paul McCobb – Photo by 1stDibs

Paul McCobb’s philosophy for designing furniture was never complicated. He wanted to design furniture that was accessible to a lot of people. This philosophy did not make his designs very popular among the upper classes of society, but it did endear him to a much wider clientele.

He kept ornamentation on his works to a minimum, favouring simplicity and function over flashy features. His designs were probably inspired by his New England upbringing, with Scandinavian, international and Shaker influences. He favoured the use of iron and solid wood for his furniture, but softened the effect with upholstery in a sturdy and durable material.

Some critics claim that Paul McCobb’s work never broke new ground and was mostly derivative. However, there are only so many ways to build a chair that a little bit of imitation is inevitable. While McCobb never revolutionised the design of furniture, that was not his intent. What he wanted was to create furniture that people would like to have and use and in that he succeeded.

Life, Death and Legacy

Paul McCobb was married twice, first to Olga Soika, whom he married before he enlisted for the army. His second marriage was to Mary Frances Rogers. McCobb met Mary when he hired her as a colourist for his Paul McCobb Design Associates. They would remain married until his death in 1969.

Paul McCobb passed on March 10, 1969, in New York, New York. He was only 51 years old. His obituary said he passed away due to a lingering illness, probably due to complications from hypertension that he had for decades.

Nowadays, McCobb’s creations are highly sought after by collectors, and reproductions are still available for sale. McCobb’s works have been exhibited in a number of places, including at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He remains one of the most recognisable names in the field of contemporary furniture design.