By Antoinette LaFarge
Partially adapted from Louise Brigham and the Early History of Sustainable Furniture Design (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). Join the Crowdcast conversation with LaFarge and architecture critic Elizabeth Dickinson from June 24, 2020.
In the summer of 1906, a young Bostonian named Louise Brigham spent a few months on the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago, more than 800 miles above the Arctic Circle. She stayed in Longyear City (Longyearbyen), at a camp which housed about 80 men in primitive conditions: no electricity, no water supply. Moreover, all food and equipment had to be brought in from Norway by ship during the summer months from over 500 miles away and stockpiled to supply the camp during the eight months it would be cut off from the outside world by winter ice. There were no roads, only footpaths, and anything arriving at the Advent Bay dock had to be brought the half-mile up to the camp by human labor.[i]
“Two summers on the island of Spitzbergen,” wrote Brigham in 1909, “taught me, more than all previous experiments, the latent possibilities of a box.”[ii] The book she published that year, Box Furniture, is indeed a testament to the possibilities of a box—and not just any box, but specifically the packing crates then used to ship all kinds of ordinary consumer goods. Brigham found in those humble, cheaply made boxes inspiration for a unique system of furniture design based entirely on recycled packing crates.
When Brigham lived in Longyearbyen, its population consisted mainly of Svalbard reindeer, Arctic foxes, polar bears, and migratory seabirds, accented by a few isolated clumps of coal miners. Little more than a loose cluster of tents, a few sheds, and a handful of wooden buildings, the most impressive of the camp’s structures were a large, abandoned Norwegian tourist cabin that had been converted to living quarters for the miners (it would later become the company store), and the one-and-a-half story, eight-room “portable house” where Brigham lived.[iii] It was sparsely furnished, and Brigham quickly decided to see what she could do to make living conditions more bearable by constructing some furniture.
That she had both the ambition and the expertise to undertake this project is rather remarkable. Girls of the day were ordinarily trained only in the tools suitable for ‘womanly’ occupations like sewing, needlework, and basketry. Already by the late nineteenth century feminists were arguing that girls just as much as boys ought to be taught to use hammers and saws, but they hadn’t yet made much headway.[iv] Brigham, however, was a trained artist who had skills with tools that went right back to her New England girlhood.[v]
The stacks of leftover boxes on Spitsbergen prompted Brigham to continue some earlier experiments she had made in building furniture out of scrap wood. Perhaps the crucial factor pushing her to move forward was the bare fact that there was no other source of wood. As she wryly observed a few years later, the sole local ‘tree’ was the polar willow, Salix polaris, a dwarf shrub that grows only a few inches tall.[vi] Out of the canned-goods boxes stacked around the camp, Brigham built an assortment of furniture. The few surviving photographs of the camp interiors inform us that there were a desk, a sideboard, a hall stand, and some shelves; there were undoubtedly also tables and chairs.
Spun as domestic economy, Brigham’s project on Spitsbergen can be written off as yet another form of the endless drudge work done by women. But considered instead as life-support engineering or as minimal-impact design, it’s another matter altogether. What Brigham did was think carefully about what it would take to sustain and even improve life under tough conditions with very, very limited resources.
Louise Brigham’s “earlier experiments” with building furniture from scrap wood took place in the early 1900s when she was most deeply involved with the American settlement movement, a Progressive reform effort to help immigrants and combat such problems as poverty, lack of education, and other forms of social exclusion. The movement centered on settlement houses, a form of group housing where middle-class Americans could live with new immigrants and help them on the path to education, jobs, and citizenship. Well-known settlement houses include Chicago’s Hull House (founded by Jane Addams) and New York’s Henry Street Settlement (founded by Lillian Wald). Ultimately more than a hundred of them were founded in the United States in their heyday between 1890 and 1910.
In 1900, Brigham was a teacher at Hiram House, one of the earliest settlement houses in the United States and the first in Cleveland.[vii] In that period, Cleveland was the country’s tenth largest city (it is now fifty-third), and over one-third of its population was foreign-born.[viii] It had absorbed several waves of immigrants, first from northern Europe (Germany, Ireland) and later from eastern and southern Europe. Many of the latter were Jews, arriving to face anti-Semitism as well as a stereotyping of Southern Europeans as racially inferior. One of the many goals of the settlement movement was to help immigrant women earn an independent living from the traditional craft skills that they brought with them to America. This aspect would have been especially attractive to Brigham, who had a lifelong interest in craft skills and trained in a number of them herself, including weaving, basketry and metal work.
Hiram House offered college preparatory courses, a kindergarten, a day nursery, a summer camp, and various other activities. Brigham, who had earlier trained in the Kindergarten Department at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and had run a children’s playground, may have been a kindergarten teacher there. We know from Brigham’s later writings that she helped to set up a settlement house in Cleveland named Sunshine Cottage, which possibly was one of the residential cottages connected to Hiram House. Brigham designed and made a few pieces of furniture out of empty boxes for Sunshine Cottage—among them a child’s highchair and some benches. However, it wasn’t until her 1906 sojourn on Spitsbergen that those tentative attempts in Cleveland turned into something close to an obsession, one that would shape her life over the succeeding decades.
Unlike most American designers, who catered to the middle and upper classes, Brigham always saw the working class as her primary ‘client’. For example, she was alert to the ways in which multifunctional furniture can make life easier and less cluttered in a small or crowded urban apartment. Her ingenuity in designing desks with built-in bookcases, chairs with storage under the seat, and drop-leaf tables is more pertinent than ever in today’s world of tiny houses and mico-apartments.
Brigham lived for a time in a tenement neighborhood on the upper east side of New York, where she trained neighborhood boys in carpentry, so that they could make their own furniture. She furnished her own apartment on East 89th St. in New York entirely with furniture made out of recycled packing crates—an unambiguous refusal of the common idea that thrift is great as long as it’s for other people. To make a complete suite of furniture for her five rooms took the wood from 55 crates and cost a total of $4.20, which is the equivalent of roughly $108 today.
Even as we can appreciate how much effort Brigham put into developing scrap-wood furniture to a new level of utility and design elegance, we should not forget that she was attentive to the entire living space. She didn’t concern herself very much with architecture per se, but she thought a good deal about how people live with architecture, and as a result she took a holistic approach to design. At a time where there were not yet any interior designers, Brigham created entire plans for each room. These began with carefully thought out color schemes and extended to accessories, wall and window treatments, and even types of plants (vines in one room, evergreens in another). So, you might find a Brigham living room with dramatic black box furniture enlivened by crimson cushions, all set against a backdrop of white muslin curtains stenciled in black, with crimson rugs islanding the black floor. Elsewhere might be a calm study area with oak-stained wood, olive green walls, cream net curtains, and pillows in old gold and faded blue.
The work of this Progressive Era designer is an important link connecting the social justice aims of the settlement movement to modernist design in America. Her ideas in this regard were undoubtedly solidified by her time studying with the designer Josef Hoffmann in Vienna, which at the time was a hotbed of discussion about the social purpose of design. But though that linkage between design and social betterment made sense to Brigham, it did not dominate the conversation in the United States to the same extent as in Europe. In the succeeding decades, modernist design in the America became better known for its strict aesthetic than for being put at the service of improving people’s lives, and designers like Brigham fell into obscurity.
With the recent rise of green design and sustainable design, however, Brigham’s ethos and spirit have at last moved from the periphery to the very heart of design. The climate change crisis, compounded by a global pandemic, creates a moment when nearly every aspect of how we live day to day is being rethought. To take one small example, the home office looks like it may become a permanent fixture of housing rather than an add-on as work shifts away from the cubicled offices of the 20th century. For this, customization is key.
Perhaps there is new inspiration to be drawn from Brigham’s intimate quadruple writing desk, which she designed for a home office (above), or the more elaborate and idiosyncratic desk she designed for herself with a built-in portfolio case in the back, an attached filing cabinet, and extra drawers and shelves. Brigham also modeled for us an early version of a makerspace, running a free carpentry workshop for urban boys that demonstrated how anyone can make well-designed furniture for themselves, even with limited tools and nothing but recycled wood. In all her different activities, she showed that design can be integral to a comfortable home without becoming a luxury. But we don’t need to open a makerspace or update her designs to accept the challenge she held out: to move towards need wherever you find it, anywhere from an arctic coal mining camp to the back streets of a big city.
[i] Cameron Hartnell, “Arctic Network Builders: The Arctic Coal Company’s Operations on Spitsbergen and Its Relationship with the Environment” (PhD diss., Michigan Technological University, 2009), 126-28 and 137-40. That half-mile was a best-case scenario, too: in early summer, the first ship of the year might not get any closer than 30 miles away.
[ii] Louise Brigham, Box Furniture: How to Make a Hundred Useful Articles for the Home (New York: Century Co., 1919), Preface. Brigham herself does not give dates for the two summers she spent on Spitsbergen in any sources of hers that I have found, but it appears that she was there in 1906 and again in 1907.
[iii] It is unclear what Brigham means by portable house, but it was likely a wooden building brought in sections to Spitsbergen and erected on site.
[iv] Steven M. Gelber, Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 212.
[v] Brigham later remarked that as a child she had not cared much for tools but because she was interested in anything that could be done with the hands, she learned how to use the basic tools: hammer and saw, chisel and square.
[vi] Brigham, Box Furniture, Preface, 2.
[vii] John J. Grabowski, “A Social Settlement in a Neighborhood in Transition, Hiram House, 1896–1926” (Ph.D. diss., Case Western Reserve University, 1977). Hiram House was founded in 1896 by George A. Bellamy and students from Hiram College.
[viii] John J. Grabowski, “From Progressive to Patrician: George Bellamy and Hiram House Social Settlement, 1896-1914,” Ohio History 87 (1977): 37–51.