The Chair with a Scandalous Past

A reminder of the shadier side of the furniture industry will be on show Saturday, February 18 when a pair of Bernardo Plycraft “Pretzel” Walnut armchairs go under the hammer in Charlottesville, VA. Selling as Lot 179 in Bremo Auctions’ Mid-Century Modern & Decorative Arts sale, this famous design was once at the center of a controversy that would eventually show its manufacturer in a less than flattering light.

In the 1950s, the Herman Miller Company, led by George Nelson, was working on creating lightweight chairs out of plywood. Their Pretzel chair was designed by Nelson's office in 1952 and produced by a Massachusetts-based company called Plycraft. The chair proved too fragile and costly, so Miller stopped production in 1957. 

Lot 179 - the stunning pair of Bernardo Plycraft "Pretzel" Walnut Armchairs

But because of the Pretzel, Plycraft had the materials and techniques for constructing plywood furniture, and didn't want them to go to waste. George Nelson recommended that Norman Cherner design a sturdier, more affordable Pretzel-type chair that could be more easily produced on Plycraft's equipment, so Paul Goldman, the owner of Plycraft, hired Cherner.

Lot 68 - a set of beautifully crafted Bernardo Plycraft Pretzel side chairs

After Cherner turned in his design to Plycraft, however, he was told the project had been scrapped. Not long after, Cherner was in a furniture showroom in New York and saw his design for sale. Examining the label, he saw it was from Plycraft and was attributed to "Bernardo." He sued Plycraft in 1961 and won; Goldman admitted that Bernardo was a fabricated name.

The Saturday Evening Post cover (left) from September 1961, by Norman Rockwell (right)

Plycraft continued to produce Cherner's chair, but Cherner received royalties and proper credit. Although now known as the Cherner chair, the chair is occasionally still attributed to Paul Goldman, and is also sometimes called the Rockwell chair, because Norman Rockwell featured it on a 1961 cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

Bemo Auctions' Mid-Century Modern & Decorative Arts sale is set down for Saturday, February 18 and contains 325 expertly curated lots covering a host of exciting catagories including painting, jewelry, furniture, sculpture, potteryrugs and more. Look now at the full catalog.