Neutra’s Boomerang Chair: Fanfare for the Common Man

Neutra's "recipe" for constructing the Boomerang Chair, along with instructions for building laundry hampers and cleaning glass. Woman's Day Magazine, 1947.

Neutra’s “recipe” for constructing the Boomerang Chair, along with instructions for building laundry hampers and cleaning glass. Woman’s Day Magazine, 1947.

Boomerang Film: and

The Boomerang Chair, apparently, is a contradiction. Its playful shape, its materials of cloth and plywood, is not what we expect from a proper mid-century chair. And it certainly doesn’t fit our stereotype of Richard Neutra: a thoroughly pedigreed Modernism: sleek and coolly sophisticated. Shouldn’t his furniture be all chrome and black leather, or pale oyster, or walnut … not something that looks like it walked out of a child’s cartoon? A little history. The chair was born in 1942, an important date because of the larger historical context. America was now immersed  in World War II, declared December 7, 1941. Neutra had just won an amazing commission as part of that effort, a 600-unit project housing for defense workers at the San Pedro harbor. Channel Heights, as it was called, was fast-track and ultra low-cost, but nonetheless is still known as a masterpiece of community design. It included a variety of dwelling types, a school, a supermarket with a sweeping timber and glass façade, playgrounds and a community center. Neutra maintained the hilly topography with a minimum of cut-and-fill, a strategy that aligned with budget no less than design intent, leading to a far more animated setting for the community.

Channel Heights Housing Project Site Plan

Channel Heights Housing Project Site Plan

Curving walking paths separated pedestrians, especially children, from Neutra’s nemesis, “rolling traffic.” He designed the furniture as well because he wanted the spaces to work as he intended. Life would be harder to navigate if the furniture wasn’t compact and sturdy — just as fit for wartime as the ships being readied for battle. War also meant that building materials close to Neutra’s heart, such as steel, aluminum, and chrome, were strictly regulated if not forbidden. Ditto luxe fabrics like silk and nylon. Thus redwood, brick, and stucco became the new medium for Neutra’s Modernism, whether for Channel Heights or the house he designed for television personality and producer John Nesbitt House, also completed in 1942. Modernism, after all, was more than the straight line, bigger than chrome and white stucco, and Neutra more a humanist than a rigid practitioner of the International Style.

John Nesbitt House, Brentwood, 1942

John Nesbitt House, Brentwood, 1942

So. To pick up the story: Into this intensely focused war effort saunters Boomerang, made of tough, plain cloth fabric and humble woods you could pick up from your local lumber yard. Maybe its cheerful shape, with its implication of relax, babe, I know it’s been a long day in the defense factory, all that boom boom noise, all that urgency, was just the antidote those fearsome times needed. The Boomerang’s impudence thumbs its nose as taking yourself too seriously. Neutra intended the chair as a do-it-yourself project, even publishing a “recipe” for making it, including a pattern, in Woman’s Day Magazine, hardly the venue for avant-garde furniture design. So perhaps it’s no accident that its shape is easy-going enough that it’ll still look good even if it’s not quite perfect, even if you didn’t get the “recipe” just right. In other words, Neutra is taking wartime pressures into consideration, letting you off the hook, at least for a few years, from the formal aesthetic demands of pure orthogonality, beautiful as it is. Because as much as Neutra loved the right angle, he loved contrast as well, curves playing off the straight line.What anchors that familiar sleek Neutra image is not a palette of materials but a deeply rooted belief in humanity: he was always more interested in the people living at the foot of the cathedral than in designing a cathedral. The war ended. Men and woman, veterans and war workers, came home, just like a real Boomerang returns to the hand that threw it. And while Channel Heights is long gone after a slow deterioration and lack of care, the chair went on to its own illustrious career. Its shape has become iconic, like a painting by the abstract artist Jean Arp, or a voluptuous landscape design by Neutra’s dear friend, the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. And Neutra clearly loved the chair, making sure it figured prominently in publicity photographs of any number of his houses whether the owner ordered one or not. In one famous photograph by Julius Shulman, six of the chairs are arranged on the elongated terrace of the majestic 1948 Tremaine House. Now, the Tremaine is a very adult, very cool, very suave tour de force in glass and concrete, perfect for a martini. Is this any venue for humble furniture for defense workers? Yet here are the Boomerangs, right at home, taking over the terrace. One can easily imagine the chairs scampering, chattering amongst themselves, likely plotting something that might not be exactly to the Tremaine’s taste. But that is Neutra’s point: the Boomerang fit any setting, could fit anyone. Embedded in the chair may be all the realities and sacrifices America endured during World War II. Today, though, the chair is timeless: pure Neutra.

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