SC Johnson has filed a federal lawsuit in New York against the famed auction house Sotheby’s and a California man, seeking the return of a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed desk and office chair. Both pieces, valued at a combined estimate of $480,000 to $720,000, were slated for the auction block on Wednesday. But SC Johnson filed suit on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York seeking to block those items from being auctioned off to the highest bidder. Instead, according to the lawsuit, the Racine-based company wants the items back, claiming it is the rightful owner of all such furniture. The (Racine) Journal Times asked me to write a story for their readers about the background of the furniture.
Story and photos (c) Mark Hertzberg
Jack Ramsey (general manger of SC Johnson)…called up one day and said “we’ve got this crazy architect over here doing our building…do you want to come over and talk with him about furniture?” – David D. Hunting, founder of Steelcase, Inc.
SC Johnson was weeks away from breaking ground on a new office building by J. Mandor Matson, a Racine architect, in July, 1936 when Ramsey was persuaded to meet with Frank Lloyd Wright. Matson had designed what Wright described as a “fancy crematorium.”
Ramsey penned a memorable note to H.F. Johnson Jr., the company president after the meeting. Wright was the architect who understood what the company wanted in its new offices, “gosh he could tell us what we were after when we couldn’t explain it ourselves.”
Johnson met with Wright. He recalled that they quarreled all day, agreeing only on their choice of car, the streamlined Lincoln Zephyr, but he dismissed Matson the next day.
Buildings had souls for Wright. For SC Johnson, he designed what has been called a “corporate cathedral,” a streamlined building. Wright did not leave the task of furnishing his buildings to what he called “interior desecrators.” He wrote, “It is impossible to consider the building as one thing and the furnishings as another.”
Wright designed forty different pieces of streamlined furniture for the building. Conventional desks were rectangular, but the curves and horizontal planes of the Johnson desks evoke the lines of the building. Drawers swung out, rather than pulling out. The backs of the chairs swiveled for ergonomic comfort. The original chairs famously had three legs. They were rebuilt with four legs after people complained that they tipped over too easily.
This was not ordinary office furniture. The message was that this was not a place to do ordinary work. Wright’s Johnson office furniture design was so notable that the desks and chairs are now in museum collections.
Calling the furniture “a living artifact,” Kelly Semrau, Senior Vice President at SC Johnson, writes “We share this philosophy (Wright considering the building and furnishings as a whole), and believe it is our responsibility to guard and protect not just the building, but also the furniture…It’s a part of our legacy; our family story.”
Steelcase bought and restored the Meyer May House near their headquarters in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as a way to thank Wright for the SC Johnson commission which came during the Great Depression.