Arthur Umanoff galvanised the Mid-century Modern movement with his streamlined objects that placed form after function. As MENU launches a collection of his most iconic works, his daughter Wendy reminisces about her father’s design legacy.
Despite remaining relatively unknown outside of the design industry, Arthur Umanoff (1923–1985) is widely regarded by collectors as a prominent figure in America’s Mid-century Modern movement. Together with his peers, he redefined the traditional furniture designs of the period, stripping away ornamentation in favour of function in order to accommodate the growing need for versatile designs for the home.
An artistic man from a lower-middle-class New York City family, out of high school Umanoff joined the American war effort and trained as a Navy medic, serving at a naval air station in New Jersey until the end of the war in 1945. Unsure of his calling, he went on to study design at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York before cutting his teeth as a designer-manufacturer in New York City.
“In those days it was not hard for a young designer interested in furniture or architecture to be familiar with the European design movement to simplify the home, inside and out,” recounts Wendy Umanoff, who is charged with safeguarding her father’s design legacy. “Ready to rebel against the worn-out furniture of their parents’ age, young American designers were powerfully influenced by the simpler, more organic forms of Danish masters such as Finn Juhl, Hans J. Wegner and Børge Mogensen.”
Thanks to his intelligent use of natural materials and predilection for function, Umanoff soon garnered attention for his work. Although he did not succeed as a furniture builder himself, his designs attracted manufacturers who were just learning how to sell a new way of thinking about furniture to a new generation of Americans. Using wrought iron, brass, birch and walnut veneers, jute roping and rattan, as well as tempered masonite and leather, Umanoff’s sculptural yet purposeful objects remain as relevant today in furniture designs and home accessories as they did in the mid-1900s.
“The use of materials and the proportions of my father’s furniture in his early designs created a harmonious balance for modern home living. His early pieces were practical and utilitarian, less ornamental,” notes Wendy. In all his work, Umanoff refined tradition and reflected warmth, developing objects perfectly attuned to their primary purpose and both aspirational and attainable.
In the early 50s, Umanoff became life-long friends with other young creatives, including Ben Siebel, who also were catching the post-war wave in New York City and orbited around artists like Raymond Rocklin, Leo Amino and Milton Hebald, whose famous Zodiac sculptures greeted travellers at JFK Airport’s PanAm terminal for more than half a century. A charming, charismatic man socially connected to the design world and his local community, Umanoff was always willing to help others — especially if it involved any form of problem-solving regarding design.
“[He] was a very hands-on designer, involved with every aspect of working through the design details during the manufacturing process. It was the way in which he worked through the fabrication details of his furniture collections with makers that delighted him and drove him to create more,” recounts Wendy, having witnessed first-hand her father’s passion and process on a working trip to Guatemala.
“He believed that it was at the time of actually producing a product or prototyping that offered opportunities for correcting production problems in real time. That stimulated him as much as it did when creating the early concept sketches of a specific design. It was clearly evident to me then that the working relationships my father made throughout his life energised his creative mind and spirit.”