Milo Baughman

by Branka Bozic

Milo Baughman

Milo Baughman was one of the leaders of classical design. He didn’t begin a story about Modernism, but he continued it with dignity. He gave a new, fresh strength to this radical movement because he trusted his role models. The goal was to create something better, while his tireless energy reflected in numerous attempts. The better part was meant to stay in the domain of the classics, but to hide an optimistic thought at the same time. What was the main idea and the foundation of Baughman’s 60 years long career?

Clear Plans

Milo Ray Baughman was born in a small town of Goodland in the federal state of Kansas, in 1923. Immediately after his birth, his family moved to a city that offered far more opportunities, Los Angeles. During his childhood, Milo Baughman showed affection and talent for space designing. He got his first opportunity as a 13 year old boy to design the exterior and interior of his own family home. As he only confirmed his potential with this, it became almost certain that design would be his life call. His plans were temporarily stopped with the Second World War. At the end of his high school, Baughman was drafted to the United States Air Force during the war. After four years of service, he returned to California and continued his education. He entered Art Center School of Los Angeles within Chouinard Art Institute that would become famous California Institute of the Arts in 1961. 

After he finished studies, everything went according to plan. He started working as interior designer in one of the first modern furniture stores at the West Coast. Its name was Frank Brothers and to Milo Baughman it was a springboard for familiarizing with the design scene. A significant friendship that he gained at the time was the one with Georgia Christensen, with whom he edited Furniture Forum magazine. The magazine was among those top rated, always complemented with important information. Unlike other magazines, this one contained facts about designers’ achievements besides the facts about current topics. No matter how information seems to be available in modern context, for the mid-20th century, this was a precious step, and today it is a crucial historic record. 

The Spirit of California

In a short time, Milo Baughman proved himself to be a multi-talented and skillful worker. During the mid-40s Baughman decided to try his luck as furniture designer, when it turned out that a vast number of companies was interested in working with him. Among those for whom Baughman created were Mode Furniture, The Inco Company, Pacific Iron, Murray Furniture of Winchendon, Arch Gordon, George Kovacs… At the age of 24, he left the Frank Brothers store and founded his own company – Milo Baughman Design Inc. Several years later, with his wife at the time – Olga Lee, he spread his services to custom design shop as well. They worked together as consultants and interior designers, while Olga made wallpaper and fabrics by hand.  

The encounter which completed Baughman’s opus happened within the Glenn of California Company. In collaboration with European lady Greta Magnusson Grossman, he created what we know today as California Modern aesthetic. Grossman moved to the USA because of the Second World War. She brought the ideas of Scandinavian design approach which proved to be an excellent addition to American modernism. The atmosphere in California during the 50s gave a new layer to the work of these giants. Although furniture was modest, the spirit of time made it luxurious. It was simple but sophisticated at the same time. The two of them created a sub-unit of modernism according to which the whole west coast became famous.   

Crucial Friendship

The acquaintance with Grossman completed Baughman’s beginnings. But the rest of his career was marked with an unsurpassed friendship. It didn’t complete his opus but rather rounded it out. When we come to the end of this story, we will realize that this isn’t exaggerated. 

Thayer Coggin decided to found a furniture manufacturing company in north California in 1953. As his wife Dot described – everything started very simply “Milo came here when the company was in its organisational stage. Thayer was looking for a designer and their relationship began with a handshake agreement.” They were not aware that a collaboration which lasted for half a century started then. That was an ideal juncture of Baughman’s visions and Coggin’s knowledge of manufacturing process. While the ideas of one of them seemed unreal, the other one tried to find a way to make them possible. “In 1953, no one really understood what it was I wanted to do, Thayer seemed to like what I had, but I had no idea that we would be together this long.” Their friendship ended in 2003. Thayer died in May and Baughman only two months later. Thayer Coggin Company still exists and together with it lasts a timeless friendship in the shape of the finest furniture. 

What additionally led to mutual success was Baughman’s approach to Modernism. He believed in strong principles of purified and liberated design, but he wanted to add a certain character to it : “With an ongoing interest in 1950s and 1960s design, a lot of my work has been reintroduced and been very well-received. Increasingly, architects are using these mid-century classics from the pioneer producers of this period. I understand because I admire these as well, but it’s a bit unfortunate for current designers with new interpretations of Modern. Going back to the ‘classics’ is playing it safe, which limits opportunities for new concepts in design.” Although he built his work on revival of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer’s work, he warned contemporary designers not to take the easier way. No matter how well something is received, it doesn’t mean it should stifle the freedom of individual’s creativity. 

The Game of a Relationship

When you do the research about the furniture which Milo Baughman designed, you will find the adjective: unpretentious attached to his work most often. It was his goal to a certain point – to give the postwar America affordable and appealing furniture. Pieces that he created were set mostly in residential interiors, thus he paid attention not to let his imagination prevail functionality and comfort. We can also describe this work as a game of full and empty, round and flat. 

The descriptions above can be applied to Betty Lounge Chair from 1968. The upper part of the chair is made of plywood covered with polyester, shaped with fabric or leather. Walnut legs are offered in three different finishesThe chair as a whole is harmonious and can be adapted to different kinds of space. Similar to Betty with its form, but completely different regarding its character is No. 1233-103 Chair or Boldido Chair. Although inspired by Womb Chair from the past, this piece strives for the future. With its stainless steel frame, it carries the whole form thus contributing to its elegance. Lines are clear and light. When it comes to chairs, there is one specific thing about Baughman – every buyer can find the one that fits his personal taste. He succeeded in making numerous variations that aren’t different from the following description: “Very modern, clean lines and light in scale.

Drum Tables stand out among the rest. The collection contains full cylinders of different dimensions. They can be bought in various materials: covered with brushed bronze, polished stainless steel or wood. They are striking, gracious and noble. 

Thoughts That Move

Baughman’s career was marked with numerous lectures at Rhode Island School of Design, University of Tennessee and University of Wisconsin–Madison. Within Brigham Young University, he founded Department of Environmental Design in 1969. He spread the idea of quality, subtle design’s contribution. .“Furniture that is too obviously designed, is very interesting, but too often belongs only in museums.” He even reminded of a background that could be hidden behind a certain space in the context of California of those times. “True and lasting glamour is always something that other people seem to have; it is not very enduring for most of us, no matter how fancy our surroundings. Over-concern for the appearance of the home can be a way of hiding from the living that should be going on there.” Considering the products of Baughman’s work, we can easily notice one side of a face. That side is honest, good-hearted and pure. The other side, which can’t be seen so easily, hides hard work. Where did that energy for creating so many pieces come from? “The purpose of trying harder, and of eventually achieving, is to gain happiness. This is what it’s all about.” Milo Baughman knew that it wasn’t difficult to make people happy, the important thing was to find a way to accomplish it.

Featured image: Milo Baughman Lounge Chair by David Costa is licensed by CC BY 2.0



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