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Under the Radar: 6 Great California Midcentury Designers You’ve Never Heard Of

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Under the Radar: 6 Great California Midcentury Designers You’ve Never Heard Of

June 4, 2019

A while back we featured a Paris loft by modernist dealer-designer Florence Gomez with a prized set of coffee tables by midcentury American designer Luther Conover. Who is he?, I wondered (and not just because his last name happens to be the same as my husband’s). Unfortunately, I haven’t been able turn up much on my potential in-law, but while I was deep in that rabbit hole, I kept discovering work by other great all-but-forgotten California designers of the fifties and sixties.

Peter Loughrey, founder of LA Modern Auctions (LAMA), which is holding its next art and design sale this fall, corroborates: “There’s a huge interest in modern furniture, but Eames is really the only California name we all know.” Loughrey says the work of many other talents is still ripe for discovery. You just have to know to look for it (and hope to find yourself at the right yard sale). A good place to bone up on the subject is the catalog from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art show Living in A Modern Way: California Design 1930-1965 and companion Handbook of California Design.

Here are six midcentury California designers we have our eyes on. Good investments? Hard to predict, but while the market for classic antiques is at a pronounced lull, sales of clean-lined, cool-cat furniture are undeniably booming.

Luther Conover

A member of what came to be known as the Pacific Design Group, Luther Conover worked out of Sausalito—and is said to have initially enlisted high-schoolers as his assistants. Celebrated for experimenting with post–World War II army surplus materials such as rebar, he’s known for his metal and wood designs and molded fiberglass armchairs.

The rakish mahogany and iron Luther Conover Lounge Chair is periodically available from retailers such as data-src=
Above: The rakish mahogany and iron Luther Conover Lounge Chair is periodically available from retailers such as 1stdibs and Artnet. Photograph from a former sale by Berkeley dealer Just in Modern. 
Fireplace tools attributed to Conover are plentiful on eBay. This Brass and Iron Set sold for $9.99. Another Conover-designed set is currently on offer for $750 on Katz Modern.
Above: Fireplace tools attributed to Conover are plentiful on eBay. This Brass and Iron Set sold for $279.99. Another Conover-designed set is currently on offer for $750 on Katz Modern.
Wright, a Chicago auction house specializing in modern design, sold this set of Nesting Tables for $3,000 (three times the estimate) in data-src=
Above: Wright, a Chicago auction house specializing in modern design, sold this set of Nesting Tables for $3,000 (three times the estimate) in 2012. It’s currently on offer on 1stdibs for $1,800.

Muriel Coleman

Muriel Coleman, who got an MFA from Columbia University in 1936 and studied in Paris with Andre Lhote, was part of the Pacific Design Group with Conover. During World War II, she deciphered photos of the French coast for the precursor to the CIA. After the war, she put her family farm-tool manufacturing business to work using industrial materials to create her signature minimalist designs.

A Muriel Coleman Iron and Wood Wall Shelf, which can be used as a room divider, was previously available from Just in Modern via data-src=
Above: A Muriel Coleman Iron and Wood Wall Shelf, which can be used as a room divider, was previously available from Just in Modern via 1st Dibs. See 1stdibs for other Muriel Coleman–designed wares. (F & F Vintage of Merced, California, makes replicas of Muriel Coleman shelving that are available via Etsy.)

Dorothy Shindele

Dorothy Shindele was introduced to us by Loughrey (who in addition to running LAMA is a longtime appraiser for Antiques Roadshow). He noted that George Nelson featured Shindele’s designs in his seminal 1950 book Chairs.

Sold for $385 for a set of six on Chairish, these Dorothy Shindele dining chairs came out of the seller&#8
Above: Sold for $385 for a set of six on Chairish, these Dorothy Shindele dining chairs came out of the seller’s LA childhood home.

Cleo Baldon

The LA architect credited with creating the lap pool in the early seventies, Cleo Baldon designed indoor-outdoor furniture that captured the southern California good life. She worked beachside in Venice, California, as design director of Galper-Baldon Associates, had her own foundry to control fabrication of her designs, and with her film director husband, Ib Melchior, wrote the books California Designs for Swimming and Steps & Stairways. Baldon passed away in 2014 and several pieces from her own Hollywood Hills home were previously offered via Los Angeles Modern Auctions.

This Cleo Baldon Iron and Oak Occasional Table from the late fifties— inches tall and 30 inches in diameter—sold via Red Modern Furniture of Phoenix. Find more of the designer&#8
Above: This Cleo Baldon Iron and Oak Occasional Table from the late fifties—25 inches tall and 30 inches in diameter—sold via Red Modern Furniture of Phoenix. Find more of the designer’s work at 1stdibs.
One of Baldon&#8
Above: One of Baldon’s signatures was pairing modernist forms with Spanish Colonial detailing. This set of Leather and Iron Folding Stools is currently on offer for $3,600 via 1stdibs.

John Keal

John Keal was a member of the gang of talented designers (Paul Frankl, Paul Lazlo, and Gilbert Rhode included) who worked for LA furniture manufacturer Brown-Saltman in the fifties. The company’s tagline: “Live in the Modern Mode.”

A mahogany John Keal Slat Bench for Brown-Saltman is currently $3,600 on data-src=
Above: A mahogany John Keal Slat Bench for Brown-Saltman is currently $3,600 on 1stdibs. Another iteration, the Expandable Slat Bench, is on offer via Chairish for $1,000.
This John Keal Expanding Coffee Table is made of walnut and black laminate. It&#8
Above: This John Keal Expanding Coffee Table is made of walnut and black laminate. It’s 66 inches long and extends to 96 inches; $2,200 via Danish Modern LA. (Note: A search for the piece turns up several vendors selling this design; prices vary considerably, and condition of the piece and location of the dealer are things to take into consideration.)

Maurice Martiné

Chicken or the egg? Maurice Martiné, another Loughrey favorite, was based in Laguna Beach and designed lounges in the late forties that have similar lines to Paul McCobb’s more famous Shovel chair.

Martiné offered his lounge chair with wood dowels or rope cords on the seat and back. This example sold for an unknown amount on data-src=
Above: Martiné offered his lounge chair with wood dowels or rope cords on the seat and back. This example sold for an unknown amount on 1st Dibs.

Information needed: There’s surprisingly little biographical information out there about the designers we’ve featured. Any details? Please fill us in in the comments section.

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