David Lincoln Rowland is born February 12th, on Lincoln’s birthday, at 4649 Vermont Place in the eastern flatlands of Hollywood, California.
W. Earl Rowland, a Southern California Plein Air artist and Neva Chilberg Rowland, a violinist, are devoted and loving parents to David, their only child.
Earl Rowland notices young David’s ability to draw and his interest in mechanical devices. He explains to David that Industrial Design is where these two fields intersect.
Joseph E. Chilberg, David’s Swedish-American grandfather, comes to live with them. A former Alaskan gold rush seeker turned artifact collector and trader, he introduces David to his collections. He also saves young David when he attempts to fly off the garage roof with homemade wooden wings!
Up until age 13, David’s parents take him with them to their weekly California Art Club meetings held at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House. During the meetings, David freely roams the house, grounds, even the roof, soaking up the atmosphere and architecture.
The family moves to Stockton, CA when Earl Rowland becomes director of the Pioneer Galleries and Haggin Museum, a local history and art museum. David attends Stockton High School where he takes a course in drafting.
At age 16, David—pictured back right in the above photo—is given a special waiver by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy to attend a summer session of his Basic Bauhaus Course for college students and professionals at Mills College in Oakland, CA. David calls it the greatest summer of his life. Moholy-Nagy’s teachings remain with David for the rest of his life and shape his own design philosophy.
David enters the California Ford Good Drivers League contest, established to promote safe driving habits among high school students. He wins third place, out of 8,000 students.
David graduates from high school, where he is Art Director of the yearbook. For the next 8 months he works as a detail draftsman for Rheem Manufacturing in Stockton, drawing engineer’s plans for bomb-making machinery during the day, and secret plans for submarine parts at night. He also takes courses in literature and marine architecture at the University of the Pacific.
David volunteers for the Army Air Corps during World War II. His training to be a B-17 bomber pilot takes him to 15 different air bases in the U.S.
In January, David begins flying combat overseas, in the 8th Air Force, 94th Bomb Group (the Big Square A), 333rd squadron, stationed at Rougham Air Base, near Bury St. Edmund, England. Some of his missions were 12 hours long in unbearable seats. David vows that if he survives the war he will design more comfortable seats.
By the time the war ends, First Lieutenant Rowland completes 22 combat missions. He returns home to California and resumes his education, taking liberal arts courses at the University of the Pacific.
David enrolls at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois. He loves the school and its beautiful campus, situated on the bluffs of the Mississippi River and designed by Bernard Maybeck. David graduates with a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics and later says, “War was hell. Principia was heaven.”
David takes a rendering course and color workshop at the School of Industrial Design at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
David begins graduate study at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, MI—alma mater of a diverse group of esteemed designers, including Charles and Ray Eames, Florence Knoll, Harry Bertoia and Eero Saarinen. Cranbrook’s self-directed teaching approach nurtured a group of independently-minded graduates, and led to the school being known as a breeding ground for American modernism.
While at Cranbrook, David designs the Magic Carpet Chair. The seat and back are constructed of flexible steel wires woven with wool yarn by his classmate, textile designer, Jack Lenor Larsen. The design is extremely versatile and can be adapted to seating in cars, buses, airplanes, and even tanks. As a bomber pilot in WWII, David had always feared a bullet hitting him from beneath the seat, so the seat is also bullet proof.
While still at Cranbrook, David invents the License Plate Gas Cap Cover. He takes his design to the chief stylist of a major automobile company in the Detroit area in the hopes of landing a summer job. Instead, they steal the idea and implement it on their cars within the year. Over the coming years, the design is used on over 700 million cars. David learns early, the hard way, to always patent his inventions.
David graduates from Cranbrook with a Master of Fine Arts in Industrial Design. Immediately following graduation, he receives his first commission: to design an experimental chair for the No-Sag Spring Company in Detroit. His design, the Transparent Chair, was shown at the National Home Furnishing Show in New York and received much acclaim.
Charles Eames offers David a job in California, but he declines, preferring to go to New York and strike out on his own.
David moves to New York, renting a $40/month room at Madison Avenue and 94th Street, where he lives for 3 years.
David’s design for a chandelier wins an Illuminating Engineering Society Award.
Maria Bergson, a pioneer in contract interior design, commissions David to design and fabricate an outdoor furniture suite for the Pacific Coast Borax Company headquarters in Los Angeles.
David continues experiments in new seating design with the Spider Chair, which has a woven seat and back similar to that of his Magic Carpet Chair.
Without any restrictions on his design rights, David accepts freelance work drawing architectural renderings for Norman Bel Geddes. Bel Geddes takes his staff, with David as head draftsman, to Jamaica for the summer of 1955. While there, David creates enough renderings to cover the walls of a 20 foot cubic room.
David invents and patents the waterproof Drain Dry Cushion, which he licenses to Lee Woodward & Sons. Royalties from the invention pay his rent for the next15 years.
Raymond Loewy, and other industrial designers in New York, offer David a job. However, since they require him to sign over the rights to anything he would create while in their employ, David elects to continue working solo.
David moves into his own apartment in New York at 49 West 55th Street, where he establishes his own studio. In addition to continued work on chairs, he designs an apartment on Sutton Place, an office at 666 Fifth Avenue and a residential renovation in Riverdale, NY.
David conceives of a compactly stackable chair. He will make countless drawings and 32 handmade models perfecting his design.
Over the next few years, David takes new chair designs to Florence Knoll, who offers patient critique, guidance, and encouragement.
After extensive research on the measurements of human anatomy throughout the world, David invents his Maximum Order Dimensioning System, or MOD, a measurement system for making products that are the most comfortable for the greatest number of people. The dimensions of the 40/4 Chair are based on the MOD.
David creates the Zig Zag Cantilever Chair, with novel patented mechanical and design features. It is accepted into the 11th Triennale in Milan exhibition and also wins a prize from the Cotton Batting Institute.
David designs his Museum Wall System for hanging works of art in museums and galleries. The innovative design consists of a metal mesh underside covered with screens of yarn, which eliminates the need for gallery walls to be refurbished for new installations.
After eight years of working on, refining, and showing his revolutionary compactly stackable chair to prospective companies, David licenses his design to the General Fireproofing Company (GF), which manufactures the chair. The chair is named the 40/4 because 40 chairs stack in a height of 4 feet.
The first 40/4 order is for 17,000 chairs, specified by the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, for the new campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle.
David wins the coveted Grand Prix at the prestigious 13th Milan Triennale for the 40/4 Chair. The international event stages exhibitions that present the most innovative creations in art, design, and architecture. David is one of only two Americans to receive the award at the time. The other is Buckminster Fuller who won for his revolutionary geodesic dome design in 1954.
The 40/4 Chair receives the International Design Award from the American Institute of Interior Designers (A.I.D.) in the Business Furniture Category. Founded in 1931, A.I.D. was the largest professional organization for interior designers and the award was a huge honor. The winning designs were selected from more than 400 entries from the U.S. and abroad.
David receives the Master Design Award from Product Engineering, an acclaimed national magazine for design professionals. The award is given to a product that is “an outstanding example of the integration of the resources of engineering with those of design, manufacturing and marketing.”
When the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) opens its new wing, architect Philip Johnson specifies the 40/4 Chair to be used in the Museum. It is the chair’s first installation, and MoMA adds the chair to its Permanent Design Collection.
David establishes the Earl Rowland Foundation, in honor of his father. The non-profit produces and curates a library of narrated filmstrip documentaries recording significant museum exhibitions, mostly in New York City.
The 40/4 Chair receives the Gold Medal for Furniture from the Austrian Government.
David designs and patents the completely collapsible Take Home Sofa, which has one of the grooviest packages of the 1960s. David later develops the sofa into his Modulus Seating System.
David invents and patents his Disposable Safety Ashtray, designed to prevent cigarettes from falling out as they burn down, reducing the likelihood of burns and fires. It is made of a disposable, fireproof material, and is stackable. The topmost ashtray can be lifted off and discarded, leaving a fresh, clean tray underneath.
David marries Miss Erwin Wassum, a native Virginian and crafts designer in New York.
David invents and patents Soflex, a thin, open-mesh, resilient seating material created by coating sinuous metal springs in a liquid plastic. It is the first of its kind, yielding a very thin seating material that is also soft, flexible and waterproof.
The Thonet Company introduces David’s patented Softec Chair, which is the first chair to incorporate Soflex. The versatile chair design is compactly stackable and is produced in numerous variations, including arm chairs, bar chairs, outdoor chairs, and children’s chairs.
The Softec Chair wins two gold medal awards, including best of the competition, in the International Business Designers (IBD) and Contract magazine Product Design Competition.
David licenses Martela of Finland to manufacture his Modulus Seating System, a versatile system that includes chairs, settees, sofas, and end tables that can be set up in a wide range of seating configurations. It is completely collapsible and ships flat.
David’s Billow Chair, which incorporates his resilient suspension system Soflex, is introduced by Nienkämper of Canada. The lumbar curve of the back and the sloped edge of the flexile seat work together to create a snug, yet relaxed and comfortable chair body. The chair automatically adjusts based on the natural movements of the occupant. The chair wins a Resources Council Product Design Award.
Howe, a Denmark-based forward looking, innovative, contract furniture company, buys the rights to the 40/4 Chair for Europe and much of the world.
David travels around the globe, calling on clients, advising in factories and giving talks. He thought globally, recognizing that people need good seating everywhere.
After making frequent trips to Virginia to help Erwin’s parents, the Rowlands relocate there. David would comment, “I’ve lived in wonderful places: California, New York and Virginia!”
David expands the 40/4 family of chairs for Howe to include a side chair, arm chair, swivel chair, barstool, lounge chair, chair with writing tablet, and an all wood chair.
David continues a decades’ long interest in innovative ways to use containers in architecture. It is another example of his doing the most with the least and creatively meeting people’s needs.
David continues to invent and design in his Virginia studio, concentrating on stackable tables, architecture that incorporates shipping containers, an original flood control system he named Waterlog, and, of course, chairs.
Until his passing in 2010 at age 86, David Rowland would continue to thrive on innovation and solving problems—“doing the most with the least”. He was the definitive industrial designer, fusing the useful with the sublime and leaving us with a timeless exemplar of comfort, efficiency, economy, craft and form in the 40/4.