David Rowland’s work

David Rowland’s work is that of innovator, problem solver, futurist, minimalist and artist.

It is intelligent, purposeful, refined and enduring.

Rowland’s automobile designs and renderings from his time at the University of Southern California, foreshadow his propensity for sleek, uncluttered form, exquisite attention to detail and, of course, his skill as an artist.
Molded Veneer Chairs
Rowland’s first chair, the Ribbon Chair, is an experimental design constructed of molded veneer. The second chair, also of molded veneer, has a tubular steel cantilever frame, which adds flexibility to the design. Both designs are exceptionally elegant.
Magic Carpet Chair
Designed and created by Rowland during his time at Cranbrook, the Magic Carpet Chair is “the padded spring chair that isn’t.” It has the comfort of an upholstered chair, without all the padding. The seat and back are constructed of flexible steel wires woven with wool yarn by his classmate, textile designer, Jack Lenor Larsen, and the design can be easily adapted to seating in cars, buses, airplanes, and even tanks. The seats and backs are also bulletproof, a response to Rowland’s fear, as a WWII bomber pilot, of being hit by bullets from beneath his seat. One of Rowland’s Cranbrook professors says that this chair is, “better than Eames!”—the highest praise for the young industrial designer.
Spider Chair
An experimental chair of woven steel wire and yarn, The Spider Chair is developed and created by Rowland in California and at Cranbrook, where Jack Lenor Larsen wove the seat in a manner similar to the Magic Carpet Chair. It also has a unique torsion bar suspension.
License Plate Gas Cap Cover
Rowland had a summer job pumping gas, and he never knew which side of the car the gas cap would be on. This gave him the idea of moving the gas cap to under the rear license plate of the car, where it would be centrally located and neatly hidden. While at Cranbrook, he takes his design to the chief stylist of a major automobile company in the Detroit area in the hopes of securing a summer job. They tell him they aren’t interested in his feature or in hiring him. Six months later, his license plate gas cap cover appears on their cars. Over the years, the feature is incorporated on over 700 million cars. This is a pivotal moment in Rowland’s career, as he learns early about the importance of patenting and protecting his ideas.
Transparent Chair
The No-Sag Spring Company of Detroit gives Rowland his first commission: an experimental chair that would showcase their springs. The Transparent Chair is a thin, resilient chair at just ¼-inch thick, and is soft, without being bulky. Rowland wanted the design to be as pure as possible while highlighting the company’s sinuous springs. The chair is shown to wide acclaim at the National Home Furnishing Show in New York’s Grand Central Palace, and is called, “a chair ahead of its time”.
Rowland designs a number of chandeliers and lamps featuring diffused light. He wins first prize for one of them in a contest sponsored by the New York Residential Lighting Forum and the Illuminating Engineers Society. The second photo shown here includes a glass top desk and office of Rowland’s design.
Outdoor Furniture Suite for Maria Bergson
Rowland’s first job in New York is designing and fabricating an outdoor furniture suite for Maria Bergson. Bergson, best known for revolutionizing and modernizing commercial office design, commissions Rowland to design and build a complete set of terrace furniture for the executive offices of the Pacific Coast Borax Company in Beverly Hills, CA.
Lounge Set
In the early 1950s, during the work on the Bergson project, Rowland continued to experiment with his key elements of seating—thin cushions, minimal and efficient base structure, and simple lines that respond to the inclined and draped human form.
Norman Bel Geddes Renderings
Norman Bel Geddes, futurist and “Father of Industrial Design” (a title shared with Raymond Loewy), seeks out Rowland, an excellent draftsman, to work freelance on architectural renderings for him. The three drawings shown here are examples of Rowland’s work for Bel Geddes: two of the renderings are of the Walless House, designed with walls that could be opened or closed depending on the weather. In 1955 Bel Geddes takes his staff, with Rowland as head draftsman, to Jamaica for the summer. There, Rowland makes hundreds of renderings, including many for the interiors of Seagram’s liquor stores.
Drain Dry Cushion
At an outdoor furniture showroom in New York, Rowland introduces himself to a furniture company president who asks him to create a special product—a seating cushion that water would easily pass through. For the next two years, Rowland studies different materials and waterproofing processes until he devises a successful design: the Drain Dry Cushion. He patents the product and licenses it to Lee Woodward & Sons. The royalty income pays Rowland’s rent for the next 15 years and allows him to open his own studio.
Cohen House
Rowland’s design for an architectural renovation of a residence in Riverdale, NY, recalls the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, an early childhood influence.
Residential and Commercial Interiors
Rowland’s interior designs include an apartment on Sutton Place and an office at 666 5th Avenue in New York. In keeping with his commitment to making the greatest impact with the least amount of material, he sometimes used diaphanous screens or beaded dividers to separate space (as in these examples), as well as the simplest contemporary furniture.
MOD, Maximum Order Dimensioning System
After extensive research on the measurements of human anatomy, Rowland invents his Maximum Order Dimensioning System, or the MOD. When one MOD, which is 5 5/8” long, is multiplied by small whole numbers, the result is a series of optimal product dimensions for people—such as the ideal height for seats, desks, doors, beds, etc. Rowland’s dimensioning system is intended to help create furniture that is the most comfortable for the greatest number of people. His 40/4 Chair is based on the MOD.
Museum Wall System
Rowland creates this singular wall system for hanging works of art in museums and galleries. The ingenious design consists of a metal mesh underside covered with panels of yarn, which eliminates the need for the museum or gallery walls to be repainted when an exhibition changes. It is an example of Rowland’s forward-thinking approach in which he designs a simple, straightforward product to replace the conventional—burdensome and inefficient—way things had been done.
Mesh Chair
This experimental chair is another example of Rowland’s exploration of minimalist design. The seat and back are made of either knitted steel or plastic mesh stretched across a tubular steel frame.
Zig Zag Cantilever Chair
The Zig Zag Cantilever Chair further develops the principles Rowland worked out in his earlier Transparent Chair. Its unique patented mechanical and design features include a weatherproof and squeak-proof method of attaching springs to frame, where the springs are simply snapped over the tubular frame and the assembly dip-coated in vinyl plastic. The chair is included in the prestigious 11th Triennale exhibition in Milan, Italy in 1957. It also wins first prize in a contest sponsored by the National Cotton Batting Institute.
40/4 Chair
Rowland’s 40/4 Chair is one of the most revolutionary furniture designs of the 20th century. 40 chairs can be stacked in a height of 4 feet. The chair is made of 7/16” diameter steel rods, with a contoured seat and back of plastic resin, molded veneer, metal or upholstery. A whole meeting room or lecture hall can be set up or cleared in minutes, with minimal time and effort. In addition to its unsurpassed stacking and handling qualities, the 40/4 is equally renowned for its comfort, durability, and timeless beauty. It wins the coveted Grand Prix at the 13th Triennale exhibition in Milan, Italy, as well as numerous other awards. It is in permanent collections of museums all over the world. Visit our 40/4 page for more.
Take Home Sofa
This completely collapsible sofa is designed to fit into a slim box that the customer can easily take from store to home, with no need to wait for delivery or special order. It has a removable, snug, stretch slipcover that could be purchased in different colors—no upholstery needed. It is another example of Rowland’s desire for compactness, simplicity, practicality, and efficiency in his design work. The Take Home Sofa is the forerunner of his Modulus Seating System, introduced twenty years later.
Disposable Safety Ashtray
Rowland did not smoke himself, but observed the need for a safer ashtray. In order to prevent cigarettes from causing burns and fires, he invents an ashtray where cigarettes would always fall into the tray. This patented design is composed of two concentric and stackable cup-shaped receptacles, configured in such a way to prevent cigarettes from falling out, and is made of a disposable, fireproof material. The topmost ashtray could be easily lifted off, leaving a clean one underneath.
The Earl Rowland Foundation
David Rowland establishes this non-profit foundation in honor of his father, Earl Rowland, who had been a California Plein Aire artist, and the director of the Pioneer Galleries and Haggin Museum in Stockton, CA from 1937 to 1964. The principle purpose of the foundation was to develop a library of narrated filmstrip documentaries recording significant museum exhibitions, which were then circulated to smaller museums and educational institutions across the country and abroad.
Soflex is a material invented by Rowland in which sinuous metal springs are dipped in vinyl plastisol. When cured, the plastisol hardens and holds the springs together, forming a thin, open-mesh, resilient seating material. Previously, if designers wanted a thin seating material, they had to rely on something hard, like plastic or molded plywood. Conversely, if they wanted something soft, it had to be thick and unwieldy, such as foam cushioning. Soflex solved this predicament by yielding an extremely thin material that was also soft and flexible, affording a comfortable seat. It is made in individual units to be applied to unique seat frames.
Softec Chair
The Softec Chair incorporates Soflex, Rowland’s resilient seating material described above. The chair stacks compactly and is produced in numerous variations. In addition to the side chair, there are arm chairs, bar chairs, outdoor chairs, chairs with tablets, and children’s chairs. The design wins two Institute of Business Designers (I.B.D.) Gold Medals.
Modulus Seating System
The Modulus Seating System grows out of Rowland’s Take Home Sofa design of 1966 and is manufactured by Martela of Finland. This versatile, adaptable system includes chairs, settees, sofas, end tables and connecting pieces, to accommodate a large range of seating configurations. It is appropriate for educational, hospitality, business, and residential seating, and it ships flat.
Billow Chair
The Billow Chair, like the Softec Chair, incorporates Rowland’s resilient seating material Soflex, which allows the chair to have a flexible seat and back with a light, thin profile. On the Billow Chair the seat and back seem to “float.” The lumbar curve of the chair back and sloped edge of its seat work together to create a snug, yet relaxed and comfortable body. The chair is a minimalist icon of passive ergonomics: an elegant example of a chair that “passively”, or automatically, adjusts based on the natural movements of the occupant. It is manufactured by Nienkamper of Canada. The chair wins a Resources Council Product Design Award in 1989.
40/4 Family of Chairs
Rowland expands the design of the 40/4 Chair for HOWE to include the side chair, arm chair, swivel chair, barstool, lounge chair, and all wood chair, further adding to its versatility. This range and ease of application of the 40/4 concept is further testament to the enduring utility of the design. Visit our 40/4 page for more.
Rowland gave great thought and care in protecting his ideas and inventions with patents. Over his career he was awarded 45 U.S. and foreign patents.