With the initial success of the Techbuilt house, and keeping with their goal of adding onto the house package to better serve the needs of home buyers, Techbuilt launched Techbuilt Spacemaking Furniture in 1955. The design of the furniture draws on work done in the late 1940s as part of an entry in the Museum of Modern Art’s International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design which Carl Koch entered as part of the Design Research Team category in collaboration with Albert Dietz, Burnham Kelly and John Wulff, all of MIT. The catalog for the exhibit said the MIT entry, “was the most inclusive submission by any of the Design Research Teams. Problems of seating and storage were well presented in extensive models and drawings. Besides a fine sense of design, the report made clear an exceptionally keen appreciation of manufacturing and marketing problems.”
This competition is notable as the first and second place winners in the seating category went on to production and became classics of modern furniture. These are the first place submission by Don Knorr that was produced by Knoll and the second place entry of molded fiberglass/plastic chairs by Charles Eames and UCLA produced by Herman Miller.
Design of the new line of Techbuilt Spacemaking Furniture was well under way by January 1955. When it launched, Lou Fischer was named Furniture Manager. The marketing of the furniture reflected on the Techbuilt Idea of flexibility, affordability and customization. There were more than 20 basic pieces that could be ordered as designed or minus the back or a side panel to allow for connecting multiple units. Another marketing strategy was the idea of bundling the desired furniture packages with the house package thus allowing the buyer to roll the cost of the furniture into the mortgage. What was unique for the pieces at the time was that they were shipped knocked-down, unassembled in a flat package like we now associate with Ikea, to be assembled on site by the buyer with a basic set of tools.
When Techbuilt further expanded the basic house package in late 1955, it included a recommended collection of the Spacemaking Furniture that Koch & Associates had identified as meeting the minimal storage needs of a family with each Techbuilt model receiving its own collection of furniture.
The first production order for the furniture line was placed with Commander Woodworking of Rockville, Connecticut in early June 1955 and was completed on July 1. Commander Woodworking, founded by fellow Harvard graduate Richard Lagreze, was also the manufacturer of another line of knock-down furniture called Focus, designed by Reginald Squire. The second production order for Techbuilt was completed by mid-October though it is unclear as to who the manufacturer was. There were issues with the first production run of the furniture that they sought to correct in the second run. These included sagging of the bottom frame of the wardrobe, which was fixed by adding a center leg for support, and the redesign of drawer fronts to close a 3/4” gap that was thought to allow dust in.
In At Home With Tomorrow Koch mentions that they tried two different manufacturers for the furniture with neither one producing at the quality desired (p169). Owners of the furniture described it as being somewhat flimsy, so it may have been more the fault of the design and less so the manufacturer. No additional production orders were placed for the Spacemaking Furniture and it seems to have disappeared from the company’s marketing material by the next year.
Study of any existing pieces of the furniture may reveal more about the manufacturer for the two production runs. Given the quick turn around between selling out the first run and ordering the second, I lean towards the belief that Commander did both runs. I look forward to uncovering more information about this line of furniture. Though the furniture wasn’t successful by almost any measure, I believe these pieces are important as they were an extension of the bigger Techbuilt Idea and I imagine they are quite rare at this point.
Special thanks goes to the family of Richard Lagreze who have been extremely generous with information and materials related to Commander Woodworking and the Focus line of furniture.