Design & Make

A Brief Bio: Milo Baughman

by Jennifer S. Li June 07, 2018
ReadA Brief Bio: Milo Baughman

Milo Ray Baughman Jr. (1923-2003) showed a talent for design early on. Growing up, he had a keen interest in art, and when his parents were looking to remodel the family home, they entrusted 13 year-old Milo with creating plans for the residence they would live in for the next 34 years. This was to be the first of many longstanding designs that Milo Baughman would produce in his lifetime.

After graduating from Long Beach High School in 1941, Baughman (pronounced “Boffman”) served four years in the Army Air Forces and used his self-taught know-how to design the officers’ clubs. At the close of the war, Baughman enrolled at the Chinouard Art Institute (now CalArts), focusing on Product and Architectural Design.

His professional experience took root at the legendary Frank Brothers furniture company, which provided pieces for Art and Architecture editor John Entenza’s post-war housing solution, the Case Study Houses. The Long Beach retailer also made a name for itself by debuting Charles and Ray Eames’ residential designs, as well as being one of the first shops in the United States to offer modern Danish furniture.

During his tenure at Frank Brothers, Baughman co-founded Furniture Forum magazine. The publication was the first of its kind, offering background information and editorials on furniture designers and their products, setting the stage for the critical reception and historical importance now assigned to industrial designers. Baughman later wrote in a 1970 issue: “We know full well that good design will not save the world, but we can legitimately expect it to help, in its own unique way. The positive effects of good design in the public and private environment are incalculable. […] This gives any of us, who are serious about trying through our professional skills to make the world a better place, real hope.”

The hard work that came out of Frank Brothers did not go unnoticed, and soon Baughman was recruited by various furniture manufacturers through his design studio Milo Baughman Designs Inc, which he founded in 1947. Teaming up with furniture manufacturer Glenn of California, Baughman was able to collaborate with Greta Magnusson Grossman, an accomplished and award-winning Swedish designer. Grossman had owned her own store and workshop in her native Sweden, where she designed for royalty and earned the honor of being the first woman to win the prize for furniture design from the Swedish Society of Industrial Design.

The impact of Grossman and her California-by-way-of-Sweden sensibilities is clear in Baughman’s work during this period. Characterized by simplicity, natural materials and muted colorways, the Swedish aesthetic was easily translated and adopted to create an original California design. As Grossman said in 1951: “[California design] is not a superimposed style, but an answer to present conditions. It has developed out of our own preference for living in a modern way.” That same year, Baughman received praise from The New York Times for the collection he designed for Macy’s department store, deeming the pieces to have “a decided western and contemporary look” that was “simple, straightforward” and indicative of the Los Angeles locale of their designer. As opposed to the principled Bauhaus of the previous era, California Modern was “looser, warmer” and “ad hoc,” according to Wendy Kaplan, curator of LACMA and organizer of the 2012 exhibition California Design, 1930-1965: Living a Modern Way.

Though the West coast had been good to Baughman, he left California in 1953 for High Point, North Carolina, in search of bigger opportunities. Just over half of all American-made furnishings post-World War II were manufactured in the High Point vicinity, making it the industry’s indisputable center. After a slew of disappointing meetings with manufacturers, Baughman’s last appointment was with engineer and craftsman Thayer Coggin (1922-2003). The fateful encounter developed into a design partnership that lasted more than 50 years. Coggin had recently discovered of modern design, following a trip around Europe in 1951. “The simple clean lines,” he said, “appealed to my sense of beauty.”

In addition to aesthetics, Coggin and Baughman were equally focused on comfort. The now iconic 951-103 lounge chair is as handsome as it is plush. Withstanding the test of time in terms of both condition and style, vintage models can still be found in good shape and fetch high prices at auction. The 825-301 LAF Sofa of 1968, with a semi-circular shape conducive to social gatherings, helped make “the conversation pit” a mainstay of the mid-century home. In fact, many of Baughman’s furniture pieces were conversation starters: his unique coffee table design from circa 1950 – made from walnut, lacquered Masonite, glass and metal – was meant for easy socializing and cocktail parties, thanks to an inset cigarette ashtray and embedded planter centerpiece. The piece is now in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In 1965, Baughman converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, leading him to teach and lecture at Brigham Young University where he instituted the Department of Environmental Studies. In 1988, he wrote a passionately worded letter to his state paper, run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints out of Salt Lake City, which gets to the heart of his motivations – Baughman’s love of furniture and design was an expression of his devotion to the comfort and peace of his fellow man: “Vital consideration […] should be given to the emotional or, if you will, the psychological needs of people in relation to their architectural environment – the interior spaces of their home in which they live their truest lives.” Today, his work continues to grace living rooms and dining rooms in homes across the country, proving the visionary designer’s approachable yet elegant pieces are just as relevant more than half-a-decade later.

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Top image courtesy 1stdibs.com

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