Architect and furniture designer Ralph Rapson trained at Cranbook under Eliel Saarinen, designed furniture for Knoll, sketched the most charming illustrations of his designs, opened the first modern home decor store in the Boston area with his wife in the 1940s and practiced as an architect.
Today his son, architect Toby Rapson, and President of Rapson-Inc. Chris Reedy are carrying on the elder Rapson’s legacy, working with designers to re-release high quality Ralph Rapson designs, sometimes with a few tweaks they believe he would have approved of.
Chris, who lived in a Ralph Rapson house (above), met Ralph Rapson when Rapson knocked upon his door to check out how his design was holding up. So, Toby, did you and your father make a habit of doing this at all the houses you designed?
Toby: I occasionally stop in at homes that my father or I designed. I’m sure that I get this penchant for dropping in unannounced from my Dad.
Chris: My son was only 1 at the time and had just strewn a crunchy layer of Cheerios all over, and the doorbell rings and it’s the great man himself come to look at what we’re doing with his house … Ralph pretended not to notice the chaos and kindly went about charming us all.
How long did it take after that until you two were launching this business together?
Toby: Well, the story is a bit long – my parents originally established Rapson Inc. in Boston during the 1940s selling modern living equipment as well as pieces designed by Ralph. My father continued to design custom pieces for architectural clients and it wasn’t until 50 years later while working with my dad at Rapson Architects that we started dabbling in reproducing the Rapid Rocker.
This led to collaborating with Blu Dot, producing his Dwell Lounge, and working with other interesting teams of designers on additional prototypes. After my dad’s death I felt strongly about continuing his design legacy and perhaps producing more pieces from his extensive design library. My wife and I put together a show of Ralph’s furniture drawings in late 2010 to gauge public interest; it was quite successful. But, my primary business is Rapson Architects so I knew I needed help to make a stand-alone business.
Chris: As it happened, I came to this impressive show, saw some prototypes, and wondered if Toby was looking for a business partner. The timing was right, I made my pitch, we started the company a little over a year ago, and it’s been a really, really fun time.
How did you choose which designs to release first?
Toby: So far, the choices have been pretty easy. First, we wanted to continue making the bentwood Rapson Rapid Rocker that my father re-introduced late in life. Second, we decided to produce some of my father’s best-known designs for H.G. Knoll from the 1940s, we call these the Greenbelt Line. We are also currently working on his iconic ‘Chair of Tomorrow’ and a few others. The hard part as we move forward will be sifting through the vast options that my dad has given us.
Chris: Those Knoll designs are very important to telling Ralph Rapson’s story in design, obviously, but they also use natural materials that are very appealing today. It turns out ‘natural modernism’ or ‘rustic modernism’ or whatever you want to call it today has quite long roots. And the Greenbelt Line has those sculpted, cantilevered arms that are still so daring.
Toby: Yes, those arms are a signature piece of my father’s work. Just as we were getting started with the Greenbelt Line, I ran into Greg Benson, the CEO at Loll Designs, and we started talking about doing outdoor versions in Loll’s signature material, recycled plastic.
Chris: This was a bit of a discussion; there are definitely Modern purists who might wonder about this.
Toby: But I know my father always wanted to push the envelope and I feel he would have loved knowing the pieces he drew long ago could be for outdoor use; particularly in such a responsible, innovative and incredibly durable material. The team at Loll has been great to work with and we’ve licensed these designs to them. I’m just sorry my father isn’t around to be a part of the fun.
What was the biggest challenge in re-releasing your father’s furniture designs?
Toby: Quality is always a significant challenge. My father’s signature is on each piece we make. Even though we’re a scrappy small company, he would not have wanted any less than perfect chairs to be delivered.
Chris: We take great pride in continuing Ralph’s legacy.
Toby: Luckily, we have found good partners who are excited to make Rapson chairs and understand we’re a small company entrusted with great designs.
What kept you going when the challenges mounted?
Toby: My father’s furniture designs are second to none. His designs are embraced as modern icons by many, Chris and I just need to do our part.
Are you ever going to re-release the slatted coffee table? Because I want one.
Chris: Stay tuned.
Toby: I thought you were supposed to be the business guy. Get her credit card number.
photo credit: Larry Weinberg
While we’re on that topic, which designs are you hoping to release in the future?
Chris: The next chair we do will be the first piece based solely off drawings Ralph left behind.
Toby: I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has said “your father drew like an angel.” But beyond that, his furniture drawings often included people sitting, lounging with a martini, reading a book, sunbathing, etc; his drawings had personality and his designs were scaled for people. It’s astounding how faithful we can be to his imagination – that is, his renderings – and still have a chair that’s very, very comfortable.
Toby: Actually, the public had a say toward this new chair. We had an opening with Danish Teak Classics; a local gallery that showcased our Greenbelt chairs and we asked the public to vote between three designs. They made a wise choice.
Chris: In fact, we’re behind schedule because I took the first prototype home, put it in front of the TV, and didn’t want to give it back because it’s so comfortable. The chair actually seems like it’s trying to put you to sleep.
Toby: Becky, I know, you’re thinking “Give me a break! There are a lot of comfortable chairs!” But my father developed his approach while working with Eliel, Eero, Hans and Florence, Harry, Charlie and others, and brought his innovation to early modern furniture design and the design of this chair that adds both character and comfort in a way that’s surprising and still unique and timely 60 or more years after he drew it. We can’t wait to get it into production.
No break necessary; I can’t wait to check it out. I also like that you’re on a first-name basis with the greats (Readers, that’s Saarinen, Saarinen, Wegner, Knoll, Bertoia and Eames, I think)! Where can we see more of Ralph Rapson’s amazing drawings?
Toby: We have literally hundreds of drawings, but a nice selection is included in his biography, Ralph Rapson: 60 Years of Modern Design.
Is there anything else you’d like people to remember about Rapson-Inc.?
Toby: Most importantly, I want people to learn more about Ralph Rapson and his role in the development of modern design. One goal of the company is to ensure the legacy of my father’s designs; I hope people will view what we’re doing at Rapson-Inc as a thoughtful extension of his design process and philosophy. Moving ahead, we are embracing collaborators and innovative materials with the spirit of my father as we expand the catalog of Rapson designs in production.
Thanks so much to Toby and Chris for taking the time to speak with us today. Readers, All Rapson-Inc. products are 15% off through October 31, so get shopping!