When a distraught young mother explained that she had no hope of scraping together enough money to buy a high chair for her baby, Louise Brigham offered to help. Rather than purchase a chair, which she could easily have afforded to do, Brigham made one from the only suitable materials she could find—wooden packing crates.
Brigham designed and made that high chair in the late 1890s, after leaving art school in New York and moving to Cleveland, Ohio, to help establish Sunshine Cottage, which provided emergency housing for refugees and other homeless people. She went on to produce tables, chairs, and other furniture from scrap materials there, and to devote the next twenty years to refining the design of what she called “box furniture” to be made quickly, easily, and inexpensively from junk. Brigham also wrote books, delivered lectures, and ran workshops to encourage other people to do the same.
To Brigham, box furniture was a means of helping people in desperate straits furnish their homes and find skilled jobs. Thanks to her resourcefulness, thousands of Americans experimented with do-it-yourself furniture making during the early 1900s. Today, Brigham can be regarded as a pioneer of the rapidly expanding field of social design, but back then she was described as a “practical philanthropist” by the New York Times.
Brigham was lucky in that her work was funded by the wealth of her family in Boston, Massachusetts. She was also free to live as she chose, as both her parents had died by her late teens. In 1905, at the age of thirty, Brigham left the United States for Europe to research its craft traditions. She visited art and design schools as well as designers who interested her, including Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh in Glasgow, and Josef Hoffmann in Vienna.
Having planned to be in Europe for two years, Brigham ended up staying for five, including the two summers she spent on Spitsbergen, a Norwegian island seven hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle and five hundred miles from the nearest source of supplies. As Spitsbergen was cut off by ice and snow for eight months of the year, all supplies were delivered in the other four, arriving in wooden boxes. “I asked my host to give me the privilege of showing how these ‘odds and ends,’ usually considered worthless, could be utilized in making attractive furnishings for a comfortable home,” she wrote.
Back in New York, Brigham furnished her East Side tenement apartment solely with box furniture, and published a book in 1909 entitled Box Furniture: How to Make a Hundred Useful Articles for the Home. In it, she described how to make a desk, dressing table, washstand, and other objects in meticulous detail, and commissioned a young artist, Edward H. Ascherman, who had worked for Hoffmann in Vienna, to illustrate each one. Brigham then started free woodworking classes for boys from economically deprived areas in the apartment. In 1910, she founded the Home Thrift Association to run similar classes on a larger scale, and to include girls. More than six hundred young New Yorkers signed up in the first year, and Brigham lectured on her work across the United States.
Not only did Brigham anticipate the current interest in recycling, but her skills workshops set a precedent for contemporary social design projects, such as Emily Pilloton’s Girls Garage program in California, as well. Why was so imaginative, accomplished, and dynamic a designer forgotten for so long?
One reason is that, like so many other talented women over the centuries, Brigham devoted less time to her work after marriage. (She wed Henry Chisholm, a Cleveland industrialist, in 1916.) Another is that, as Brigham’s focus was on helping vulnerable people, rather than commercializing her designs, there was no powerful manufacturer with a vested interest in sustaining her reputation after her death in 1956—making it all the more important for us to celebrate her achievements now.
Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. She is the author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life published by Hamish Hamilton, and her latest book, Design as an Attitude, published by JRP|Ringier.