DESIGN HERO WARD BENNETT
The understated designer whose simple, minimalist style was influenced by religion, nature and art
New York-born Ward Bennett (1917–2003) was celebrated in his lifetime for the elegant simplicity of his furniture, tableware, textiles and interiors. He is associated with the early minimalism of the 1970s, popular then only with the ultra-hip. Yet the roots of his pared-down, monastic aesthetic were complex – founded on an admiration for medieval Cistercian abbeys and the work of philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who ignited his passion for Zen Buddhism.
Bennett drove inexpensive cars and, like a Beat poet, dressed mainly in black clothing. Paradoxically, while he created more than 100 chairs – motivated partly by bad back pain – he preferred built-in seating. ‘It’s the space that’s important. Although I design furniture, I also love to eliminate it,’ said Bennett, who is considered a pioneer of the conversation pit (sunken seating).
Born Howard Bernstein – his father was vaudeville actor Murray Bennett – he left home aged 13 because of family clashes and taught himself the principles of design, his thirst for culture and travel making up for his lack of formal training. In the 1930s, after working as a shipping clerk, he took off to Europe and, in Paris, studied under artist Constantin Brâncuşi, whose sculptures he admired enormously. On Bennett’s return to New York City, fashion house Hattie Carnegie hired him as a designer and window-dresser. In the 1940s, he was briefly a sculptor, and also learned to make jewellery in Mexico.
In 1947, Bennett created one of the first of the understated interiors that would typify his style – a Manhattan penthouse with white lacquered bookshelves and cork floors. Long before the 1970s high-tech trend took hold, he repurposed industrial elements for domestic use. For his holiday house in East Hampton, he used a manhole guard rail as a modern towel rack, while the entrance to his minimal, monochrome apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side was via a sleek galley kitchen.
His furniture, originally created for Brickel Associates, includes the industriallooking ‘I Beam’ table, ‘Scissor’ chair (right) and ‘Envelope’ side chair (left), with a leather seat stretched over a slimline frame (all available from Herman Miller), and he also designed glassware and cutlery for Tiffany & Co. Yet, despite its influence, Bennett’s work has never been well documented – until now, that is. Elizabeth Beer and Brian Janusiak’s Ward Bennett monograph finally gives the designer the attention he so rightly deserves.
‘It’s the space that’s important. Although I design furniture, I also love to eliminate it’