DE­SIGN HERO WARD BENNETT

The un­der­stated de­signer whose sim­ple, min­i­mal­ist style was in­flu­enced by re­li­gion, na­ture and art

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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’

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