Who really designed Broyhill Brasilia?
No, it wasn’t Oscar Niemeyer. Please stop saying that.
Brasília is the capital of Brazil. What’s unique about Brasília is that, unlike most capital cities in the world, it was founded in the modern era, 1960 to be exact. It’s a mid-century city and it was looks that way. The chief architect of many of the public buildings, Oscar Niemeyer, gave the city a distinctly modern feel. Today, these buildings are seen as icons of modern architecture.
About the same time Broyhill Furniture, located in Lenoir, North Carolina was producing well-made pieces that fed the boom of post-war consumers. When I was a kid in the 1980s, I remember shopping for furniture with my mom and she told me that Broyhill was ‘formica junk’. Later on, I recall seeing Broyhill advertise on the Price is Right, recalling back to the phrase my mom told me: ‘formica junk’. Years later, when I became interested in mid-century pieces, I was surprised to see Broyhill Brasilia as an in-demand line of mid-century furniture. Indeed, the Broyhill of the 1980s was very different than the Broyhill of the 1960s.
The current state of researching mid-century furniture on the internet is terrible (it’s why I originally created Mid-Century Spot). Google results are stuffed with Etsy, eBay and 1stdibs sellers who keyword stuff titles, without regard for truth or validity. In this environment, it’s easy to understand why the designer of this line is attributed to good’ol Oscar — his name is linked to the city and the furniture, and well, looks like the city. Indeed, my personal opinion is that the Brasilia line is one of the most direct translations of architecture to furnishings.
Take a look at the Cathedral of Brasília:
Then this table:
Now, look at the Palácio do Planalto:
And the details on this credenza:
It’s really amazing — the details are transmitted near perfectly from a public building to mass-produced household furnishings.
Part of the current appeal of the Brasilia line is that it screams mid-century. The exaggerated curves are distinctly from the era — reminiscent of oh-so- mid-century starbursts and you can even see a little bit of the original Star Trek logo. Also, despite the South American sourced name, it’s strangely American — the solid wood construction of walnut and pecan set it apart from teak and rosewood designs of the era. Also, one would not classify most pieces as minimalist — the design is often times for design’s sake.
I’d be remiss to not mention the folks at the Brasilia Connection who specialize buying and selling in the line. They have a particularly good resource in this original sales sheet that outlines the pieces available, dimensions and product codes. If only we had this sort of detail for every mid-century product line. They’re also spreading the word that Oscar didn’t design the Broyhill line. Oscar did design some furniture but it is vastly different than the Brasilia furniture and I can find no connection between him and Broyhill that validates that he did the design.
If not Mr. Niemeyer, then who?
Not every piece of furniture had a designer. Indeed, if you go to nearly any mid-priced furniture store today, odds are you won’t see the name of the designer prominently displayed. Sure, someone did design it, but that’s not how the marketing works. It might have been a freelancer, maybe a staff designer, or maybe even an engineer.
We think of the mid-century era as being name obsessed — Paul McCobb, Milo Baughman, Charles and Ray Eames. Those were the exception rather than the rule, especially as you move downmarket. The Broyhill Brasilia line wasn’t a designer object — it is good furniture, but it was mass market. So, then, who do we know how made it?
This is the type of problem that drives me nuts. It’s known by a few, but it isn’t known by the masses, and indeed, they get it wrong. Pouring over Google searches, Archive.org, and even into academic search engines yield very little.
One thing that we do know is that during the period items were sometimes patented by the manufacturers. Typing “Broyhill Brasilia” into Google patent search gives you three results — two Adrian Pearsall patents for tables of a very similar design to Brasilia and one by Jerome S. Tomaszkiewicz of Millard, Nebraska for a headboard that is, stylistically, identical to the Brasilia line. Weirdly, looking at the resources on Brasilia Connection, I can’t seem to find this specific item. Originally, I thought it was item 6130–60, but carefully looking at the drawings show two things — a double ‘swoop’ on each side and the fact that it sets on the floor rather than above the bed. Indeed, I can’t seem to find any reference to this piece being actually built. The reason that these three items show up in the Patent search is that they have references to the Broyhill Brasilia catalog. Indeed the Tomaszkiewicz patent was filed in ’64 and issued in ’66, far after the collection was shown at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. More questions than answers.
Broadening the patent search to “Broyhill” gives you an unmanageable volume, but by reducing the search to 1950–1970 gives you good results. Let’s take a look:
As you can see, these are very clearly Broyhill patents and they all name Melbourne F. Smith Jr. Mr. Smith is named in other unrelated Broyhill patents (some of which are decidedly not mid-century in style).
I can’t find much information about Melbourne, honestly. Given the timeframe, he may have passed away years ago and have very little internet footprint. But based on the patent information, I think he is the most confirmable designer of the Brasilia line. While not every item is covered, the core of the design (the ‘swoops,’ for example) are clearly assigned to him by the US Patent office. The one nagging thought I have is that he might not have been the actual designer but a lawyer or Broyhill company representative, but given that other known designers (Adrien Pearsall and John O. Van Koert) show up the same way in other patents lead me to believe that Melbourne F. Smith Jr. is the true designer of the Broyhill Brasilia line.
One final thing that I can’t square — clearly the items were shown at the 1962 World’s Fair but all of these patents were filed in 1963 or after. I don’t know how to take this — did they create the furniture then patent the design? My understanding is that that’s not the normal process for building a product. It doesn’t affect my assertion that Smith designed the line, but it is a weird loose end.