I have been to a lot of architecture archives. There were the files from a 35-year practice, stacked in two-by-three foot boxes five high in a storage unit in Norwalk, CT. I and another graduate student dragged them into the fluorescent-lit hallway and pawed through, a five-hour day that would generate enough material for an entire chapter in my dissertation. There was the university archive, where you could only take out one box, one folder at a time and any copy request had to be filed in duplicate. There was the corporate archive, temporarily housed in a warehouse with 30-foot ceilings, where I sat at a folding table next to my very own (free!) Xerox machine. But the most frustrating ones were the lost ones: Why didn’t CBS save any correspondence about the building of their Eero Saarinen headquarters? Why did Florence Knoll Bassett edit her Smithsonian archive with such a heavy hand? Why didn’t Gordon Bunshaft draw?
What provoked this nostalgia for box numbers and call slips is the news in yesterday’s Times that years of files from industrial designer Gilbert Rohde’s office were found in an unpaid storage unit, auctioned sight unseen, and then sold on Ebay. Many design archives — not to mention Rohde’s best-known employer, Herman Miller — are no doubt tearing their hair out right now. Phyllis Ross, who ironically published a long-awaited book on Rohde just this year is now traveling to see the far-flung archive, and will lecture on the new material later this year. One Rohde fan (a collector of his furniture) has posted the items he bought on Flickr for all to see. Phyllis Ross has sent me an email, clarifying the Times story: She wrote her book using Rohde files at over 30 archives, primarily at the Cooper-Hewitt and Herman Miller, and the new archive mostly duplicates the CH holdings. What is new is the 200 glass lantern slides, some in color, Rohde used in his lectures, as well as volumes from Rohde’s library. All of the Ebay material is available for viewing via the Flickr link. My point below remains the same.
Rohde is a fascinating figure, sometimes overlooked in the history of American modernism. He was the one who introduced the De Prees of Herman Miller to modern design in the 1930s. George Nelson, who followed him and hired the Eameses, Alexander Girard, etc. had had the way paved by Rohde. But the larger story here is about archives: who should have them, and how they should be distributed. I know far too many designer archives that have properly been given to institutions, but then languish unused while the libraries hunt for grants to catalog them. Until there is a Finding Aid, many may as well not exist. Some places won’t even take an archive without an endowment. And some will never have the money to put the cataloged archive online, making it accessible only to the intrepid and funded. There is no substitute for seeing things in person (and in fact, some of the letters the Smithsonian has scanned and put online are all but illegible), but the more archives see the light of digital day, the better for all our visual literacy. That some of Rohde’s papers ended up in private hands is too bad, but the same internet that connected the dealer that bought them to Rohde’s fans can also now connect researchers with the goods. There’s a knee-jerk academic tendency to regard this as a loss, but perhaps this is really the future of research.