Harvard Square was the center of the design world following the Second World War. The Harvard Graduate School of Design was a haven for architects fleeing Europe who imparted on their students the modernist ideas of sleek form, ultimate function, and elegant design. David Fixler has titled the unique culture that soon developed as “Cambridge Modern.” Fixler identifies the presence and work of important modernist architects and thinkers such as Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier, and Josep Lluis Sert, to name only a small few, who created an atmosphere of modernism in Cambridge unlike any other.
As a part of the “Cambridge Modern” world, in 1953 American architect Benjamin Thompson, himself a faculty member of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, founded an innovative interior design shop named Design Research, known as D/R. The company expanded nationally, but Thompson’s flagship headquarters, built in 1969, centered the world’s design attention on Harvard Square.
The Design Research Headquarters building was a marvel to match the exciting treasures held within its frameless glass walls. Upon completion the Architectural Record heralded Thompson’s building proclaiming that it “points the way to a method of glass building that could create a warmer city, adding color and light and optimism to the life of the streets.” Thompson’s headquarters won regional and national design awards from its earliest days. In 2003 the building was honored again with the prestigious American Institute of Architects 25-Year Award “for architecture of enduring significance.”
Within his famed glass box, Thompson displayed equally innovative furniture, house wares, and clothing much of which he imported from Scandinavia. One of his greatest sources of inspiration was the 1958 Finnish Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair. He loved the bold, brightly-colored dresses that the visitor guides wore, and he began to sell them himself in Cambridge. The dresses that caught Ben Thompson’s eye were the work of Armi Ratia. Her Marimekko prints, sold exclusively through D/R, became a national phenomenon, as evidenced by Jackie Kennedy’s dress gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1960, after her husbands successful presidential campaign. The now-prominent European design brands Iittala and Artek and designers such as Marcel Breuer, Hans Wegner, Alvar Aalto, and Joe Colombo gained their entry into American culture through D/R.
Design Research closed in the late 1970s though Thompson went on to design modern urban marketplaces across the United States, such as Boston’s Faneuil Hall, the South Street Seaport in New York and Ghiradelli Square in San Francisco. One of his modernist followers, Gordon Segal, went on to found the D/R-inspired company Crate and Barrel. Segal moved a branch store into the D/R Headquarters building from 1979 through 2009, and continued to sell Thompson’s much-loved Marimekko prints.
D/R’s international importance was made clear in 2000, when Thompson and his wife, Jane, were awarded the Knight First Class of the Order of the Lion of Finland by the president of Finland for “bringing concepts of Finnish design and its design-oriented way of life into public awareness in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.” Caroline Van Valkenburgh has created a documentary about Marimekko fabrics and fashions titled “It Wasn’t Just a Dress,” and 2010 will see the publication of D/R: The Store that Brought Modern Living to American Homes. Thompson’s influence has lived on, not only in the popularity of Finnish-inspired design, but also in one of his still-standing Harvard Square landmarks: Harvest.
As prepared by:
Gavin W. Kleespies, Executive Director Cambridge Historical Society.
Katie MacDonald, Intern Cambridge Historical Society.