Five Rattan Chairs that Changed America

There was a time in America when rattan and bamboo furniture had no place outside of the porch or the patio. An enterprising couple in San Francisco changed that thinking, and by doing so transformed the look and feel of American interiors with McGuire Furniture.

John McGuire and Elinor Stevenson met on the eve of World War II; he was in the Navy, she was a navigation instructor. They fell in love and got married after the war, eventually settling in San Francisco. At first, there was no sign of what was to come. He worked at Standard oil and then sold newspaper ads for the San Francisco Examiner, she worked for Boeing Aircraft in engineering and design. When he ran into an old navy friend with a warehouse full of rattan furniture, John agreed to sell the pieces for him. The sideline business was such a success, John wanted to order more, but his friend demurred.  

 The Director's Chair 

"At the time, using these materials indoors was revolutionary," says Nick DeSario, director of design and product development at McGuire. "It was a new concept in mid-century America, and the McGuires were in the right place at the right time. They elevated the pieces and set the standard by using the natural characteristics of bamboo and rattan to their advantage. They steamed it and bent it to create sweeping, beautiful curves—but they always kept it authentic." 

Their first hit: The Director's X-Chair by Leonard Linden in 1956. The chair makes use of the company's patented technique of binding rattan with rawhide strips. "This was a very big breakout piece for McGuire, and it's still an icon," says DeSario. "It's beautiful and comfortable, and we still have 10 of the original ones in the office—I sit in one of them nearly every day." 

 

The Cracked Ice Chair

According to DeSario, Elinor McGuire was not a trained interior or furniture designer; but looking at her record, there's no denying she had an eye. She created many popular pieces for the company, including the Cracked Ice Chair in 1968. 

"This is one of our most recognized chairs," says DeSario. "It has an unmistakable geometry in its frame." A company history describes it as the chair that "shatters forever" conventional ideas of what rattan furniture should or could be. 

The Butterfly Chair 

The elegant Butterfly Chair was created by noted architect and designer Edward Tuttle in 1977. DeSario calls it one of the company's most important pieces, and it's celebrating its 40th manufacturing anniversary this year. 

 

The Target Chair 

In 1979, Elinor created another hit: the Target Arm Chair. "This is another example of Elinor knocking it out of the park," says DeSario. "Today, you find these chairs in homes, hotels and hotel ballrooms all over the world." 

DeSario credits the success of the piece to a design that, in his words, is: "beautiful and simple." 

 

The Laced Rawhide Chair

John's obituary describes the couple's working relationship this way: "John was the innovator and promoter. Elinor was the accountant and business manager [with] design experience." But that's not to say he never designed pieces for the collection. In 1984, he created the Laced Rawhide Arm Chair, and it's considered a classic. He was inspired by the seats born along the Oregon Trail, and he utilized the company's trademark move of blending rawhide and rattan to give it a McGuire twist. 

After selling the company and retiring, Elinor passed in 2005 and John died in 2013. "I've been told that he was very passionate person. He was known to bring his car to a screeching stop and whip out a Polaroid camera to record inspiration where he saw it. His glove compartment was reportedly filled with these photos," DeSario says. "Elinor was the creative force, and a very intelligent and purposeful woman. It's remarkable how many design successes they had—and how many are still being produced today." 

 

 

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