May 13, 2003: Minneapolis architect Rapson rides the wave of modernism--again

  • Article by: LINDA MACK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 31, 2008 - 10:32 AM

Architect Ralph Rapson with a doodle he drew during the photo session.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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Ralph Rapson's Minneapolis house is furnished with modern classics designed by his friends and contemporaries -- Charles and Ray Eames, Walter Gropius, and Eliel and Eero Saarinen.

"There isn't a comfortable chair in the house," his late wife, Mary, used to complain -- except for Rapson's own Rapid Rocker, where Mary nursed the couple's two sons.

Rapson doesn't have one of his original maple and fabric rockers anymore. He donated it to the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where he first designed it in 1938. But his modernist variation on the classic American rocking chair has been reissued in a limited edition.

Last fall's rerelease party drew hundreds to ogle the chair and pay tribute to Rapson, the unquestioned dean of Minnesota architects. A month before that, 1,000 colleagues, friends and former students celebrated his 30 years as head of the University of Minnesota's School of Architecture. At that time, the building was renamed Rapson Hall.

Rapson was an architectural wunderkind when he came to that post in 1954. He not only shaped the education of the state's architects, he helped shape the state. His 1963 groundbreaking design for the Guthrie Theater made history, as did the international-style U.S. embassies he designed for postwar Europe. His flat-roofed stucco and glass houses and soaring churches such as St. Peter's Lutheran Church on France Avenue S. are familiar modernist landmarks.

But time has not always been kind to Rapson's work. The once-acclaimed Cedar-Riverside complex has not aged well. One of his most famous houses, the Pillsbury House on Lake Minnetonka, was razed in 1997. And his landmark Guthrie Theater faces possible demolition if plans for a new Guthrie on the Minneapolis riverfront come to fruition. These have been hard blows.

But Rapson has been buoyed by the reissue of his sleek, comfortable Rapid Rocker. First designed when Rapson shared studio space with the Eameses and Saarinens, the chair headlined Knoll furniture's prestigious "Rapson Line" in 1945. (Ads featured the maple and fabric rocker and a profile of the pipe-smoking Rapson, then 31.)

Wartime restrictions limited materials to wood scraps and surplus leather and canvas webbing, Rapson said. But Hans Knoll was thinking ahead, aiming to build a postwar market for well-designed modern furniture, said Jennifer Komar Olivarez, a Minneapolis Institute of Arts curator.

Rapson had always wanted to make a bentwood version of the rocker and had about 25 made to sell at the Rapson Inc. design shop that he and his wife opened in Boston in 1950.

"Then I went to Europe to do the embassies," Rapson said, "and, after a year teaching at MIT, we moved out here. So that was the last of the rockers."

You can occasionally pick up one of the original Knoll rockers on eBay for $8,000 to $10,000, said Olivarez, who showcased the museum's rocker in the recently opened exhibit "Household Names: The Designer in American Life." (It was also part of the recently closed exhibit, "The Chair: Sculptural Form in Wood.") Rapson's rocker translates an American staple into a modern form, she said.

The chair's recent revival began with the death of a university architecture student. His mother wanted to create a memorial and talked to Rapson about remaking the Rapid Rocker for the architecture library.

Furnituremaker Jonathan Leck, an expert on Frank Lloyd Wright furniture, took on the project. Then, "since we had the forms, we decided to do 10 of them," said Rapson. "They got picked up rather quickly."

Andy Balster, a young architect in Rapson's office, helped line up the North Carolina furniture manufacturer Warvel, where 50 are being made. They come in three textured fabrics, cardinal red, black or heather gray.

"Members of my generation are now the young, hip modernists," said Balster.

Locally, the rockers are being sold through Rapson's office and Uptown shop redlurered, the penultimate retail destination for those seeking modern design. Price: $1,650, with a 20 percent discount for designers.

"People can bring that rocker into any kind of house, not just a rambler," said Connie Lindor, who with Scott Muellner owns redlurered. She and Muellner plan to buy a gray one for their 1915 bungalow. Olivarez, the Art Institute curator, has one in her Dutch colonial.

Rapson is delighted at the interest in the chair, but he's hardly resting on his rocker. He's designing an ottoman to go with it and he would love to produce his Chair of Tomorrow, an asymmetrical organic lounge chair that would look perfect with a Noguchi coffee table.

In the meantime, he's at work every day in his Cedar-Riverside architecture office, with his son Toby and three other architects who help carry the Rapson torch. He's designed a stunning conservatory -- which looks like a mountain of ice cubes -- for the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. And two of Rapson's recent projects -- a homeless facility in the Phillips neighborhood and a renovation of the Centennial Building near the State Capitol -- currently are underway.

For Rapson, both buildings and furniture are important because they create an environment for people.

"The yardstick is man," he said. "The fun is putting things together."

Linda Mack is at lmack@startribune.com.

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