Remembering O.B. Solie

HNN contributor Joe Carroll recalls the iconic furniture designer’s sense of humor and style

We love to boast that our industry is a “people business.” Competitors fight for business during the day and have a drink together at night. A fabric mill might offer to lend a competitor some rolls to tide him over during a shortage. I was fortunate to live in the era when, at the mention of someone’s name, one could generally recall all the companies they had worked for — usually in chronological order. I met scores of interesting people during my career. There were also lots of “characters” whose memory still lives on. I would like to tell you about one I’ll never forget.

O.B. Solie

O.B. Solie was both an icon and an iconoclast. I met this well-known and respected furniture designer in the early 1980’s. He designed for Ello, a high-end contemporary manufacturer. He lived in the small town of Rockford, Illinois. O.B. and Bill Peterson, the founding editor of Furniture Today, had both grown up in Rockford. Bill introduced us in the Ello showroom.

Once we got to know one another I saw the playful side of O.B. He would send me some of his cartoon-like sketches of silly furniture he had designed. We published them in Furniture Today from time to time for the amusement of our readers. I remember his sending me a sketch of a beanbag chair that looked like a pig. The pig’s arms would embrace you while you sat on its stomach. He called the chair “Piggy Wiggy.” There was an all-pink version for the ladies called “Pink Piggy”.  He went on to design an entire line of animal-like beanbag chairs with names like “pink Elefunt,” “Big Ears Dog,” “Bun Bun the Rabbit” and “Beaky Bird.”

Sketches weren’t the only thing O.B. would send me. He would send me philosophical tidbits of wisdom. It is said you can size up a man by his humor. Here are a few of his remarks I have saved:

If all the world is a stage, where is the audience sitting?

If love is blind, why is lingerie so popular?

If work is so terrific, how come they have to pay you to do it?

Among my favorite pieces of correspondence from O.B. were what he called “Designer’s Complaint Department.” Like many designers, he did not think highly of  putting labels on styles or types of furniture. Here are some of his thoughts:

This is an image of a brass and beveled mirror four door sideboard O.B. Solie designed for Ello Manufacturing. The image of the product was seen on the 1st Dibs website where it was listed for $5,800.

I hate  RTA/KD. I hate all put-togethers. They never stay together. I hate those cam lock fixes. 32mm construction — they’re too practical. I hate glue-less dowels and metal pins. I hate how long it takes to assemble something. I hate the word “RTA,” which also means Rapid Transit Authority. Furniture shouldn’t be compared with buses. I like AHA! Which means at-home assembly.

I hate contemporary. The word is made up of two bad parts. The first syllable, “con,” implies that you are being conned. Temporary means that the design will not be long-lasting. I hate the fact that it has no history and is a revision of another middle-of-the-road idea.

I hate early American. It’s not that early and it’s not all-American. It’s mostly English. I hate those maple-syrupy finishes. I hate those corny, fat turnings and those meaningless shaped overlays. I hate the 14 or so pieces of hardware in multiple sizes strewn across the case fronts, the fake drawers and the bun feet.

I hate traditional. It’s for people who want to live in the past. I hate those tiny inlays, parquetry, marquetry, tooled leather tops. I hate cabriole legs, spoon feet, gawky pediments, curvy base rails and dentil moldings. I hate all the Louies, hate all the court looks. I hate that people are trying to be eclectic with traditional and other styles. I hate horny carvings and their gilded finishes. I hate roll-arm sofas and chairs. I hate baroque and rococo and “barococo”.

These are some of the sketches of O.B. Solie’s humorous animal-inspired bean bag chairs.

I hate Eurostyle. Its too slick, too shiny, too much of an industrial designer look. It, of course, fostered Memphis, which is neither furniture nor art and should be termed “furnArture.” It belongs in museums and not in home environments. The polyester and polyurethane lacquers and bright finishes should be confined to automobiles and housewares. I hate those outer-space looks. Let the Europeans have their Eurostyle, I Iove Amerostyle.

I hate transitional. The word has so many meanings. In furniture, it’s the wishy-washy category that’s mushrooming because it covers anything and everything. My term, transwishional, is a far better term because it covers “whatever you wish.”

I hate country. I hate country French, country English and country Spanish. I hate all country influences, the “old country,” the “new country,” and any country furniture with the bark still on it. Not many people live in log cabins today. I hate country settees and parson’s benches in bamboo, wicker, rattan and cane, I hate the swirls and curves, which are purely decorative, and I hate the fact that they have lasted so long and are everywhere. I also hate wingbacks.

I hate Scandinavian design. Even though I am of Scandinavian descent and used to thrill at their woodworking prowess, I have grown tired of their unchanging designs. I hate Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish design, I hate their clean, crisp looks and their innovative modulars. I hate rosewood and white oak and their dainty knobs that disappear into the facade. I hate that they are so honest in their design. I hate their clever displays and use of bold colors.

I hate modern. I used to love modern because it had visions of the future built in. It combined materials like wood, glass, mirror, metal, marble, stone and leather. All honest materials, no fakes. It was the most inventive category; it had such dramatic and simple statements of design. Now we have post-modern, ultra-modern, psychedelic-modern and neon-modern. We also have modern with broken edges and high-tech modern, which is built like the United Air terminal in Chicago. Now, modern sofas and chairs are so muscled up, they look like they’re on steroids. It’s too scary and too mod.

But, I love this design business, the terminology, the markets, the people, the industry. The above is all in jest. I really like good design; I just hate that there is so little of it.

O.B. Solie was one of a kind. Even though he wrote these observations several decades ago they seem as timely as ever. I thought it would be fun to recognize an industry legend noted for his sense of humor.

Joe Carroll is former publisher of Furniture Today. He was inducted into the American Home Furnishings Hall of Fame in 2009. 

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