Designer Gilbert Rohde (1894-1944), the son of a cabinetmaker, was born and raised in New York. He left high school to pursue a variety of jobs, landing a short stint at a local paper, the Bronx News, drawing political cartoons. In 1923 he turned the experience into a job as an illustrator at the Abraham & Strauss department store. Inspired by a trip to the Paris Exhibition in 1925, Rohde began designing furniture and his early work was sold at Lord & Taylor. An exuberant modernist, his pieces gleaned simplicity and rationalism from Bauhaus design and a sense of form and ornamentation from Art Deco. He worked predominantly in Bakelite and chrome, the materials that madeup the visual vocabulary of the period.
Between 1927-28 Rohde designed the interiors for Avedon fashion stores, where his wife was part of the advertising team. Heywood-Wakefield of Massachusetts began picking up his designs in 1930, with a bentwood chair being one of their most successful pieces. Restless for a more substantial opportunity, he went west to Grand Rapids, Michigan where companies like John Widdicomb and Herman Miller had turned the city into a hub of furniture design and manufacturing. Rohde attracted the interest of Herman Miller and began designing for them in 1931. The company had been making traditional pieces and historical reproductions and was close to bankruptcy when they accepted Rohde's modern work in a last ditch attempt to stay afloat. Apparently the miracle they needed, Rohde convinced them that modernism was the reigning style and proved it with his designs for bedroom furniture shown at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. Fortified by their updated image, Herman Miller had Rohde design entire sets for living and dining rooms and began making plans to halt their production of traditional pieces. Rohde designed a popular line of modular office furniture for Herman Miller, and they would later reintroduce thebentwood chair he made for Heywood-Wakefield. He also acted as the Design Director for several years.
During his tenure with Herman Miller, Rohde was also pursuing a number of outside projects. He made a line of chrome chairs for the Troy Sunshade Company in 1933 and also worked with Thonet. His designs were exhibited at the show of Machine Art at the MoMA in 1934 as well as at the Art and Industry show inside New York's RCA building. In 1939 he exhibited work at the New York World's Fair. He acted as the director of the Design Laboratory, also in New York, from 1935-38, and was the head of industrial design at the NYU School of Architecture from 1939-43.