Transcendently Practical

US Designer Paul Loebach explores American design

“Eminently practical and yet appropriate as always.”   These are the words Stephen Sondheim puts into the mouth of mad London barber Sweeney Todd as he praises his madly efficient partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett.  Minus the madness, the line may also capture something of American designer Paul Loebach’s attraction to the overlooked virtues of American design.   

His public remarks about the European domination of the design world over the past decade (and the US fascination with it) prompted HAND/EYE to ask Loebach for an explanation.  “We are a still a young culture, and liable to succumb to the lure of the exotic,” he says.  “Think of a tiger at the zoo.  It’s fascinating because you have never seen one.  But it’s hardly something that has much of a place in your life once you leave the zoo.”

For Loebach, it’s time to take a look at the design menagerie a little closer to home.  American design has indeed succeeded in creating amazing objects – with admittedly non-tiger-like properties. Looked at over the course of many decades as opposed to the one just past, US design impresses with an innate respect for the limitations and opportunities presented by every material, and with the seductive properties of endurance and sublime functionality. 

Loebach took some time out this week to share with us some of his favorite examples of American design with HAND/EYE readers.
1. Late 1940’s Fishing Lure
Answering to a unique blend of aesthetic and functional requirements, its been said that the purpose of the fishing lure is to catch the fish’s attention, and also the fisherman's attention. Early American lures were pounded out of old kitchen spoons or whittled from pieces of wood. By the 1830's and 1840's a market had opened for mass production.  Shown here is a lovely Uncle Charlie Edwards “Banana lure” from the late 1940’s.  (Image seen on
2.  Antique Treenware Cup
A burl is a tumor-like outgrowth on a tree caused by irregular cell growth. In Europe cuts of burl have traditionally been sliced into thin sheets for delicate veneer work. In early America, however, burl found a more primary functional use as ‘treenware’. In its solid form, the interlocking grain of burl is incredibly stable and impervious to warping and cracks, making it ideal for kitchen products. This cup is a great example of the early American emphasis on the beauty of simple functional objects. (Image from Peter H. Eaton Antiques)
3. 19th-century Ceramic Spigot
This spigot comes from Graham Chemical Pottery Works in Brooklyn from about 1880. This is a fantastic example of the unassuming beauty of American industrial products. Made of glazed stoneware- even the finely threaded tube is cast. (Image seen on
4. Adirondack Braided rug
Braided rugs are a wonderful example of American resourcefulness. This piece comes from the collection of the Adirondack Museum. Braided Rugs were the first American floor coverings, yet often remain overlooked in the worlds of design and craft. Braided rugs were originally hand-tied from scraps of clothing too small or worn to be patched into a quilt, and to top it off they are reversible. (Image by Paul Loebach)
5. 1850 Rattan Chair
Woven grasses and branches are among the most ancient crafts known to man. However by the early 1800’s woven furnishings had faded out of European style and rattan was being used in America primarily as a packing material. Thrifty American industrialists picked up on this and began mass producing rattan chairs, such as this one from 1850, a superb example of ornament-as-structure. (Image seen in American Wicker, by Jeremy Adamson (Rizzoli))
6. Loebach Step Stools
Here is a set of my Step Stools. I’m not sure if this qualifies as ‘great American design’, but they are certainly humble little space savers. The design idea came from seeing stools of different sizes lined up as steps into a large truck by an antique dealer at Brimfield. The color palette is inspired by the charm of mismatched layers of paint found on well-used country furniture. (Image courtesy Jeremy Frechette)
For more information about Paul Loebach’s work, see



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