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Subject: Harvey Probber, a Designer of Furniture

Dead at 80
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Date Posted: March 02, 2003 10:34:33 EDT

Harvey Probber, a furniture designer whose elegant, innovative modern furniture was popular in the 1950's, 60's and 70's and has recently become collectible, died on Feb. 16 in Greenwich, Conn. He was 80.

Mr. Probber, who introduced Americans to sectional, modular seating in the 1940's, when it became a furniture industry phenomenon, had in the last five years found a new appreciation among collectors of midcentury-modern furniture, especially for his upholstered pieces and cabinetry.

Born in Brooklyn in 1922, Mr. Probber sold his first design, for a sofa when he was 16; it brought $10. By the time he graduated from high school, he was commuting to Manhattan to sell his sketches to furniture manufacturers. He remained largely untrained on a formal basis, though he took evening classes in design at the Pratt Institute, learning furniture production during the day at a job with Trade Upholstery, a New York company.

After service in the Coast Guard in the 1940's, Mr. Probber began a brief secondary career as a cabaret singer. Harvey Probber Inc., his furniture company, was established in 1945. It closed in 1986. "He did have a beautiful voice," said his wife of 50 years, Joan Dworkin Probber, who survives him. "But when push came to shove, he followed design."

He is also survived by four sons, Jonathan, of East Greenville, N.C., Jory, of White Plains, Jamian, of Montville, N.J., and Jeremy, of New York; and four grandchildren.

Mr. Probber's designs were often characterized by understated modern lines relieved by elegant details like delicate hardware, warm finishes or unexpectedly bright colors. He explained in the 1950's that he balanced design with decoration because customers, easily bored with the academic purities of modernism, were ever eager to "horse things up."

Flexibility of function was an important issue as well. Mr. Probber's unit furniture pieces, independent geometric shapes that could also be pieced together, were introduced in the 1940's and were supplemented in the 1970's by more innovations in sectional or modular seating groups.

A reappreciation of Mr. Probber's work was led by dealers and collectors in midcentury-modern furniture who, moving beyond interest in figures like Ray and Charles Eames and George Nelson, began to investigate popular designers of residential furniture like T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, Edward J. Wormley and Tommi Parzinger.

"Probber was a modernist in beautiful materials," said Evan Lobel, the owner of Lobel Modern, a gallery on West 18th Street in Manhattan.

Mr. Probber, whose furniture will be exhibited in a retrospective show at the Mishkin Gallery at Baruch College in New York in October, waited longer for his moment.

"He was shy; it's why he wasn't better known," Mrs. Probber said.

Mr. Probber, though, appreciated the value of patience, considering it a necessary virtue in furniture design. In an interview in 1958, he described "the quality of aging gracefully" as "design's fourth dimension."

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