Inside JCPRD: The greatest American designer you didn’t know you knew

Paul McCobb: America’s Designer is a Mid-Century Modern feast for the eyes. Exhibit is on display through January 7, 2022. The Johnson County Museum plans several associated programs.

Guest written by Paul McCobb Collector Sam Hildreth

The Johnson County Museum’s newest temporary exhibit, Paul McCobb: America’s Designer, features a collection of the wide range of designs that Paul McCobb produced. It is by no means a complete study of his work but rather a sampling of his range across the home and industrial market from 1949 to 1969. The exhibit is comprised of dozens of pieces from my personal collection, many of which were found right here in Kansas City (including a McCobb-designed kitchen from the Briar Cliff neighborhood). The Johnson County Museum partnered with me to interpret and display what I have so passionately enjoyed collecting and researching for a decade.

Paul McCobb: The Designer

Paul McCobb (1917 – 1969) was one of the most prolific residential and industrial designers from the late 1940s to the late 1960s. This popular era in design history is most often referred to as Mid-Century Modern. But for many years, McCobb’s life and career had been mostly forgotten by the design community. He owned his own design company, yet when he died at the age of 51, he had not properly prepared to pass the torch along. McCobb had no one to carry on his brand or legacy, unlike many of his contemporaries who designed for large corporations. He was often an afterthought or downplayed because his work was not always as flashy as some of the other designers of his era. But it is my hope that the exhibit, featuring my collection and curation by the Johnson County Museum team, will help highlight the breadth of McCobb’s work as his legacy is beginning to gain the recognition it deserves.

Building my collection

Sam Hildreth’s 1951 ranch/bungalow home near Waldo. McCobb designed his pieces to fit seamlessly into the home, whether a New York high-rise apartment or a new suburban home.

I started collecting ten years ago when I was a senior in college. A family friend asked me to help him move his grandparents into a senior living facility. My job was to help load the moving truck with all that they were keeping, with the remainder to be sold in an estate sale. In return, I was allowed to fill my small car with pretty much whatever I wanted. Knowing that I would be graduating soon and in need of furniture for my new house, I grabbed a coffee table from the basement. It needed work, but I had always enjoyed woodworking projects and wasn’t afraid of the task. I got the table home and discovered a mark underneath with the name “Paul McCobb.” It was a name I had never heard, but after a few internet searches, I quickly became familiar with his designs. After graduating, I settled into my new house – a 1951 ranch/bungalow in the Waldo neighborhood. I realized that most current-day department store furniture was too big for my small home. I started researching Paul McCobb and his designs. Something about the honest materials and straight lines of the Planner Group (one of the best-selling furniture lines of the 1950s) resonated with me, and I wanted to fill my home with his period-appropriate pieces.

Recently, Soledad O’Brien said, “I like objects that tell a great story,” and I have to agree with her. It’s hard to separate the stories from the objects I’ve collected. Whenever someone says something like, “my parents hosted the St. Louis Cardinals football team for dinner and they ate off of these McCobb dishes,” or “these pieces came out of a convent,” I cannot help but think of the varied people who enjoyed McCobb’s pieces before me.

Becoming a McCobb expert

McCobb designed pieces for the entire home, and there are two full rooms of furniture in the exhibit at the Johnson County Museum.

My grandfather was an antique dealer and had instilled in me the power of knowledge. He taught me that if I can memorize designs and their values, I can find the things I want before others realize their significance and value. But the learning curve was a challenge. A decade ago, researching Paul McCobb and his furniture designs was a bit different than it is today. There was one blog about McCobb run by a collector/researcher named Jonathan Goldstein, there was a furniture forum to post things anonymously, and there were some very bad newspaper archives. So, I did what research I could on the internet and for several months spent my weekends taking pictures of whatever I could dig up at the Kansas City Public Library. The library has a collection of mid-century design magazines, and I would thumb through every page desperately hunting for keywords. Eventually, all this research I was doing got the attention of Mr. Goldstein. He had already done the bulk of this legwork and had gone a step beyond – scanning each McCobb mention. We combined our research and built a private digital database with thousands of articles, advertisements, and accolades.

Today, Facebook groups and pages have primarily taken over as the resource hubs where people can ask questions freely and the knowledge pool is much larger. I have become an administrator for the group MID CENTURY MODERN and for the Paul McCobb Collectors group. There have also been advances in online newspaper archives. These newspaper archives have been incredibly important to our researching success and now make continued learning a great joy.

Exhibiting a passion project

Collector Sam Hildreth and ten Paul McCobb chair designs at Retro Inferno, 2017.

My research and collecting has gone beyond just trying to get a good deal on furniture to becoming a vehicle to share my knowledge with others. Through this journey, I’ve gained many friends like Goldstein, Jack Wigoda, and Ashly Schilling, who happily lent me two desks and two lamps to include in the exhibit, simply because of our shared love for McCobb.

With a resurgence in popularity of mid-century design, and newly reissued McCobb furniture and other pieces from companies like FORM Portfolios, Fritz Hansen, Schwinn Hardware, and CB2, McCobb’s philosophy and legacy are on the rise once again. I invite everyone to visit the Johnson County Museum to see the pieces of my collection displayed there and the museum’s great interpretation of them. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

This blog was guest written by Sam Hildreth, who lent his collection of Paul McCobb pieces for the Johnson County Museum’s Paul McCobb: America’s Designer temporary exhibition. The museum offers programming related to the exhibit, including the free virtual program, The Retro Housewife’s Guide to: Mid-Century Furniture, on June 10. Additional upcoming programs include design (Mid-Century Times that Made McCobb), architecture (Modernism in the Suburbs), and clothing. For more information, see the JCPRD online activities portal.