Charles Stendig Dies at 99; Introduced Fanciful Furniture From Abroad


Charles Stendig, who introduced contemporary and avant-garde European furniture to adventurous Americans in his New York City showroom, died on Feb. 11 at his home in Manhattan. He was 99.

His death was announced by R & Company, a furniture gallery in TriBeCa to which Mr. Stendig donated his design library and corporate archives.

There was a period, beginning in the 1960s, when the American living room went cheerfully haywire, becoming a showcase for space age and Pop Art design. The future had arrived, and it was plastic and fantastic and brimming with optimism, mirroring the mod revolution in fashion. Mr. Stendig had a hand in much of it, seeking out European manufacturers, including from Finland, in the days when cargo shipping was cheap.

Intrepid and gregarious, he was the first and, for a time, the only American importer of the Finnish designer Eero Aarnio’s bubble furniture, like the Ball Chair, a cocoon-like plastic sphere upholstered on the inside and often accessorized with its own telephone. It had a cameo in the 1960s British television series “The Prisoner” as well as in other dystopian classics.

On one mission, Mr. Stendig flew to Prague, which was then part of the Soviet Bloc, to persuade Thonet factory executives to resume making the 1920s-era bentwood and cane dining chairs that they had stopped producing during World War II; he wanted to import those as well. The catch was that he had to guarantee the production costs for a year, as he told Marisa Bartolucci, a design writer who profiled him in 2016 for the antiques and modern furniture site 1stDibs, where vintage Stendig pieces now sell for thousands of dollars.

The risk was worth it. For a time in the late 1960s, the cane chairs, now avatars of modern design, seemed ubiquitous in certain American households.

Mr. Stendig also sold the elegant leather and chrome furniture of Marcel Breuer, the Hungarian-German Bauhaus architect and designer, including his Wassily Chair, named for the painter Wassily Kandinsky.

In Italy, he embraced the Radical Design movement led by mischievous Italian designers who poked fun at consumerist culture by making arch and ironic pieces, like the Bocca, otherwise known as the Marilyn sofa, a bright red foam and jersey number in the shape of a pair of lips. Mr. Stendig brought it to his showroom, in Manhattan.

The Bocca was designed by the architect Franco Audrito for Studio 65, the design collective he co-founded, and made by Gufram, a company known for playful foam pieces, like an agreeably goofy-looking cactus designed by Guido Drocco and Franco Mello. Mr. Stendig sold that one, too.

The Marilyn sofa was an irresistible Pop Art icon, appearing on magazine covers and apparently scooped up by Hugh Hefner for the Playboy Mansion. Yet Mr. Stendig sold only four, as he told Evan Snyderman, a principal of R & Company. Radical chic didn’t come cheap, even back then.

Mr. Stendig imported the wormlike Non-Stop Sofa, an undulating leather creation with sections that zipped together, ad infinitum, designed by Eleonore Peduzzi-Riva, an Italian architect; its nine-inch sections cost $155 in 1974 (about $1,000 in today’s currency).

Mr. Stendig was bullish on sectionals. In addition to the Non-Stop Sofa, he sold components in stretch velour that fit together in a half circle.

Then there was Joe, named for Joe DiMaggio, a love seat in the shape of a giant leather baseball glove, stitching included, with its fat fingers providing back support. When it made its American debut in Mr. Stendig’s showroom in 1970, it was priced at $1,500 (more than $12,000 today) — not an easy sell, as he told The New York Times.

Joe — designed by a trio of Italian architects, Jonathan De Pas, Donato D’Urbino and Paolo Lomazzi — was included in a celebrated exhibition of Italian design in 1972 called “The New Domestic Landscape” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

But Mr. Stendig showed it first.

His business was known as “to the trade,” which meant he sold to architects and designers, who would then sell the pieces to their clients. This arrangement led by accident to one of modern design’s most enduring and coveted objects.

For a promotional giveaway for Christmas in 1966, Mr. Stendig asked Massimo Vignelli, the Italian designer of New York City’s subway map, among other graphic feats, to design a calendar. At the time, supergraphics — enormous architectural elements of type and shapes — were having a moment. Mr. Vignelli had always wanted to make a huge calendar with numbers you could see from across a studio floor. What he came up with was a simple grid, three feet by four feet, with the letters of the days of the week at the top and the numbers in rows below, all rendered in pure black Helvetica type on a white background and aligned flush left.

The calender was a nearly instant design classic, and the Museum of Modern Art acquired it for its permanent collection.

“When you think of the tradition of the promotional calendar, of half-naked girls sitting on tractors hung up in gas stations across the country,” Michael Bierut, former vice president of graphic design at Vignelli Associates, said by phone, “what Massimo did was to base the sex appeal of his calendar in how big and beautiful those numbers are. It’s still so fresh. It’s almost joyful.”

The calendar is still in production. (Mr. Bierut pointed out that the used sheets make great modernist wrapping paper.)

Suzanne Slesin, a former design reporter for The Times and now editorial director of Pointed Leaf Press, which publishes design and art books, said of Mr. Stendig: “He loved modern furniture, and he was having fun, and it showed. And he was the only one showing this wild and wonderful contemporary furniture. He was it.”

Charles William Stendig was born on Oct. 25, 1924, in Brooklyn, the only child of Irving and Rose (Blum) Stendig. His father was an electrician. Charles served as a paratrooper during World War II and then studied business at New York University on the G.I. Bill. He was a traveling salesman of furniture and tableware on the West Coast before going into business for himself in New York.

In a bar, over a beer, Mr. Stendig met a Finnish trade representative, who told him that his country’s furniture industry was booming and invited him to come to Finland to have a look.

His visit, in a Finnair prop plane, took 26 hours and four refuels, as he told Ms. Bartolucci. The air terminal was a Quonset hut. But when he was taken to Lahti, Finland’s furniture-making capital, Mr. Stendig was gob-smacked by the pristine factories and the work he saw, by designers like Mr. Aarnio, Ilmari Lappalainen and others.

The trip inspired him to go into business on his own. With a $300 loan from Paul Secon, a founder of Pottery Barn, which at the time sold slightly flawed ceramic “seconds” from a warehouse in Chelsea, Mr. Stendig opened a showroom in 1956 in a Midtown brownstone. That same year, he married Eleanore Brustein, and they built the enterprise together, opening showrooms in Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Burlington Industries bought the company in 1971, and the Stendigs stayed on as managers until 1976, when the company was bought again. The couple retired and turned to philanthropy, supporting, among other causes, the UJA-Federation of New York and sponsoring a scholarship program that brought Scandinavian students to study design in the U.S. called “Thanks to Scandinavia.”

Ms. Stendig died in 2012. Mr. Stendig leaves no immediate survivors.



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