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Design Research and Harvard Square: Modern living, back in the day

Posted by Anthony Flint  March 14, 2011 01:59 PM

Every once in a while an enterprise comes together that helps define a place -- that captures a time but lives on and becomes part of the story of a place, even long after it's gone. Such is the case with Design Research, housed in the concrete and glass structure that also houses offices and the Harvest restaurant, designed by D/R founder Benjamin Thompson, at the corner of Brattle and Church streets in Harvard Square.
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Thompson (1918-2002) was the man behind Fanueil Hall marketplace and Harborplace in Baltimore, a pioneer in the now-familiar practice of revitalizing industrial waterfront areas. He was a founding partner along with Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus in The Architects Collaborative (TAC), which designed the equally pioneering Six Moon Hill community in Lexington, a planned neighborhood with a common modernist aesthetic that is cherished to this day.
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And he was also the driving force behind Design Research, a general store for modern living -- undisputed precursor to Crate and Barrel, as well as influence for Design Within Reach, Esprit, and West Elm, for that matter. Walter Gropius and Jose Louis Sert brought modernism here in association with Harvard University's Graduate School of Design; Le Corbusier built the Carpenter Center, his only building in North America; but TAC and Six Moon Hill and Design Research all brought modernism to New England in a somehow more accessible, comfortable way.
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Design Research was founded in 1953 in a clapboard house at 57 Brattle Street, replaced by the building now occupied by Harvard's Graduate School of Education. Then Thompson designed the award-winning new home for the general store of design, fittingly home to Crate and Barrel until recently -- "concrete without brutalism, glass without glossiness, contextual without imitation," as aptly described in the wonderful new book Design Research: The Store that brought Modern Living to American Homes (Chronicle Books), by Jane Thompson (Ben's wife) and Alexandra Lange.
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At Design Research the showrooms of dinnerware and furniture coincided with some big-name collaborations, from Marimekko to Julia Child. I was honored to be at a Loeb Fellowship gathering at holiday time not long ago, where Thompson brought out all her Marimekko prints and umbrellas and scrafs, and they were arrayed all over the empty store (in transition to its current occupant Anthrolpologie). Not a moment went by without people knocking on the door, hoping to get in, thinking it was a museum exhibit or groovy new emporium. The building itself is understated and welcoming, a low-pressure place for people to gather, though the concrete reminds one a bit of Boston City Hall. It was spared the rock-throwing students of 1970 around Harvard and won numerous awards; the New Yorker came up to see what the fuss was all about.
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Today Harvard Square has changed in many ways, but walking around the complex is a marvelous throwback to the 1970s. Give me some bellbottoms or at least a wide tie, and let's order martinis at the Harvest.
Jane Thompson will talk about her husband, Design Research, and the lessons that might be found for today, Wednesday March 16 at 6 p.m. at Rabb Lecture Hall at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. It's free and open to the public, and more information can be found at www.architects.org/lectureseries.
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About the author

Anthony Flint is a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge, Mass. www.lincolninst.edu and author of Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on More »

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