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Apr 29

Discover McCobb’s legacy at Johnson County Museum’s new temporary exhibit opening soon

Posted on April 29, 2021 at 11:17 AM by Becky Burnside

Many people know the names and work of famous painters and movie stars, but how many industrial designers are you familiar with?

A groundbreaking new temporary exhibit opening soon at the Johnson County Museum aims to make people more aware of prolific post-World War II industrial designer Paul McCobb, whose functional and affordable work was common in households across Johnson County and throughout America. Paul McCobb - America’s Designer is the name of this exhibit, which opens on May 22, and will run through January 2022.

"Paul McCobb may be the greatest American designer you didn't know you knew," said Museum Curator of Interpretation Andrew R. Gustafson. “He and his contemporaries called themselves ‘industrial designers’ - not interior decorators or furniture designers - because they were studying the way people live and trying to make their lives better. Industrial designers believed mass-produced goods would benefit society. They were designing for a new, modern lifestyle. McCobb designed so many things - furniture, light fixtures, tiles, textiles, portable radios, hi-fis, air conditioning/heating units, fine china, vases, heating trays, vanities, kitchen cabinets, and more! And while McCobb was active in the 1950s and 1960s, his contributions to design history are still felt today - entertainment centers, modular furniture, modular and custom kitchens, functional and minimal pieces. These are things that have not gone out of style.”

McCobb’s most popular product line, called the Planner Group, was marketed through department stores at affordable prices, so most Americans could afford to purchase designer furniture. 

“His products were modular before IKEA made it normal, and they were functional, versatile, and well-made,” Gustafson said. “Young American families could buy Planner Group pieces one at a time and assemble them in new configurations. His other lines were made to blend together, so once a family’s income rose, they could purchase some of his finer furniture and accessories and blend them in with their Planner Group pieces. A lot of residents might associate McCobb’s pieces with their parents’ or grandparents’ houses, but I assure you when it was first released, his pieces were cutting edge and modern.”

The locally-produced Paul McCobb - America’s Designer temporary exhibit will showcase the collection of local collector Samuel Hildreth, and is believed to be the first exhibit solely about McCobb’s products and legacy. 

“Overall, the exhibit ties nicely into the museum’s strong post-World War II content,” Gustafson said. “Topics like consumerism, suburbanization, modernity, the ‘American Dream,’ an ‘American style,’ and mass production of goods all tie back to McCobb’s pieces because that is McCobb’s era. I think this exhibit is going to be really popular with both Mid-Century Modern enthusiasts who know lots about this era, and also with folks who don’t know much about design. Here was someone who was contemporary with the Eames, Russel Wright, George Nelson - yet McCobb isn’t nearly as well well-known today as those names, despite being probably the most-sold of all of them. This is a chance for visitors to rediscover a huge name in mid-century design, and someone that their grandparents would have known as a household name!”

For the May through August season, the museum is planning three free virtual programs that will relate to this exhibit. Each program will last one hour and requires preregistration. Planned for June 10 is the Retro Housewife’s Guide to Mid-Century Modern Furniture featuring McCobb furniture collector, Samuel Hildreth, and our favorite retro housewife, Miss Yvonne, as the two explore furniture in the museum’s 1950s All-Electric House and discuss common decorating trends from the Mid-Century era! Mid-Century Times that Made Paul McCobb is scheduled for July 15 and will feature Professor Peggy L. Honey of Kansas State University’s Department. of Interior Design and Fashion Studies speaking about Mid-Century Modern design and placing the Paul McCobb exhibit in context. Set for Aug. 19 is Modernism in the Suburbs, where members of KC Modern, a local group dedicated to promoting Modern architecture and design through education, preservation and advocacy, present the history of Mid-Century Modern architecture in the Postwar boom era in Johnson County. Additional tie-in programs are being planned for the September through December season. 

Paul McCobb - America’s Designer will be on display at the museum, which is located inside the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center, 8788 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Exhibit admission is included with regular museum admission rates of $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, and $4 for children.