Foster McDavid's Mid-Century Lounge Chair...Or is it?
The chair design in question has been widely attributed online to a company called Foster McDavid. I myself have used the attribution! However, after doing some research I have found that it is actually the most successful design made by Galloway's Furniture in Florida, first appearing in print adverts in 1959:
Source: Tampa Tribune March 22nd 1959
I exchanged a series of emails with John Galloway, who offered a wealth of information surrounding Galloway's Furniture, its amazing showroom and this now-iconic chair.
The chair's Foster McDavid attribution may come from a rivalry between the two companies (Foster McDavid and Galloway) and some not-so-subtle copying of the design by Foster McDavid. Technically, while a version of the chair may have been made by Foster McDavid, the design is a Galloway's one.
This advert even references the copies made by rivals:
Source:Tampa Tribune 6 Oct 1967.
The Galloway's chair is called the 'Malabar Chair', but also known as the No.800 High Back Chair. The chair is often described as one of the most comfortable mid-century lounge chairs ever. This isn't a recent opinion by any means, as the chair was produced for over 15 years.
Design Source of Galloway's Malabar Chair
The chair was the work of a young designer working at Galloway's named Mel Abitz who had only joined the company just a week before he came up with it in June 1956.
I talked to Mel recently over the phone and he told the story:
'I had been with Galloway's only a week when the whole family went away on an extended vacation to North Carolina, so I took the opportunity to come up with a design which would really wow Mr. Galloway... I used 1/8" plywood and created a mold which formed the 3 sections of the chair seat, using about 40 C clamps to get the plywood to take the form. I then came up with the A shaped side frame and connected the sides together with stretchers. The seat then slipped between the sides into the cradle and was attached. The original seats were covered in foam and the covers hand stitched before production was ramped up. '
'Galloway's started off with production runs of 100-150 chairs and bought a semi truck load of plywood seat components from a company in KY. This one chair was responsible for around $1,000,000 dollars of sales with 3000 chairs sold. One day I realized that everyone around the area had one of the chairs but I didn't, so I found an old seat back and base in the workshop and completed my own chair. I paid Mr. Galloway $5 for that chair!'
You may notice that the advert above credits the design to Ralph Galloway - while he was instrumental in working out how to mass produce the chair, primary design credit must be given to Mr. Abitz.
Variations on a Theme
As the design grew in popularity, Galloway's developed a number of different versions :
A rocker was designed:
Source: Tampa Tribune April 23rd 1961
As well as this version with padded armrests:
Source: Tampa Tribune 16 Oct 1966
Edit: Previously this one with padded armrests was believed to be the copy by Foster McDavid, however new findings have shown that copies were made by Birmingham, Alabama based, Deco House.
This tagged Deco House copy recently came up for auction. Note the different shape of the front stretcher (much more streamlined on the original)
Source: Live Auctioneers
Another tagged Deco House chair using the same seat shell with modified arms.
Copies of the Malabar chair were marketed in the midwest by stores such as Hearth and Home, rebranded as the Cloud Nine chair.
Source: Chicago Tribune November 25th 1967
A high back thin seat variant using the same 'cradle' frame also appeared in a different store's advertising:
Source: Birmingham News December 6th 1962
Success Beyond the Galloway's Furniture Brand
It's testament to the success of the design that even though it bore the name of a competitor, other furniture stores sold the chair, in this case, Mayfield's:
Source: Tampa Tribune 2nd June 1963
The chair often featured in the background of photos taken in Galloway's shrowrooms such as this one featuring Swedish Rug Designer Bittan Valberg:
Source: Tampa Tribune Oct 21, 1959
Designer Mel Abitz: His Background
During our phone conversation, Mel also told me how he ended up designing furniture in Florida. Starting off in Chicago, he designed and made some furniture and decided to rent a space at the Design Fair held annually at Navy Pier on the shores of Lake Michigan.
A young hot shot designer named Forrest Wilson saw his pieces and eagerly asked Mel to come work with him down in Indianapolis. They had some success with molded fiberglass chairs and sculptural wood and glass tables, but after their manufacturing building fell victim to 'an insurance fire', Mel thought a fresh start in a sunny state sounded quite good.
At 92 years old, Mel is still very active and his mind is as sharp as his woodworker's chisels! He also has a pair of Galloway's Pedestal chairs (see below) in his living room, in a fantastic mid-century modern house he of course designed and built himself for approx $11,000 in 1958. It has huge 4x16 beams 8' on center and 7'8 x 16" clerestory windows between them that he installed himself, carrying the 1/4 plate glass up a step ladder. Seriously impressive!
If you'd like to read more about Galloway's Furniture, check out our next blog post.
Huge thanks to John Galloway for his generosity - sharing detailed responses to my very specific questions and connecting me with Mel Abitz.
Will Hennessy at The Preservation Society