New Exhibit Celebrates Retro Designs

Design Exhibit at the Old Crate and Barrel
Benjamin K Nissan

Empty stores indicate tough economic times, and Harvard Square has seen its share of blank windows and dark buildings. But, at least for a few more months, the most conspicuous storefront in the Square will light up Brattle St. with bold frocks, patterned cushions, quirky furniture, and floor-to-ceiling tapestries. The exhibit, under the direction of architect Jane F. Thompson, celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the glass and concrete edifice at 48 Brattle Street. Thompson’s late husband Benjamin C. Thompson designed the iconic building in 1969 as headquarters for Design Research, a home furnishings and design company the couple founded together in 1953.

Thompson’s husband, formerly chair of architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, also designed Faneuil Hall Marketplace.

After Design Research—popularly known as D/R—went bankrupt in 1978, Crate and Barrel occupied the space until last January.

The building returns to its roots to

showcase the designs D/R popularized after the company introduced products from avant-garde European designers such as Marimekko and Iittala to the United States

After the original D/R store opened at the current site of Harvard’s Gutman Library, the company catapulted into prominence as a forerunner of the fashion and interior design scene. Julia Child shopped at the Brattle Street D/R, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was pictured on the cover of a December 1960 Sports Illustrated wearing a pink Marimekko dress purchased from another D/R branch.

Harvard professor emeritus William J. Poorvu bought the building in 1978 and leased it to Crate and Barrel for 30 years.

Thompson says Crate and Barrel’s founder was a “disciple” of D/R, and the chain was previously a customer.

When the lease ended on January 25 of this year, Crate and Barrel closed its Brattle Street location permanently, and tourists and Cantabrigians alike were faced with a potentially permanent five-story concrete eyesore.

Thompson says the unconventional layout of the D/R headquarters and Crate and Barrel’s departure at a time when economic fears were at their peak combined to stall the search for a tenant.

When Thompson, who now heads the Boston-based architectural firm Thompson Design Group, was drawing up a proposal for another D/R exhibition that would not open for two years, she had an idea for the Brattle property. She would bring back the designs D/R introduced to Cambridge in the ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s.

Enlisting fellow Marimekko collectors, Thompson assembled 300 Marimekko print dresses to temporarily fill the building.

“A few of us felt terrible about the empty space, which was not just bad for the owner, but also bad for Harvard Square and the other merchants,” she says. “We thought 300 dresses ought to be enough to fill the windows; at that time we weren’t ambitious enough to

start moving in furniture.”

The tentativeness with which Thompson approached the redecoration of the five-story space over the summer melted away as designers who worked for D/R during its heyday came forward with pieces ranging from peacock feather shaped wooden chairs to one-of-a-kind bolts of Marimekko fabric.

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