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If You Like Uni Watch, You’ll Love This: A School Furniture Catalog

The main thing I did during my August break was to take a road trip through the state of Washington. But I also acquired some interesting vintage items, including an absolutely spectacular 1957 catalog from American Seating, whose cover is shown above. I picked it up at a flea market the day before I left for Washington.

American Seating is an old company that still exists today. These days they specialize in seats for the transportation industry — trains, airplanes, buses, and so on. But they were founded in 1886 as the Grand Rapids School Furniture Company, and school furniture was still the focus of their business when this 1957 catalog came out, although they also did some stadium and theater seating at the time.

You can get a sense of the catalog’s offerings by looking at the inside front cover, which features this spectacular fold-out image:

If you’re of a certain age, those school desk-chair combos probably look extremely familiar to you (as they do to me). Here’s a closer look:

Oh, man — those images are pushing some serious nostalgic buttons in my brain. I feel like I sat at that very desk in grade school!

Here’s another one that looks mighty familiar:

Aside from the gorgeous chair designs and the nostalgia factor, I also love the look of the catalog itself. The colors, the silhouetted images, the little inset diagrams — it’s a classic piece of midcentury graphic design.

Speaking of colors, check out the inside back cover:

I’ve photographed the entire catalog for your enjoyment. Here you go:

I acquired one other really special vintage item last month. I’ll tell you about that one soon.


Comments (13)

    As a lefty, the “tablet-arm chair” was my worst nightmare. There was usually only one in each classroom even though most classes I was in had at least two lefties. The “classmate desk” was so much better in every way.

    This catalog is beyond awesome. And, if I may opine, was reflective of a more formal and disciplined (uniform) structure for learning.
    I’ve often wondered if the informal, freestyle chair and desks in classes today have made it easier for kids to not pay attention in class.

    Like most things in education, if it is used well, it can be a benefit, including flexible non-traditional seating.

    There is no cure for cell phones. Those are absolutely destructive to the educational process no matter how they are used.

    Oh, man, as a schoolkid from 1979-1992, I can recall sitting in almost every one of the models in this catalog. We even had an “Envoy” desk-chair as on page 13 in our house. All these years, I thought the lower back bolster was loose, but apparently that was a “self-adjusting” design feature for “comfort.”

    An older relative of mine had a teaching job briefly between college and marriage, back when that was the only window for a woman to work full-time outside the home, and she told the story that on her first day of work she arrived early, before the principal had arrived. So she waited on the wooden bench outside the office to wait and found herself squirming event though it was a heavy wooden bench with deep, seemingly very comfortable-looking indentations carved for one’s seat and back. She learned that the bench was made by the local artist and craftsman Grant Wood, and the butt-and-back indentations were deliberately mis-aligned so that students waiting outside the principal’s office would squirm and never quite get comfortable.

    An excellent example of Mid Century Modern illustration and furniture. I almost expect the chairs to have tailfins!

    As a student, yes I sat in every one of those chairs.

    As a teacher, I wish they still made them like that because the plastic stuff we have now breaks if you look at it wrong.

    I’m very curious about number 9, the stadium chair. I wonder how many old ballparks had seats from this company and if any are still in use today.

    I have a seat from the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh, and after seeing this catalog, I swear this company made it. Too cool! -C.

    We have two of those smallest Classmate chairs at our house. Both were bought from a school auction. They are invaluable to me whenever I have to work near the floor on something like the bed I put back together last weekend. They become more important all the time as I get a bit older!

    Having graduated HS in the mid-70’s, I can recall desks we used that had the lid as shown in the catalog but a lot of times the desks we used had a holder for fountain pen ink. You knew those were in service quite a long time! But looking at this catalog brought back great memories of elementary, middle, and high school. Great job Paul!

    This had me remembering auditorium classes. The end seats would be taken by people who just wanted an end seat, and I’m like excuse me, you right-handed SOB, this is meant for me.

    I had lots of relatives from Grand Rapids, MI. The furniture industry was very important to that city economically throughout the 20th century. It sounds funny, but it makes sense because of that area’s access to hardwoods, iron, and shipping.

    By the time I was in school, most of those models had been replaced (increasingly with plastics), but they’re still familiar to me as that odd “old chair” that would still be hanging around for whatever reason.

    Funny how omnipresent design is: even something that exists just to hold our butts is always so rooted in the aesthetics, design principles, and materials of its particular time.

    Awesomeness of the catalog aside, it’s really startling to see any publication without a single person of color. Definitely a relic of a time that I’m happy has long since passed.

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