Exhuming the Modern: The Lost Bench of James C. Rose


Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.


This project reimagines a nearly lost piece of furniture design by groundbreaking modernist landscape architect James Rose. By drawing together threads of historical and material research, combined with innovations in fabrication, an extraordinary design was recovered and transformed, culminating in a production-ready bench. This process establishes a model for the creative preservation and active interpretation of landscape history—one that revives and gives new application to historic design, returning it to the garden.


An Iterative and Evolving Design

The practice of historic preservation does not typically bring historic objects into contemporary use. Restoration frequently employs old and new materials to craft convincing approximations of original works, while reproduction often strives to replicate not only the object but also the means of fabrication. Yet both endeavors can render the object a museum piece, appropriate for study and admiration, but not necessarily useful as originally intended. While these approaches have value, they can also constrain the potential for historically significant works to find new life outside of their original contexts.

In this study, an innovative set of seats and benches designed by landscape architect James C. Rose was chosen as a vehicle for investigating how historical reinvention might become a tool for applied landscape architectural practice. Rose hand-crafted the furnishings in the 1940s. They were later prominently featured in his home in Ridgewood, New Jersey, itself an eclectic amalgamation of ideas that served as a laboratory for design experimentation. Equally useful indoors and out, this suite of furniture exemplified Rose’s unique perspective on blurring the distinctions between interior and exterior spaces.

Rose used the design in several of his 1940s and 1950s projects, and the furnishings evolved through several iterations over many years. The original seat and backing of each piece consisted of plastic cord woven across a curvilinear steel frame. Rose’s mother and sister were both weavers, likely inspiring the loom-like quality of the original bench’s frame and woven plastic fabric. Later incarnations used mahogany slats instead of woven plastic when the plastic material became unavailable.

By the time of Rose’s death in 1991, his house had fallen into disrepair. Rusted metal frames and a few rotten wood slats were all that remained of the furnishings. Three of the original frames were reclad in 1992 as part of a larger effort to stabilize the property. By 2013 there existed a range of artifacts and documents from the benches’ various incarnations, including archival photos, a rusted frame, and the early-1990s reconstructions. These artifacts became the foundation of this project’s attempt to fabricate a new interpretation of Rose’s design.

Reinterpretation: Changes in Materials and Fabrication Practices

The team studied and measured these physical artifacts to develop a basic sketch of the original bench design. This sketch was then expanded to reflect an understanding of modern production, forming the basis of a model for adapting the design to contemporary fabrication.

Although the bench was originally a handmade object that evolved over a period of years, new techniques and materials allowed it to become a production-ready design. The initial prototypes and drawings were used to develop 3D, parametric computer models. These models enabled a measure of control over the production of the bench never available in its incarnation as a hand-built object. Tolerances, material interactions, and physical properties of the bench were studied through finite element analysis, and the design was executed through new fabrication tools, including a five-axis router, a CNC roller, and an automated powdercoat paint line.

The project team also took advantage of recent research on the use of black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) as a sustainable and local alternative to tropical hardwoods. Black locust’s high durability (1700 on the Janka hardness scale) and ethical sourcing make it an attractive modern alternative to the historic use of tropical hardwoods.

These modifications to material and fabrication resulted in a furnishing that preserves the form of Rose’s original while enabling a new scale of production. By applying modern parametric modeling and automated fabrication techniques to Rose’s bench, an innovative historic design can now be manufactured at a level of efficiency and consistency that was impossible earlier.


Through the synthesis of historical and material research, this project proposes a method for reanimating historic design works that moves beyond preservation, restoration, and reproduction. The examination of historic artifacts is therefore not the strict domain of preservationists, but also fertile ground for practicing designers.

"It is an important work that really hasn’t been done. They brought together an interesting array of research tools and questions to ask that's very useful for designers to be thinking about."

- 2014 Awards Jury



Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. Landscape Architects, P.C.
Landscape Forms, Inc.
James Rose Center for Landscape Architectural Research and Design