Meet Max Gottschalk and Cade Hayes, two furniture designers separated by five decades but who share many similarities. In their own unique ways they are purveyors of a southwest-meets-modernist aesthetic that’s uniquely Tucson. By Gillian Drummond and Madeleine Boos.
Calexico. Sonoran hot dogs. The backdrop of High Chaparral. A glimpse of Linda Ronstadt, Gabby Giffords or Paul McCartney. People come to Tucson for many things, but seminal furniture designers is not one of them.
Yet the city was home to a man who inspired a slew of architects and designers in Tucson and beyond: the brilliant and eccentric Max Gottschalk.
A man who wore expensive leather shoes with the backs intentionally cut out of them, didn’t go anywhere without his navy blue blazer – even in Tucson’s triple-digit heat – and had been known to play the cello naked, Max Gottschalk was the stuff of legend.
This little-known modern industrial designer – whose name was linked to the invention of the open-air freezer and the original bar code – lived and worked in Tucson from the 1950s to 2000. Like that other Arizona legend, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, he had disciples. Those still living describe him as energetic and avant-garde (see column below).
Max Gottschalk used a blend of ‘raw’ and industrial materials in his furniture. The relaxed lines of his pieces, mainly chairs, and the materials used capture the spirit of the time. But the way he executed them was distinctly Max: thicker leather, welded and bolted steel, all with a rugged spirit of the American West.
His ‘K’ chair has been likened in form to the Barcelona chair, a refined modern classic by architect Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe. Says architect and friend Frank Mascia: “You could sit in a K chair for hours.”
Five decades later, history may be repeating itself with an architect and furniture designer named Cade Hayes. Along with best friend Jesus Robles, Cade makes up the architecture firm DUST. But in his spare time he makes chairs out of blackened steel and stitched leather. Some of them are backless, or their backs have great gaps in them. One resembles a praying mantis. Another is named Tree Pose because of the yoga-like shape of the legs.
But while the chairs may look like style takes precedence over function, Cade – like Max – is adamant that it’s the opposite. “The goal is to make them comfortable, otherwise I wouldn’t put them out there,” says Cade, who adds that the backless ones are pretty comfy too.
They weren’t always that way. His first chair, made of wood, was distinctly uncomfortable, says Cade, and eventually fell apart. The second, made of steel, was strong enough but the leather was too thin, and because of that it grew difficult to sit in.
Lessons learned, Cade soon hit his stride. He now uses half hides and shoulder cuts of cow from Tandy Leather in Tucson, which he cuts, stretches and, for the most part, hand-stitches himself. He sources steel from Santa Rita Steel & Hardware .
Prior to last month he had produced only about 13 chairs, many of them different shapes. All of them sold, largely with the help of Eric Firestone Gallery, now based in East Hampton, NY. His chairs have made their way to San Francisco, New York and Minneapolis, and prices range from $2000 – $5000.
He made another 27 to stage a property designed and built by DUST on Tucson’s west side, featured on this year’s AIA home tour. “It was a matter of logistics,” he says of this self-imposed rush order. “It was cheaper to make them myself than to find an authentic piece or rent reproductions of mid century furniture. But would I do it again? I don’t know!”
Why steel and leather? “I think it’s because it’s what’s here. There’s not a lot of wood in the desert. And I like to juxtapose the cool hard steel with something natural,” says Cade. He used to watch his welder dad as a kid. Then when he began tinkering with furniture design at college, he asked his dad for some welding lessons.
And why chairs? Cade says his fascination comes from the fact that they have to be comfortable. “For me, chairs are the most difficult pieces of furniture to build. A chair holds your body.” They’re a study, he says, in “proportion, material and strength”, and have to accommodate people of various sizes.
His business partner Jesus is in on the furniture-making too, building tables out of native wood, like mesquite, and blackened iron. For two people used to working on building projects that take years to come to fruition, furniture-making is instant gratification.
“You’re able to explore materials and connections and details in a tangible way, to work with your hands and understand the craft,” says Jesus. Adds Cade. “And it’s relaxing. It’s like meditation. There’s not a client, there’s usually not a budget.”
Cade grew up in New Mexico and went to architecture school in Texas, (he came to Tucson to work for architect Rick Joy.) He says he only learned of iconic furniture designers after he began making his own. It’s no surprise, given the mid century modern bent to his designs, that he names other designers from that era as favorites. And among them is Max Gottschalk; he owns two of Max’s chairs, one a gift from Rick Joy.
Rick was a friend of Max’s and owns ten of his chairs – many of them gifts from the man himself. “He was just so authentic and far-reaching. He was constantly trying new things,” Rick says of Max.
He describes Cade’s chairs as “very masculine but refined”, adding: “A great deal of craft goes into making them, in the same way that Max did his.”
Other influences for Cade include Arizona-born mid century furniture designer Walter Lamb, Danish designer Poul Kjaerholm, and Brazilian architect and designer Mendes de Rocha.
Eric Firestone Gallery used to sell Max Gottschalk’s work too, and as it happens the two share the same Tucson saddle-maker, R. Lloyd Davis and Sons. But that, and the Southwest-meets-modernist aesthetic, is where the similarities between the two end.
Whereas the 35-year-old Cade is thoughtful and soft-spoken, Max had a larger-than-life persona and knew how to be the center of attention, say those who knew him.
Max Gottshalk: a complicated, creative genius
Max Gottschalk came to Tucson as an industrial designer working for Hughes Aircraft, and from the 1950s he was churning out furniture designs with what seemed like passion and duty in equal measure. His followers at the time say he couldn’t help himself; his creative genius drove him to keep designing.
Tucson architect Stan Schuman met Max while Stan was an architecture student at the U of A. Enlisted to draw his furniture designs for eventual mass production, Stan became Max’s protege and confidante. The mass production didn’t happen; Max was reportedly so busy designing that he wouldn’t devote time to marketing, and thus never found the wider recognition he was said to crave.
“Max was incredibly interesting and physically draining,” says Stan. “He had the kind of energy that could suck the life out of you. Max couldn’t stand a void in the conversation and felt obligated to fill it, and he had a depth of knowledge about more subjects than anyone I’d ever met.”
Local architect Frank Mascia taught with Max at Pima Community College where students fondly referred to his interior and industrial design classes as Max I, Max II, Max III, etc. He remembers a “pointy-headed guy figuring out how to put a helicopter in your garage”.
Frank likens him to Frank Lloyd Wright, an avant-garde presence and “one of the most original thinkers I’ve ever met”.
Tucson sculptor Curt Brill remembers his first meeting with Max and the designer’s uncanny way of sizing people up. Not even knowing Curt was going through a break-up Max stared at him and said, “You should forget about her.”
Brill is the keeper of a Marlon Brando mold, a life-sized mask Max was said to have made of the actor while they shared an apartment in New York.
Max was the son of classically trained musicians and a friend of jazz musician Bobby Short. He was known to play the cello, but only in front of the window of that same New York City apartment, in the nude.
Stan remembers picking Max up one mid-summer Tucson day. The temperature was 106 degrees, yet Max was wearing a heavy wool overcoat. Asked why, Max replied: “I don’t let my body dictate.”
A collector, he counted among his possessions various chess sets, engineered contraptions from expensive stereo systems, and cars ranging from a 16-cylinder Ferrari to a Volkswagen bus and a Corvair.
Curt Brill recalls that Max was the first person he knew to buy a hybrid Prius.
Max insisted the car salesman drive him to Curt’s home to ring a gong in an effort to ritually punctuate the moment. Then Max handed over the money for the car.
“You had to go with it or you’d miss half of Max,” says Brill. “He had a huge belief in himself but he also wanted people to find the best in themselves, and explore their potential.”
Max’s furniture shows up in furniture galleries and auction houses throughout the world and goes for $1200 and up. Or you may come across a Max Gottschalk in a neglected corner of a Tucson home. Check for the unmistakable signature leather imprint.
* For more on the golden age of mid century modern furniture design, including Max Gottschalk, visit Tucson Modernism Week’s free lecture by architect/designer Andie Zelnio, 3pm, 2930 E. Broadway. More at www.tucsonmod.com.