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they’re there to do a job.” Each polished leg ends in a sled-bottomed oval foot. It’s a classical, even whimsical touch, predicting the designs of postmodernists decades later. Acton’s intent, though, was practical. “It allows you to easily move the bench on carpet,” he said, although he adds that “it also makes it look like the bench is walking.”

In 1954, Acton’s bench and his other first-year designs sold out at Cranbrook’s student show, producing much-needed income for the young husband and father. Inspired, he and Dorothy launched Hugh Acton Co. and, though Hugh was still enrolled at Cranbrook, set out to manufacture the bench for the retail market.

The bench was designed from the start to be shipped knocked down and assembled by the customer. While other flat-ship furniture was available at the time, it required glue or screws to assemble; Acton’s bench used press-fit fasteners of his own design instead. He estimates that they built 100 benches that first year, with output doubling in each of the next few years. An eight-foot bench retailed for about $160 in the mid 1950s — about the same price as a modernist Sears sofa of the period — and was sold nationwide, mostly through independent Dux retailers. Working alone in their attic, it was not long before the Actons could not keep up with demand for the benches, so they hired workers and moved to larger quarters. At its peak in 1968, the operation had 40 employees working in a 25,000-square-foot plant.

By 1955, Acton had completed his master’s degree and had a thriving company. But this seemingly rapid journey to professional designer and manufacturer was far from direct. He grew up on a western Nebraska farm, served with the Merchant Marine during World War II, earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Grinnell College in Iowa, and then spent three years in the Army during the Korean War. But he always considered himself an artist; his goal at one time was to become a “cowboy artist.” “I painted this as a teenager, for a neighbor,” he said, gesturing to a large formal portrait of a prize-winning bull on a stairway wall. “My payment was a calf fathered by the bull, which was quite valuable.”

At Grinnell, as he pondered a career in industrial design, a fellow student told him about Cranbrook. “There’s no difficulty transferring from philosophy to design,” Acton said. “Both use the same principles: clarity of purpose, definition of what you’re doing.” He also picked up skills that would prove useful for his furniture design during a short-term job in the display department at General Motors’ Design Center, where he learned to use clay to model car designs; he still lays up and polishes his own fiberglass as if making a Corvette.

Acton’s bench was far from his only successful piece. His Modular Storage System for residential use, introduced in 1957 by his own firm, featured cabinets and shelves suspended on metal uprights. It won the 1957 American Institute of Design award along with Eero Saarinen’s “Pedestal” group for Knoll. In 1959, he designed a wall-hung closet for use with movable aluminum panels for the Reynolds Metals building in Southfield, Michigan, by Detroit architect Minoru Yamasaki (best known today for the World Trade Center in New York). This suspended closet earned him the first of his three patents, as well as an Association of Business Designers award. In the 1960s, Acton’s company introduced the “I-Frame” line of commercial desks, tables and case goods and the patented Unicolumn Folding Table, designed at Yamasaki’s request. It was the first center-column table to fold for storage: the top flips to the vertical and the X-base legs cross over each other.

Architects and designers provided brisk business for Acton, specifying his minimalist designs for offices, banks, libraries, schools and churches. When they had trouble finding appropriate accessories, Acton began designing them himself: writing pads, pen holders, ash trays, smoke stands, most of chrome-plated metal. “We made almost anything anybody wanted,” recalled Acton, “from baptismal fonts to bank checkout stands.” His sales force, concerned that accessories wouldn’t be taken seriously, convinced him to launch the line through a separate company: AMV (Acton Manufacturing Venture). “Some of the salesmen weren’t sure about selling chrome-plated tin cans,” said Acton. “But just about every airport you walked into had my smoking stands.”

In 1968, Acton sold his companies to the Brunswick Corporation, staying on as an independent consultant. Brunswick merged Acton’s lines with the newly acquired Burke furniture company, known for its knock-offs, in a bid to burnish Burke’s image. And some former Brunswick executives enlisted Acton to design his “C-series” tables and chairs in hopes of reviving the moribund Domore Furniture Company.
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