Factory Visit: California’s Modernica Furniture

Tracing the people-powered process of making a fiberglass shell chair and more

Half a dozen buildings rise on Modernica‘s sprawling five-acre compound just south of DTLA proper. Here—in Vernon, California—the family-owned business awaits its 29th birthday. Brothers Frank and Jay Novak founded the furniture brand to honor and foster Southern California design and, along the way, Modernica became synonymous with the fiberglass shell chair—a product that’s still at the heart of what they do today. On the occasion of their limited release with Vans, we visited their furniture factory and stood in awe of the brand’s people-driven processes—all of which is strictly transparent.

The shell chair is far from the only item produced on-site, but its construction acts as a microcosm for the facility. It begins with one of the most extraordinary visuals—twin ropes of fiberglass enter a machine, are shredded and then spit out over a spinning shell form. As the fiberglass slices collect, an employee spreads them around with a gloved hand. The process ends when the worker deems it complete.

“All chairs produced in a process that’s part human and part machine,” Modernica’s marketing lead Ingrid Hernandez-Morrison explains to us. “When you are purchasing a chair, at this cost, you should feel good knowing that someone made this and is earning a living wage.”

The fiberglass is then transported to an employee who applies color or a pattern. It’s then pressed. “The machinery looks like dinosaurs,” Hernandez-Morrison continues. “You’d think there would be an easier way to make these chairs, but Modernica takes a lot of pride in manufacturing them the same way they were manufactured in the ’50s and ’60s. We are using the original machinery, the same technique and the same materials. This is as close to a vintage shell chair as you’ll get.”

These machines were bought at auction (they were being sold for scrap metal) and in order to bring them on site, Modernica’s owners needed to reinforce the floors. As the chairs pass from one room to the next, more human handling becomes necessary. “Every shell chair has four shock mounts and they’re done by hand,” Hernandez-Morrison adds.

All of the wood molding is also done in-house. “Curves are always more expensive,” she continues. In a large woodworking structure near the fiberglass room, wood layers are pressed into proprietary forms. These yield things like the spider leg base for the shell chair. Modernica prides themselves on the fact that very little waste is produced. And, of course, that humans are absolutely fundamental.

Many of their employees have been there since the company began in 1989. In certain instances, fathers and sons now work side by side. All of their capabilities and proficiencies have evolved over time. So too have their designs.

When you think mid-century modern, this is it

“When you think mid-century modern, this is it,” Hernandez-Morrison says about the shell chair. “But that isn’t all of who we are. There are brands that come to us and want to design with us. We want our customer to be part of our product.” From the upholstery to textile work, touring the factory reveals so many areas of expertise.

Modernica’s doors are open to the public. They host various events on their grounds, including a twice-annual vintage fair called Downtown Modernism—which features roughly 80 vintage dealers. Otherwise, visits can be arranged through outreach. During such visits, machines are on and furniture is being produced.

Images by David Graver