Hugh Acton was an artist and designer, based primarily in Kalamazoo, Michigan, working in a style that blended the best of the American craft tradition and Scandinavian mid-century design. He is most known for his pioneering Acton Stacker (the first stackable chair with arms) and his epochal wood and metal slat bench.

Acton was born in 1925 in Kansas City, Missouri and soon after adopted by a family who owned a farm and ranch in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. From a young age, he showed a penchant for building things and his time spent on the farm would influence his design ethos of simplicity in form and material.

Acton attended Kemper Military Academy and would go on to serve as a merchant marine in Japan and later, in Korea. Between the wars, Acton studied philosophy at Grinnell College in Iowa on the G.I. Bill and credits his education for his adherence to “absolute simplicity.” He went on to earn an MFA in furniture design at the famed Cranbrook Academy of Art. While at Cranbrook, Acton designed his renowned slat bench, a work inspired by the clarity, ease and wide appeal of many Scandinavian designs.

After graduating, Acton worked for the General Motors’ Technical Center in Detroit and later established his own furniture company, Hugh Acton, Inc., which specialized in office and library furniture, storage units, as well as tabletop accessories and planters. Acton sold the company to Brunswick Furniture Company in 1967, but continued to design independently; his most famous design, the Acton Stacker from 1973, had a significant presence in schools and libraries at the time and is still in production today. His commercial designs have won multiple awards over the years, including the American Institute of Design Prize, the Iron and Steel Medal, and the Institute of Business Designers Award.

Acton’s energy and enthusiasm was not only contained to design; he was also an avid sportsman, winning the Michigan Cyclo-Cross championship in 1967 and becoming a national champion senior Olympian in cross country skiing at the age of 65. Later in life, Acton began exploring other materials such as marble, creating sculptures, furniture and tabletop accessories. He also made jewelry and monumental sculptures in copper that he crushed and formed with his tractor on his farm in western Michigan. Acton led a life devoted to “translating the principles of form found in nature to those of artful design.” He passed away in 2018, leaving behind an inventive and essential body of work.

Photo: Courtesy Wright Auction