SEATS OF COMFORT - SIX ICONIC MID-CENTURY CHAIRS AND THEIR DESIGNERS

April 29, 2015

A powerful photo of mid-century modern designers George Nelson, Edward Wormley, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Charles Eames, and Jens Risom for an article in Playboy, July 1961.
“Mid-century modern.” has remained a hit with modern home owners and collectors alike. Where does it begin? There is no set date to the beginning of the movement. The term, loosely applied, usually means anything made in the middle of the 20th century (usually 1940-1960). But more appropriately, the term relates to a design aesthetic that wrote the manual on the connection between function and form — with ease of design born of an artistic and cultural amalgamation that has its roots in “Modernism”.
My reason for choosing this picture is simple: it at once showcases the great minds and iconic chair designs of the Mid-Century movement. This time wasn’t characterized by a singular identity; there were designers that didn’t jump on to this bandwagon in those days! The more traditional shapes and forms, with elaborate painted designs, were equally popular and manufactured. What sets the people in this picture apart was the mid-century modern look. It is recognized easily by its design simplicity. There are no “painted embellishments” that were more common at the time. The finish of all the chairs fit the form and function of their respective pieces. You know you are a mid-century furniture enthusiast when you look for pieces in solid colors, embossed designs that flow with the curves of a piece rather than being applied to it.
I like them because of their purposefulness and how design is a part of form and function rather than a “decorative element”.
I could talk at length about each and every design in this picture but I will keep my focus on the three more influential ones.
CHARLES EAMES-EAMES CHAIR
A shape that sits well is probably the best way to describe the Eames chair.
                                                                                                                                                                                       
The Plywood Miracle
Charles and Ray Eames were famous for always bringing something new to their designs. In their quest for improved look and feel, they developed a pioneering technique for molding plywood. The development of this process gave them the opportunity to play with wood, bend its furniture in new directions. The most important aspect was the look of it; the design appeared “soft”. The designers started their long journey with Herman Miller in 1946 with their brave, and highly original molded plywood chairs. The visual appeal, lasting charm, has made the Eames chair a “seat of comfort”. Time magazine further cemented the success of the chair by calling it, “The Best Design of the 20th Century.” According to the magazine the chair is "something elegant, light and comfortable. Much copied but never bettered."
 
EERO SAARINEN AND THE WOMB CHAIR
The story of the womb chair starts from Florence Knoll’s brief, “I want a chair that is like a basket full of cushions to curl up and read a book in”
 
Needless to say that Saarinen rose to the demand magnificently. The chair is America’s first fiber-glass design to be mass produced and it has been in production by Knoll since 1948.  The initial production was done by a boat builder. Knoll was able to bring to the market this complex, organic and “very modern” form.
Saarinen made the following statement regarding his design in 1948,
“I designed the Womb Chair because there seemed to be a need for a large and really comfortable chair to take the place of the old overstuffed chair. Today, more than ever before, we need to relax”.  
This chair practically asks you to settle in and relax! Usually accompanied with an ottoman this chair can breathe new life into any interior. This piece and its manufacture is a testament to Knoll’s commitment to mid-century modern design sense.
HARRY BERTOIA AND THE DIAMOND CHAIR
Teacher, sculptor and designer Harry Bertoia struck gold (or diamond rather!) with this patented design that was done specially for Knoll international in 1954. Bertoia was a material expert and the diamond chair is just another proof of that.
 
Bertoia in a stroke of genius introduced a new material to the furniture design industry; industrial wire rods. Who would have thought that wire mesh could be made into something so splendid? Bertoia designed the “Wire Chair” and later the construction was done entirely by hand. The frame was built out of chrome steel rods and the wire mesh, making the chair incredibly strong. The sheer craftsmanship of the chair is amazing and its upholstery adds great comfort to the design.

Jesse Brody
Jesse Brody


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