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The Royalty of Mid-Century Modern
by Bob Brooke


When many people hear the term “mid-century modern,” they automatically think of furniture with clean lines and a lack of detail. And while many associate the Mid-Century Modern style with the years 1945 to 1965, one of the earliest examples of that type of furniture was the Airline armchair, designed by Kem Weber in 1934. This unique chair featured the sleek geometry of Art Deco, a retail price of just under $25, and was meant to be shipped in a cardboard box and assembled by the buyer, much like IKEA furniture is today, Unfortunately, only 200 or so of the chairs ever made it to production and even fewer got shipped.

Furniture designs tend to be as simple and practical as they are beautiful. And many famous mid-century furniture designers created pieces for mass-market consumption and pricing.

The modern look that took root in the 1940s and expanded into 1950s, '60s, and early '70s in America reflects on innovative Bauhaus design originating in Germany decades earlier, around the same time that Art Deco was on the rise. Designers like Charles and Ray Eames built on this modernist ideal with their colorful furniture made of bent plywood, and plastic chairs molded to fit the curve of the body. Their designs are considered to be classics among modernism fans.

Charles and Ray Eames
When it comes to the royalty of mid-century modern, the name Charles Eames tops the list. He and his wife Ray did more to foster this dramatic modern style than any other designers.

In 1930, Charles Eames started his own architectural office. He began extending his design ideas beyond architecture and received a fellowship to Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where he eventually became head of the design department. And that’s where he met his wife and business partner.

Eames and his best friend, Eero Saarinen, entered the Organic Furniture Design Competition, sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art in 1940. Their goal was to mold a single piece of plywood into a chair; the Organic Chair was born out of this attempt. The chair won first prize, but its form was unable to be successfully mass produced. Eames and Saarinen considered it a failure, as the tooling for molding a chair from a single piece of wood had not yet been invented. Ray stepped in to help with the graphic design for their entry.

One of their first products was a birch child’s chair and stool manufactured by the Molded Plywood Division of Evans Products. The Eameses were more successful than Weber, but the run was still limited to 5,000 pieces, and only 1,000 of their LCW (Lounge Chair Wood) chairs were ever made.

In 1946, Evans Products began producing the Eameses’ molded plywood furniture. Their molded plywood chair was called “the chair of the century” by the influential architectural critic Esther McCoy. Soon production was taken over by Herman Miller, Inc., who continues to produce the furniture in the United States today.

The Eames’ partnership with Herman Miller was more fruitful, however. With Miller, the Eameses created the DCM (Dining Chair Metal), a two-piece chair whose plywood sections were attached to a chromed frame. In addition, they produced the DAR chair, which had a rigid fiberglass shell that could be molded in a rainbow of colors and set on a variety of metal bases and legs, including a rocker. With Miller, in 1956, the Eameses also produced the Lounge Chair and Ottoman, which featured molded rosewood plywood and leather upholstery.

Ray and Charles worked together as creative partners and employed a diverse creative staff. Among their most recognized designs is the Eames Lounge Chair and the Eames Dining Chair. As with their earlier molded plywood work, the Eameses pioneered technologies, such as using fiberglass as a materials for mass-produced furniture. Their unique synergy led to a whole new look in furniture. Lean and modern. Playful and functional. Sleek, sophisticated, and beautifully simple. That was and is the “Eames look.”

Among the many important designs the two originated were the molded-plywood DCW (Dining Chair Wood) and DCM (Dining Chair Metal with a plywood seat) in 1945, the Eames Lounge Chair in 1956, the Aluminum Group furniture in 1958, and the Eames Chaise in 1968.

WATCH A VIDEO:  Understanding Mid-Century Modern

And in 1958, Herman Miller relocated the tooling and resources for the mass production of Eames designs to its headquarters in Zeeland, Michigan. Today, Herman Miller, along with their European counterpart Vitra, remain the only licensed manufacturers of Eames furniture.

Eero Saarinen
Saarinen, the son of the director of the Cranbrook Academy, first received critical recognition for a chair designed together with Charles Eames for the Organic Design in Home Furnishings, for which they received first prize. The Knoll Furniture Company, founded by Hans Knoll, who married Saarinen family friend Florence (Schust) Knoll, produced Saarinen’s Tulip chair, as well as all his others.

During his long association with Knoll, Saarinen designed many important pieces of furniture, including the Grasshopper lounge chair and ottoman in 1946, the Womb chair and ottoman in 1948, the Womb settee in 1950, side and arm chairs between 1948 and 1950, and his most famous Tulip or Pedestal group in 1956, which featured side and arm chairs, dining, coffee and side tables, as well as a stool. All of these designs were highly successful except for the Grasshopper lounge chair, which, although in production through 1965, didn’t fare well in the marketplace.

Harry Bertoia
Harry Bertoia was a sculptor whose wire-frame Diamond chairs, made by Knoll, are sometimes mistaken for the work of the Eameses. And that’s not a coincidence.

Bertoia also learned about designing chairs from Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen at Cranbrook Academy when they entered and won the Organic Furniture Design Competition sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art. Bertoia developed his initial chair design ideas while working with Charles Eames and others in California in the late 1940s.

He was extremely instrumental in achieving the flexible plywood seat with tubular frame that eventually became the Eames chair. But it became known only as the Eames chair, with no mention of Bertoia or the other co-workers.

Bertoia, frustrated by the lack of recognition, left Eames went to work for the Point Lomas Naval Electronics Laboratory. Part of his work at the lab was to scrutinize the human body and chart how to design equipment such as control panels and knobs with respect to comfort of the human reach and grip—today known as ergonomics—which it contributed later to the design of his well-fitting, practical chairs.

Metal was Bertoia’s material of choice, and he played with it until arising at the wire grid concept that could be shaped at will. He not only created the airy design of his chairs, but also devised the production molds used for mass manufacture.

In 1950 Hans Knoll commissioned Bertoia to design several chairs. His designs transcended the barrier between decorative and functional design, balancing successfully between sculpture and furniture. And at a time when most chairs were made of rigid wood, Bertoia’s furniture, with its welded wire and springy feel, were truly innovative.

Bertoia produced his chairs with varying amounts of upholstery over their light grid work. He had to make them by hand at first because there wasn’t a suitable mass production process known at the time.

Bertoia's "Diamond Chairs" have a base of lattice-like metal with a fabric cover. There were five different sculptural, open-weave metal designs in the original Bertoia Collection for Knoll, which began producing them in 1953 and is still doing so today. Other designs in the line included the side chair, bird chair, bar stool and wide diamond chair, all released in the early 1950s. The Children’s chair came in 1955.

Edward Wormley
Edward Wormley, known for his high-quality American furniture, went to study at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1926. Funds ran out, so he got a job as an interior designer for Marshall Fields & Company department store. During the Depression, Wormley met the president of Dunbar Furniture Company of Berne, Indiana, who hired him to upgrade their product line. In 1944 Dunbar decided to focus strictly on modern lines. Wormley incorporated European and Scandinavian innovations to produce a successful line.

His eye for quality and the exacting craftsmanship at Dunbar helped create furniture that was elegant, understated and exceptionally well-made. Though Wormley was never at the forefront of modern design, he took the best elements from classical, historical design and translated them into pieces aimed at middle class homeowners.

As part of the Janus line in 1957, Wormley created tile-topped occasional tables that combined the best methods of modern production with the tile traditions of Tiffany and Otto Natzler.

Through four decades Wormley remained one of the most prominent American furniture designers. His talent combining fine craftmanship together with both modernist and historical traits made for sophisticated design with wide appeal, especially for the customer who didn’t embrace more avant-garde modernism.

Scandinavian Designers
Mid-century modern design also embraced Scandinavian furniture design. The best of it came from two designers—Alvar Aalto and Arne Jacobsen.

Noted Finnish designer Alvar Aalto’s armchair, model No. 397, created in 1932, also bridged the gap between Art Deco and modernism. Aalto made his armchair, often referred to as the Springleaf, of bent and molded birch plywood. And a decade later, Charles and Ray Eames figured out how to create strong compound curves in plywood using Aalto’s materials and techniques.

Learn more about Alvar Aalto.

Danish designer Arne Jacobsen, the father of a style that came to be known as Danish Modern, created chairs with names like Ant, Egg, and Swan, drawing inspiration from the modernist designs of Charles and Ray Eames. Jacobsen conceived every detail of the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, Denmark. One of the furniture pieces for it was his signature Egg Chair with matching footstool, designed in 1958. But he also conceived flatware, cocktail sets, and tea service sets.

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