The story of the coconut chair
Little did George Nelson know when he used Eero Saarinen’s Kresge Auditorium as inspiration for the Coconut Chair that he would see his friend leaving the building in a coffin, his life cut short by a brain tumour, only six years later.
The polymath, snapped up by Herman Miller founder D. J. De Pree as director after he saw Nelson’s Storagewall showcased in Life magazine, rarely referred to Saarinen’s building when it came to the Coconut. He preferred to compare his lounge chair to the tropical fibrous one-seeded drupe cut into pieces, with the colours reversed.
“Coconut” had a better ring than Kresge Chair and Nelson had an innate knack for marketing: “If you can’t afford advertising, focus on a few products that will get into all the magazines because they are odd or crazy, ” he once said.
The angular Coconut Chair was a perfect fit for the Futurist style that was popping up across America in the upswept roofs and bold mix of materials of Googie architecture.
Nelson and his associate George Mulhauser brought black and white together in a chair that echoed not only Saarinen’s architecture but the work of conceptual artists Joan Miró and Alexander Calder.
At Plycraft, Mulhauser had proved himself both sculptor and engineer while producing stunning lounge chair designs in wood and leather. Nelson wanted to introduce new ways of sitting to popular culture as Saarinen had done with his 1946 Womb Chair, and he knew Mulhauser was his man.
While Nelson brought harsher Modernist elements gleaned from designers and architects he admired to the design, Mulhauser added comfort without losing its sculptural qualities. It was a stunning collaboration.
Each edge of the chair looks the same size but the eye is deceived; the back is slightly longer, allowing for more comfort than an even-sided triangle would afford. A hard white shell is padded with a thick foam rubber cushion, upholstered in supple black vinyl and set on to a bent-steel, three-legged base with tough nylon glides. Add to that a person and the dynamic changes beautifully as the inviting armchair gives users the freedom to sit in countless positions and become part of the sculpture of the chair.
The shells most coveted by collectors were originally produced in steel, with vinyl upholstery. The second generation of shell, in fibreglass-reinforced polyester, was influenced by Eames. Now the shell is made in plastic. The leg frame in bent and polished aluminium at Vitra goes back to the original design.
At one point in the design genesis, steel tube legs were screwed singly on to the form, but proved too weak. Nelson also designed a footstool which looked rather clumsy and took away from the beautiful curve of the coconut shell. Today, the Coconut stands alone in its glory.