The rise of mid-century furniture design as a design style in North America
Considered one of the founding fathers of American Modernism, George Nelson (1908–86) trained as an architect at Yale before turning to product and interior design. His long association with office furniture and equipment manufacturer Herman Miller, where he was design director from 1945 to 1972, and the success of his own company George Nelson & Associates, which he founded in 1955, cemented his position as one of America’s most important designers.
Under his direction, these two companies produced many of the 20th century’s most iconic pieces of furniture, in collaboration with American luminaries such as Charles (1907–78) and Ray Eames (1912–88), Harry Bertoia (1915–78), and Isamu Noguchi (1904-88). Nelson was also a prolific writer, and his pre-war meetings with – and subsequent articles on – several members of Europe’s design elite, such as Gio Ponti (1891–1979), Le Corbusier (1887–1965), and Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969), helped introduce America to mid-century modernist furniture.
The concept of Mid-Century modernist as a design movement was readily embraced in the United States. Fuelled in part by pent-up consumer demand, affordable mortgages for the returning soldiers, and a baby boom, the country’s post-war recovery was fast.
Unlike its European allies, America hadn’t suffered the devastation of its major cities or the subsequent shortages of materials being diverted to the rebuilding effort. Country dwellers flocked to the cities and demand for everything from cars to furniture spiralled.
The new, more organic forms of mid-century modernism were a refreshing progression of the more rigid International Style, and they worked well in the interiors of the light and airy American suburbs of the era, a style often referred to as “California Modern”.
The large American design companies such as Knoll, Herman Miller, and George Nelson courted the best of the European designers. In fact, the pre and post-war migration of many influential European designers and artists made for an extremely cosmopolitan roster.
The son of Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, Eero Saarinen (1910–61), had moved to the United States with his parents in 1923. His close working relationship with Charles and Ray Eames highlights the Scandinavian influence on the Mid-Century Modern movement, and Saarinen’s designs for Knoll typify the sculptural, comfortable, and organic forms of this era. His “Grasshopper chair” (1946–7), “Womb chair” (1947–8), and “Tulip chair” (1955-6) are modern design classics.
Charles and Ray Eames
Charles and Ray Eames make up one of the 20th-century’s most enduring design partnerships. They were married in 1941, and their eclectic “West Coast” combination of interests and imagination fostered a joint career that spanned more than forty years and resulted in some of the most innovative and influential furniture designs of the post-war period.
The couple’s big, mass-production break came in the form of a moulded plywood leg-splint which the US Navy ordered by the thousands.
This experimentation with materials and manufacturing techniques was to become a trademark of their progressive talents. Early products such as the “LCW” (short for “lounge chair wood”) chair of 1945 offer a mere hint of the great things that were to come in a variety of disciplines, from architecture to film.
Built in Los Angeles in 1949, the Eames House (also known as Case Study House No. 8) is an influential experiment in low-cost housing. The Eames’ were not afraid of clutter and filled their home with inspirational objects covering every facet of design. In their time they collaborated with design and industrial giants such as Hermann Miller and IBM.
The post-war period of American prosperity, which created an increasingly affluent and design-conscious society, provided the perfect platform for their innovative use of materials.
Launched by Herman Miller in 1956, their moulded plywood and leather lounge chair with its matching ottoman represent the essence of this great partnership.
After working for Raymond Loewy, I. M. Pei, and Eero Saarinen, architect and designer Warren Platner (1919–2006) opened his own office in 1967. The “Platner Collection”, a series of chairs, ottomans, and tables he developed for Knoll in the 1960s, forms his major contribution to mid-century furniture design.
Platner designed both the structure and the production method; the sculptural bases were made of hundreds of rods and some chairs required more than a thousand welds.
Best known for the moulded plywood seating line he created for Plycraft, Norman Cherner (1920–87) also wrote about his theories in books such as Make Your Own Modern Furniture (1953) and How to Build a House for Less than $6,000 (1960).
Vladimir Kagan & Eero Saarinen
Two design giants from this period are Vladimir Kagan (1927–2016) and Eero Saarinen (1910–61), who had emigrated to the United States from Germany and Finland respectively.
Kagan’s sculptural, organic furniture forms with trademark splayed legs and sinuous frames look like direct descendants of Finn Juhl’s chairs, while Saarinen’s work represented the fusion of Scandinavian Modernism with an American corporate aesthetic.
While modernist design quickly became the status quo in the United States, a number of designers pursued an aesthetic closer to the Arts and Crafts movement. Many of them worked at perfecting their handicraft at a time when craftsmanship was considered a relic of the past.
The pioneer of this approach was Wharton Esherick (1887–1970), known as the “Dean of American Craftsmen”.
Phillip Lloyd Powell (1919-2008) was another exponent of studio furniture. His work incorporates diverse materials, from metal and wood to slate and marble, chosen for their tactile qualities.
Although he never formally trained as a designer, Paul McCobb (1917–69), set up his own successful industrial design company, Paul McCobb Design Associates, in New York.
In 1950, he launched the “Planner Group”, a line of affordable, modular home furnishings with clean, modern lines. Perfectly suited to post-war middle-class lifestyles, the line was an immediate success.
Trained as an architect, George Nakashima (1905–90) worked in Paris, Tokyo, and an Indian ashram before returning to Seattle in 1940 to open a furniture workshop. As a Japanese American, he was held in an internment camp after the attack on Pearl Harbour.
After his release, he settled in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and devoted himself to working in wood. His designs rely entirely on the inherent qualities of the material; he selected the wood carefully, preferring pieces with outstanding burls, good colour and natural, “uro” or recessed areas.
Many of his pieces have an unworked free edge to express the natural form of the wood.
Hans Knoll was a man with vision. The son of a prominent German furniture designer, he was born in Stuttgart in 1914.
In 1937, he emigrated to New York and established his own furniture company, Knoll, the following year.
Thanks to his cosmopolitan education and upbringing, Hans had already established a good network of connections in the contemporary design world. His vision was simple but revolutionary for the time: he realized that architects would need well-designed furniture with which to fill their modern buildings.
Hans Knoll hired a well-qualified young woman called Florence Schust. As well as holding degrees in architecture and design, she had worked and studied with luminaries such as Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, and Walter Gropius.
Hans married her in 1946, and together they formed Knoll Associates. Florence company creative impetus, focusing on superlative design quality and efficient, innovative production techniques.
The idea of paying designers a royalty and crediting their work was ground-breaking and helped to attract established gave the designers; at the same time, the couple also realized that it was of paramount importance to nurture up-and-coming talent such as Harry Bertoia and Isamu Noguchi.
By also acquiring the rights to produce the already iconic designs of Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer, the company was establishing itself as an international design force.
By 1947 Knoll had opened a textiles showroom, mainly in response to the shortage of suitable fabrics for its products, and the collections were an immediate success. The purchase of a factory in Pennsburg, Pennsylvania, was soon followed by the opening of another in nearby East Greenville, which remains Knoll’s headquarters and manufacturing base.
Knoll essentially invented the idea of corporate interior design, and its Planning Unit was the model for many later companies.
When Hans Knoll was killed in a car crash in 1955, it fell to Florence to assume the presidency of the company. She retired in 1965, but her words are still synonymous with the company’s ideals: “Good design is good business.”
Knoll’s commitment to the integrity and quality of good design has cemented its position as an international leader in the field; it’s little wonder that the company’s roster of designers reads like a directory of the world’s greatest design talent.
Love him or loathe him, Wendell Castle is a name that strikes fear into some and calls forth admiration in others, perhaps in part because it is almost impossible to define the work of this talented, often whimsical man.
Born in 1932, Castle studied both fine art and industrial design at the University of Kansas, a combination of disciplines that helps blur the often all too rigid boundaries between the different categories of people working in the design world.
Preferring to be called a “furniture artist” rather than a designer, Wendell has continually challenged perceptions, creating sculptural and organic pieces in a variety of materials such as plastics, bronze, steel, and wood. Made of glass-reinforced polyester and undeniably tooth-like in appearance, his “Molar” chairs and coffee tables of the 1960s are Pop classics but regarded with less reverence than the work of some of his European counterparts.
It’s plain to see that Castle is a craftsman and a sculptor, unafraid of taking risks and producing theatrical, highly individual works that cock a snook at function in reverence to the skill of the artisan. Castle has often been accused of “forsaking function in favour of form”.
In reality, there are no real rules about the conformity between form and function and if Castle chooses to ignore or camouflage it on occasion, then it is his right as an artist to do so.
Castle’s use of sculptural biomorphic forms are central to his identity but his playfulness and often misunderstood irony are what set him apart from many other post-war and contemporary designers. Always innovative and experimental in his use of materials, Castle continues to question the boundaries between art, design, and industrial application.
These pieces can be both challenging and massively rewarding, but it is this inspirational creativity that put him at the forefront of post-war American design. Castle is generally considered the most important furniture artist of the era.