Mid-century modern chairs
Mid-century modern design is without a doubt in the throes of a renaissance, and has firmly established itself as one of the most popular design choices today.
This design movement arose out of the Second World War, adopting elements from its predecessors but also breaking with tradition. The geometric shapes celebrated by the Art Deco movement combined with natural materials and organic forms. The principles of the Bauhaus movement, the harmony between function and design, and good design available to the masses, were upheld. It was all about finding the potential for beauty in minimalism, and riding the gathering wave of mass production.
The humble chair was an ideal vehicle for this mode of expression. The seats of the era exemplify the zeitgeist: streamlined, affordable and mass-producible. Many mid-century designers were architects and sculptors first, and their chairs are architectural works of art which can make for a real statement piece in the modern home. Many of these chairs have become iconic, and many, in accordance with the movement’s original principles, remain accessible and affordable for the masses to this day.
The movement had its roots in the Danish modern school, which took the ergonomic principles of the German Bauhaus and developed a minimalist style which became hugely influential. Danish furniture design thrived throughout the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and American mid-century modern followed suit.
The scarcity of materials during and after World War II encouraged the use of available woods, such as plywood. In the wake of the war, modern production methods led to mass production on as scale like never before, as well as a flourishing faction of middle class consumers, hungry for modern stylish design at affordable prices – a challenge that designers relished.
The furniture of this period is characterised by sleek smooth lines, streamlined shapes, the combining of natural materials like leather and strongly grained woods with manmade materials, new materials including plastic, fibreglass and steel, vibrant colours, practicality and function. Many designers took a scientific approach to the needs of the body, and attempted to satisfy these within each piece of furniture. There is an endearing element of humour applied to many mid-century modern chairs, their names comparing them to objects or creatures: Egg chair, Ant chair, Bikini chair, Womb chair, Marshmallow chair.
Arne Jacobsen was an architect and designer, a proponent of Functionalism, particularly celebrated for his 1950s chair designs. These were created in his search for Gesamtkunst, the ideal work of art making use of many art forms. He created the Ant chair in 1951 for an extension of the Novo pharmaceutical factory. In 1958, he was commissioned to create chairs for the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, and produced the Drop chair, a Dali-esque teardrop moulded into a seat, the Swann chair, and the Egg chair. Other chairs include the Pot chair and the Giraffe chair.
Furniture designer Borge Mogensen is another reason Danish furniture reached such a level of international respect. His scientific analysis of functionality fed in to his adaptation of traditional forms. His chairs were designed with the idea of industrial production. Notable chairs include his Hunting chair, designed in 1950, a wooden deck-chair like design with leather stretched over it, and the 1959 Spanish chair, a modernist, simplified interpretation of a sturdy traditional chair he encountered in Spain.
Along with Jacobsen and Mogensen, Hans Wegner helped bring Danish design to the forefront of the world’s consciousness. His work was invariably high quality, organic and functional. He designed over 500 different chairs, 100 of which were mass produced, and many of which became iconic designs. ‘The Chair’, developed in 1949, is one such design, which rose to prominence in a 1961 televised debate between Kennedy and Nixon. The chairs were flown in specially from Denmark to seat the presidential candidates. Other favourites include the Shell chair, the Wishbone chair and the Peacock chair.
Finn Juhl is often named as the designer who brought Danish Modern furniture to America. His sculptural, throne-like seating was first made in runs of fewer than 100, however most of his designs were reissued in greater numbers later in his career. Perhaps his most famous design is the Chieftain chair of 1949, which is said to have changed the future of Danish design. Its shapes inspired by primitive weaponry, the seat seems to hang suspended above the frame.
The enfant terrible of Danish modern design Verner Panton created futuristic furniture and interiors which contributed to the design style of the Space Age and Pop Art. His ‘S’ chair was revolutionary, made from a single piece of moulded plywood. This evolved into the Panton Chair, the world’s first moulded plastic chair, made from a single piece of colourful plastic and stackable for easy storage.
American mid-century modern
The love story of mid-century modern design can be found in couple Charles and Ray Eames, who pioneered the American modern school. They discovered how to create strong compound curves in plywood, and combined this with fibreglass, plastic and metal. Around 1,000 of their Lounge Chair Wood (LCW) chairs were produced at first, but then the Eameses teamed up with the Herman Miller furniture company, who began to mass produce many of their chairs. The 1956 Lounge Chair with Ottoman was subject to this, and in fact is still produced by the Herman Miller company today. Original, signed 1950s-60s examples are the collectible ones, however, along with several other vintage Eames designs.
Eero Saarinen emigrated from Finland to America aged 13, and befriended the Eameses, as well as Florence Knoll, who as well as designing furniture herself would become one of the biggest manufacturers of modern furniture designs. The Knoll company produced Saarinen’s Tulip chairs, which are generally sold as at auction today as a dining room set. Other notable chair designs are the Womb chair, which influenced Jacobsen’s Egg chair, and the Grasshopper chair which combines natural forms with geometric shapes in a model expression of mid-century modern.
George Nelson is one of the founders of American modernism, his designs changing the face of American furniture, certain pieces becoming truly iconic. His extraordinary Marshmallow chair, created in 1956, can be viewed as a forerunner to the Pop Art movement of the 1960s, seemingly free-floating multi-coloured cushions affixed to a metal frame. His Coconut chair looks very much like an extremely comfortable chunk of coconut.
Guide to Collecting
No one needs a room full of chairs. Splash out on one statement piece for your home, one that appeals to you. It will almost certainly retain its value – this is one classic design style that’s not going out of fashion any time soon. Check out our Top 10 favourite mid-century modern chairs for some inspiration!
Some original pieces sell for tens of thousands. The US market is particularly strong, the works of Charles and Ray Eames, and George Nelson never failing to find competitive buyers. Scandinavian and also British designers, such as Ercol, G-Plan, Robin Day and Stag, can be more affordable, but the growing popularity in mid-century modern has seen prices rise steadily in recent years.
Mid-century modern furniture was designed for both offices and homes. Investment value is mostly all in the latter. However, if looking for cheaper pieces, some of the office items are still stunning examples of design and could make for a nice statement, while costing you much less.
Often, sets of chairs such as dining room chairs, like the Tulip chairs of Eero Saarinen, are sold together as a group.
There are numerous dealers and furniture shops that specialise in mid-century modern and can source items for the customer. Auction houses that specialise or hold regular auctions that offer mid-century modern furniture include Wright in Illinois, Palm Beach Modern in Florida, and Rago in New Jersey.
Wouldn’t it be fantastic if, as Mad Men ends its run after the seventh season, they auction off all the furniture? Keep a hopeful ear to the ground!
What constitutes an original can be a hazy line with mass-manufactured furniture. Many mid-century designs are still manufactured today, some even by the same company.
If you are not too bothered about having an original, modern made versions created from the original designs are just as well made, but a fraction of the price of the originals. However, some collectors are only interested in vintage chairs created in the heyday of mid-century modern design, the 1940s-60s, when the design style was new and exciting.
The dangerous side of this is modern reproduction chairs pretending to be original vintage. If they were made from the original design, it could be very hard to tell.
How to spot fakes
Be familiar with the manufacturers and distributors of each designer’s work, as these will probably be listed on the labels of the chairs. In the US, Herman Miller in Michigan was the most prolific and influential producer of modernist furniture. Another was Knoll. There should never be a bar code on the label.
The chairs should have built up a patina of authenticity: look a little worn, without a fancy finish, a few scrapes and dents perhaps.
There are telling signs for each individual chair. Become familiar with the exact appearance and design of the chair you have in mind in order to spot a fake. Case in point, the Eames chair. An original Eames chair will never have visible screws and bolts, while fakes often do. Originals have a separate piece of leather on the arm, while copies are upholstered with a single piece of leather wrapped around. There are five legs on a real Eames chair, and often four legs on a fake. You can be even more specific: authentic Eames lounge chairs are angled at 15 degrees. Reproductions probably don’t give the angle this much attention.
The bookmarklet lets you save things you find to your collections.
Note: Make sure your bookmarks are visible.
Click and drag the Collect It button to your browser's Bookmark Bar.