11th February 1902 - 24th March 1971
It is very rare that a designer’s creations become classics within their own lifetime, but Arne Jacobsen achieved just that. A Danish architect and designer, Jacobsen was examplar of the “Danish Modern” style.
The swan and egg chair are two such furniture designs to become classics during Jacobsen’s lifetime. These two pieces were designed for the Radisson SAS Hotel in Copenhagen.
Perhaps his best known design is the model 3107 chair of 1955, known also as the “Number 7 chair”. Many people will be familiar with the iconic photograph of Christine Keeler - her nakedness hidden by the back of the chair. Jacobsen experienced a little luck here because the photographer, Lewis Morley, just happened to use a chair he had in his studio. Not surprisingly the iconic photograph helped the “Number 7 chair” become the iconic piece it is today. Not surprisingly the photograph has been imitated many times since the Christine Keeler photograph.
A fastidious perfectionist, Jacobsen stood out in all areas of architecture, interior decoration, furniture, textile and porcelain design. It is difficult to think of a higher designation for an architect than one of his projects, St. Catherine’s college, Oxford, being granted a Grade I listing for architecture in England.
Charles and Ray Eames
7th June 1907 – 21st August 1978 and 15th December 1912 – 21st August 1988
Charles and Ray Eames are two of the most well-known and highly-respected designers of the twentieth century.
They defined the “mid century modern” style of furniture, with their organic, innovative designs, extendeding their considerable influence to architecture, exhibition design, photography, film-making, and manufacturing.
Before they even met, Charles and Ray had been laying the groundwork for their unique, and hugely influential style of design. Charles’ keen interest in contemporary architecture was getting him kicked off Washington University’s architecture course (because “his views were too modern”), and Ray was busy studying painting with Hans Hofmann.
Demonstrating a fascination with materials that would continue for the rest of their lives, Charles and Ray set up a small workshop in the spare room of their rented apartment, installing a machine affectionately referred to as “Kazam!”
Charles smuggled wood and glue home from his day job as a set architect for MGM, and together he and Ray set about creating a prototype moulded plywood leg-splint.
Before long, they had an order for 5,000 splints from the U.S. Navy, and they moved their workshop out of the spare room, and into some rented offices.
The rest is the stuff of legend. Their good friend Harry Bertoia, the head of design at Herman Miller (and no slouch at furniture design himself), convinced his employers to manufacture the Eames’ Moulded Plywood Chair – an excellent decision given that it has since been described as “the chair of the century.”
Then there was the Case Study House #8, which is considered one of the most influential post-war residences in the world, and the exhibition “Mathematica: a world of numbers… and beyond.” Designed for IBM in 1961, it’s still going strong today, and is considered the model for all popular science exhibitions.
They even managed to find the time to fit in over eighty short films, some of which (such as “The Power of Ten”) are as noteworthy as their architecture, furniture, and exhibition designs.
Many consider Charles’ and Ray’s crowning glory to be the [Eames Lounger and Ottoman], designed in 1958. Throughout the 60s and 70s, no CEO’s office was complete without this pinnacle of executive opulence, and it has since gone on to become a standard of chic domestic residences worldwide.
The Eames’ love of materials and technical ingenuity shines through in every single one of their designs, as is their willingness to spend years perfecting a design.
Genius takes its time, but the final product is worth every second.
9th August 1878 – 31st October 1976
You have to love a designer who bases her best-known piece on a beloved character from the world of advertising. Yet that’s exactly what Eileen Gray did when she designed her voluptuous leather and tubular steel Bibendum Chair, named for the similarly voluptuous and curvaceous Michelin man.
Decades later, the chair is a true design icon, almost decadently comfortable and undeniably striking. But the Bibendum, along with Gray’s other works, were hardly overnight sensations.
As a woman designer working in a pre-feminist era, Eileen Gray was shut out of the networks, mentorships and apprenticeships that launched her male contemporaries into the stratosphere. And while most of these counterparts associated themselves with one specific design “movement” or another, Gray remained doggedly independent.
That independence took Eileen Gray from a privileged background in London to a life working with lacquer, training under the young Japanese craftsman Sugawara. Working with the chemicals involved was so dangerous it actually made her sick. But there was an upside to the pain.
Gray was commissioned to decorate a fashionable Paris apartment, which she filled with dramatic pieces including halls lined with hundreds of small rectangular lacquered panels, lamps and the pièce de résistance, the canoe-shaped, brown lacquer and silver leaf Pirogue daybed. The apartment was hailed as a triumph of luxe modern living.
Having tackled the lacquer business, Gray moved on to architecture, encouraged by Romanian-born architecture critic Jean Badovici, who stated that “Eileen Gray occupies the centre of the modern movement.”
Together, they began construction of house E-1027 on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. The site and modern design inspired Gray to design the furniture as well, including the Bibendum chair and her equally iconic, circular glass E-1027 table, which she created for a sister who loved to eat breakfast in bed.
More achievements followed, but Gray failed to become a design superstar like many of her peers. Only in the late ‘60s did her work suddenly begin to gain recognition, and she was feted as an inspiration to both the Modernist and Art Deco movements. Today, Eileen Gray has finally earned her place alongside design’s big boys, as a woman and a creative force who was truly ahead of her time.
Born May 24th, 1917
There aren’t many teenagers who could design a house, complete in every architectural detail, but Florence Knoll did – aged just 14. Small wonder then, that Knoll went on to be one of the leading designers of her generation, blending architecture with furniture and space design, and creating iconic pieces such as the Florence Knoll Sofa.
Trained as an architect and designer, Knoll created practical, yet beautiful furniture and interiors that transformed the way living and work spaces are now perceived. Knoll believed in total, holistic design, and considered all aspects of a space when creating interiors: architecture, interior design and furniture design.
Her ‘total’ approach led Knoll to create clear, uncluttered corporate spaces in the 1950s that revolutionised the way workplaces were arranged. To these spaces she added functional, minimalist furniture, such as the Florence Knoll Sofa, which combined usability, space-saving functionality, comfort and style.
Knoll’s design genius was spotted early in life, when as an attendee of Kingswood School – part of the famous Cranbrook Academy of Art – she became the protégé of school president and Finnish Architect, Eliel Saarinen. Under his tutelage, Florence learned the holistic approach to design that would become the backbone of her space and furniture creations.
After working briefly with leaders of the Bauhaus movement, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Wallace K. Harrison, Florence met furniture manufacturer, Hans Knoll, in 1943 and persuaded him to change the way he created furniture – introducing interior design to his operations. Within three years, Florence had founded the now world-famous Knoll Planning Unit and become Hans Knoll’s wife and full business partner.
When Hans Knoll died in 1955, Florence went on to run the company – an unprecedented move for a woman in the 1950s. Her ability to spot talent meant that designers such as Eero Saarinen created key furniture pieces for the company under her leadership.
Knoll is also credited with bringing exceptionally high standards to her furniture designs, and is thought to have boosted furniture industry standards as a whole. Her fastidious attention to detail earned her a reputation for perfectionism: a quality evident in her meticulously finished Florence Knoll Sofa, and other furniture creations.
Knoll’s principles are still used today, and for her exceptional design and architectural work she won the National Medal of Arts in 2002, bestowed by the National Endowment for the Arts.
1908 – 1986
The next time you and yours retire to the “family room” to play a game or watch the telly, remember to thank George Nelson. He’s the chap who invented the gathering spot as part of a project titled “Tomorrow’s House” – but that’s hardly his only claim to fame.
Connecticut-born Nelson studied architecture and fine arts at Yale University before moving to Europe. There, he found himself in the company of Modernist pioneers including Charles Eames, Walter Groipius, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and others.
He became an expert on modernism, an amazing writer, critic and essayist, and a vehement defender of modernist principals. Nelson was quite controversial and confrontational, deeming some colleagues mere “industrial designers” for sacrificing their art for the interests of commerce.
Nelson himself, however, participated in one such commercial enterprise, serving as Design Director for Herman Miller during the postwar glory years of American modernist design. Thus began a series of collaborations that revolutionized American design and produced many of the era’s most enduring and celebrated pieces, with luminaries including Charles and Ray Eames and Isamu Noguchi.
Nelson’s work from the period includes the development of modern office furniture systems like Rosewood Group and Executive Office Group – furniture that is still beautiful, functional and deservedly popular today.
But this design icon wasn’t all about business. How else can we explain the “Flying Duck Chair”? Or his most famous piece of furniture – the Marshmallow Sofa – an unforgettable, whimsical design comprised of 18 comfortable round cushions “floating” on a frame?
This sense of fun, colour and whimsy carried over into Nelson’s famous clocks – a large group of wall and table clocks created for Howard Miller. The bold and instantly recognizable timepieces, including the Ball Clock, Starburst Clock and Asterisk Clock, were must-have pieces in mid-century modernist manses. He also brought his design expertise to a series of “bubble lamps” that are still produced today.
In real life, Nelson was a bit of a hard arse, railing against “visual illiterates” who confused design with style. Good thing the creations he left behind are shining examples of the best in American design, still as relevant and desirable today as they were a half-century ago.
17th November 1904 – 30th December 1988
Imagine sitting on your own, personal sculpture, or setting your evening cocktail on a genuine piece of 20th century art.
For the lucky few who own a piece of furniture designed by Japanese-American designer Isamu Noguchi, what might sound like a once-in-a-lifetime happening is an everyday occurrence. Because this world-renowned fine artist is almost as famous for his beautiful furniture designs.
Where the bulk of design’s modernist masters trained as architects, Isamu Noguchi’s primary goal was to become a fine artist. He trained under the man who carved George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and the lot’s faces into Mount Rushmore. Unfortunately, he thought Noguchi lacked the talent to become a sculptor, and the budding artist gave up his dream and began studying to become a doctor.
A little encouragement set Noguchi back on the path toward his goal – where he was told over and over again that his work was utter crap. Proposals were rejected, completed works were poorly received, and while he enjoyed intermittent success, he wound up volunteering to be interned at a camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. His hope was to bring art to the space, but as might be expected, that wasn’t quite in line with the US government’s agenda. He left the camp without permission, never to return.
Luckily, the world he reentered in the 1940s was changing. The surrealist movement was suddenly all the rage, and Noguchi was a part of it, creating mixed media works, self-illuminating reliefs and “biomorphic” sculptures that finally cemented his place in the New York art world.
Thus ordained as a talent worth reckoning with, Noguchi was invited to design sets for famed choreographer Martha Graham. And more importantly – at least in our arena – he was recruited by Knoll and Herman Miller to bring his artist’s eye to a line of furniture and lamps.
A passionate belief that sculpture can be useful in everyday life inspired the iconic, elegant designs for what are commonly known as the Noguchi coffee table and the Noguchi Sofa and Ottoman. Other pieces include Cyclone Tables, Rocking Stools, lamps and even cutlery, teacups and scarves.
Isamu Noguchi’s work serves to remind the world of what can happen when fine art and the everyday intersect. Thanks to Noguchi, everyone can own a genuine piece of art – even if it’s only something to put a drink on.
6th October 1887 – 27th August 1965
Few designers have been as fêted, derided, and ultimately influential as Le Corbusier. Primarily an architect, Le Corbusier believed that the correct application of modern materials and building methods could deliver better living conditions, and ultimately a better quality of life for the residents of crowded cities.
Given this laudable aim, it is perhaps ironic that Le Corbusier’s ideas lie behind the tower-block housing estates typically associated with a less-than-optimum quality of life.
Le Corbusier’s grand ideas didn’t stop at the sixtieth floor; his goal was to build an entire city, usually after demolishing the existing one. Several urban developments, including Brasilia (the capital of Brazil), and the Barbican Estate in London have been designed and constructed using Le Corbusier’s theories, and there has been much debate regarding the ultimate success of these developments.
We’re much more interested in his furniture designs though.
Le Corbusier was fascinated with proportional systems, such as the Golden Ratio, and the Fibonacci Series, both of which he integrated into his own system, Modulor. Modulor is based around the Golden Section as it relates to the human body, and the result is architecture and furniture that just feels right.
This is reflected in Le Corbusier’s description of his furniture as “extensions of our limbs and adapted to human functions.” Lay down on his famous LC4 Chaise Longue, and you’ll quickly realise what he means – it feels as though it has been sculpted to fit your body precisely, regardless of your physique.
We don’t agree with everything Le Corbusier had to say about modern living – we’re rather relieved that he didn’t get the go-ahead to demolish the centre of Paris, and replace it with a grid of sixty-story tower blocks, for example.
However, even if you’re not convinced by Corb’s famous assertion that your “house is a machine for living in”, we think you’ll agree that his furniture makes it a beautiful house to come home to.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
27th March 1886 – 17th August 1969
When it comes to the big names of twentieth century design, they don’t come much bigger (or longer) than Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. A pioneering and hugely influential architect, a dedicated and passionate educator, coiner of several catchy aphorisms, and – luckily for us – a dab-hand at designing furniture.
Mies was, first and foremost, an architect. Even before taking on the influential role of Director of Architecture at the Bauhaus Design School, he had already been architectural director of the Werkbund, and had helped to found the architectural association Der Ring.
All of which is to say that Mies was never one of those “not fully appreciated in his lifetime” types.
No, Mies was big news from very early in his career, first driving modernist architecture forward in Europe during the early part of the twentieth century, and later (after emigrating to America in 1937) giving Frank Lloyd Wright a run for his money as “America’s Greatest Living Architect.”
Mies was also one of the most intellectual of all modernist architects, and spent much of his life pursuing a rational approach to design, his goal being a system that others could use to create buildings as powerful and beautiful as those Mies himself designed. Typically modest, when his students failed to achieve such impossibly high standards, Mies blamed flaws in his teaching method.
Much to our relief, Mies managed to encapsulate his philosophical pursuits in pithy aphorisms, such as “God is in the details”, and “Less is more”, and clean, innately appealing designs.
His most famous furniture designs – the Barcelona Chair, and the Brno Chair – reflect the same philosophical underpinnings that drove his architecture. Both are concerned with the use of space, their forms being defined as much by the space around them as by the structure of the chairs themselves, and both employ a striking combination of sleek modernist steel and luxurious leather.
Mies’s overarching ambition was to establish a style of design that would represent modern times, much as Classical and Gothic did for their own eras. In many ways he achieved this ambition, but we like to think that he also transcended it, creating designs that appear far more timeless than timely.