Organic chair: the surprising story of an almost impossible chair

19 September 2023

organic chair vitra

Born as an experimental project by two 20th century design giants and rediscovered thanks to Vitra

Few design icons can boast a particular history like the Organic chair, a chair that in reality, its designers have never been able to see in production and which today, thanks to Vitra, is among the preferences for residential and contract projects . The first distinctive note of this chair is that it bears the signature of two milestones of 20th century design: the American Charles Eames and the Finnish (but American by adoption) Eero Saarinen. Both study at the Cranbrook Institute of Architecture and Design of which Saarinen’s father is the administrator, here they get to know each other and discuss what will be the main theme of their production: research into materials and the possibility of giving them any form. And it is starting from this theme that, as we will see, the idea for the Organic chair was born.

The occasion is the Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition held in 1940 by MOMA in New York in which Eames and Saarinen decide to participate together without imagining that their project will represent a milestone and almost a preview of the design of the future as well as a step fundamental forward towards what will be their most iconic projects. The two designers enter the competition in the seating category and begin to think about a seat that, in line with the theme of the competition, has an anthropomorphic shape that dresses the body like a shell and that welcomes it comfortably even in the absence of padding and upholstery.

The original idea was to produce the chair in plywood, and the formal inspiration was that of the laminate furniture projects of the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. However, the two young and ambitious designers had overlooked the fact that it was not yet possible to access a technology capable of creating three-dimensional molds for working with plywood. For the prototypes the molds could be produced manually but this approach would certainly not have allowed mass production of the chairs. Despite this, the project was presented in the competition and the MOMA jury wanted to reward the innovative and revolutionary vision of the two designers who were awarded the first prize and offered support so that they could find the technology and resources to carry on the project and put the Organic chair into production.

But the Second World War called everything into question: in many cases the design industry was forced to convert its production for war supplies and in general suffered a setback, especially in its more innovative forms. The Organic chair project stalled and the collaboration between Eames and Saarinen also dissolved with the first creating a profitable partnership with his wife Ray Kaiser and the second taking refuge in a design, at least initially, less experimental. The few prototypes of the chair fall into oblivion except for one of them, in the archive of the Vitra Design Museum. Precisely Vitra, analyzing this model and rediscovering its innovative scope, decided, in 2004, to complete the project by Eames and Saarinen and put the chair into production thanks to the progress of the industry which finally made the operation feasible.

As we said, therefore, the two authors of this project did not manage to see its production, however, in the iconic collections they designed and produced during their careers, which made them famous and marked the style of the 20th century, the influences of the Organic chair and the concept of chair-shell recur, which we find, for example, in the Eames Plastic Chair and in Saarinen’s Tulip.

Vitra Organic

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