The 10 Best Mid-Century Modern Chairs For the Fashionable Home
The catchiest phrase in design these days isn't particularly new. “Mid-century modern,” which is on the tip of every tongue tip, has roots stretching as far back as the 1920s and 1930s. One of the most critical and lasting designs to come from this era is mid-century modern chairs.
The History of Mid-Century Design
Though the term wasn't coined until 1984 when Cara Greenberg penned the movement's design bible, Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s, this style began forming in the Twenties in post–World War I Europe. It started with the International Style aka Internationalism movement, which was marked by emphasizing “volume over mass, lightweight, mass-produced, industrial materials, rejection of all ornament and color, repetitive modular forms, and using flat surfaces, typically alternating with areas of glass,” according to the Getty Research Institute. This was also in tandem with the German Arts and Crafts movement, Bauhaus. This style featured unadorned geometric shapes, such as rectangles and spheres. In furniture, this was exemplified through the use of metal pipes with curved corners.
The 1939 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows–Corona Park in Queens, New York, featured examples of these movements along with Danish modernism and introduced the style to the United States. Out of this grew the modern design aesthetic marked by clean, simple lines devoid of decorative embellishments. Mid-century modern would begin to influence everyday home interiors in the United States just after World War II until the 1960s. That said, its heyday is pegged between 1947 and 1957. American style was optimistic and looking toward the future during this period. Mid-century modern was a perfect match for this rejuvenating post-war era, a time when the Space Race was starting to take off.
Editor's Picks: Mid-Century Modern Chairs
While the movement extended to architecture, graphic arts, industrial design, and interior design, its legacy today is mainly seen in home furnishing reproductions. Of these, some of the most lasting designs are the chairs, which have an appeal that still holds today. Nest Casa looks at the top 10 designs and the designers who created these evergreen styles.
Charles and Ray Eames Lounge Chair
Charles Eames is perhaps one of the most popular and well-known of the mid-century modern designers. He and his wife, Ray, revolutionized both home and industrial design, developing designs from simple materials that are still in wide circulation. In 1956, they created a luxury piece inspired by the English club chair for the Herman Miller furniture company. Eames envisioned the molded plywood and leather chair to have the same inviting feeling of a well-worn baseball glove. This design is part of New York's Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection.
Eero Saarinen Womb Chair
Born to a famous architect, the Finnish-American Eero Saarinen moved to the United States at 13, when his father became dean of the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art outside of Detroit. His contemporaries and friends were Charles and Ray Eames as well as Florence Knoll. His most famous architectural works are the St. Louis Arch and TWA building at JFK airport in New York. Equally as prevalent may be his famous Womb chair. In 1948, Knoll asked her pal Saarinen to design a chair that she could curl up in. The result, of course, was this comfy, enveloping chair that converts positions via adjustable cushions. In 1955, Saarinen designed the beloved Tulip chair to accompany a dining table with a similarly encompassing seat to the Womb chair (only very pared down).
Hans Wegner Papa Bear Chair
This Danish furniture designer was known as the "King of Chairs" because of his stable of designs, which notably included the Wishbone, Round, Shell, Valet, and Sawbuck chairs. The Nest Casa favorite is the Papa Bear chair, designed in 1951. Wegner was accustomed to making furniture for projects with contemporaries Arne Jacobsen and Eric Møller. He was instrumental in ensuring the wide distribution of his iconic designs, which remain in heavy rotation—both vintage originals and reproductions. The Papa Bear chair was a design made by the collective he formed working with manufacturers to mass-produce. The design was made initially by A.P. Stolen and referred to as the AP 19 lounge chair. In 2001, Danish design firm PP Møbler reissued the chair as the PP 19. If sourcing a vintage style, these style numbers indicate its provenance.
George Nelson Coconut Chair
The American industrial designer George Nelson may have had the smallest ego of any of the design stars of the mid-century design movement. He was appointed the design director of the Herman Miller furniture company in 1945, when chairman D. J. DePree looked to an American Modernism Movement founding member to spearhead the brand. He, in turn, recruited his design idols—including Charles and Ray Eames, Harry Bertoia, Richard Schultz, and Isamu Noguchi—to design pieces for the brand. Even so, he left his legacy and his breadth of works is still highly coveted today. These include the Marshmallow sofa, the Bubble lamp, the Ball clock, and the aptly named Coconut chair, which resembles a cut wedge of the tropical fruit.
Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair
The Danish designer behind the famous Egg chair Arne Jacobsen would cringe at that description of himself. He was known for abhorring the moniker in design circles, instead insisting that he was an architect. He had, indeed, won a "House of the Future" contest that jump started his illustrious career. Jacobsen, who was granted an Honorary Fellowship from the American Institute of Architects, collaborated with furniture manufacturer Fritz Hansen. The Egg chair, along with the Swan chair, were designs created in 1956 when Jacobsen was awarded the SAS Royal Hotel commission (known as the first designer hotel in Copenhagen). These followed the Ant chair and the Series 7 chair (or, model 3107). All four chair designs were made in partnership with Hansen.
Harry Bertoia Diamond Chair
If a quintessential chair could encompass industrial design as applied to the mid-century modern movement, it would be Harry Bertoia's Diamond chair. The Italian-born American artist, sound art sculptor, and, most famously, modern furniture designer is most known for this unique piece (anecdotally referred to as the mesh or cage chair). To ensure you are getting an authentic Diamond chair, turn to Knoll, who produced the first and original version in 1952. It is still a best-selling item in Knoll’s product stable.
Florence Knoll Relaxed Lounge Chair
As a female American architect, interior designer, furniture designer, and entrepreneur, Florence Knoll was as revolutionary and modern as the Relaxed Lounge chair that she designed in 1954. This may have been a chair to kick back and relax in, but most of her renown revolved around workspaces, transforming office design in a modern, forward manner. Together with her husband, Hans, she created Knoll Associates, a company still synonymous today with clean, open-space design. The relaxed lounge chair continues to be one of the most ubiquitous mid-century modern designs.
Warren Platner Armchair
Though released at the tailend of the mid-century modern design era in 1966, the Platner armchair ushered in an elegant and softly decorative side to the industrial-focused movement. Warren Platner was the more low-key of the mid-century modern bunch, but his impact reverberates, nevertheless. He designed Manhattan landmarks such as the Ford Foundation building and the interior of the Windows on the World restaurant on the top of the World Trade Center. Made from welded, curved steel rods to mimic bundled wheat, the Platner armchair (part of a larger group that included dining and side tables and a lounge chair) is still a key product offering at Knoll.
Gio Ponti Leggera Chair
If the mid-century design movement had a Renaissance man, it would be Gio Ponti. With a career that spanned over 60 years, the Italian creative was an architect, industrial designer, furniture designer, artist, teacher, writer, and founder of Domus—the architecture and design magazine that debuted in 1928. He was a significant force in establishing the prestigious Milan Triennial and collaborated with too many contemporaries to mention. (Piero Fornasetti attributes his career path to Ponti.) During the height of the mid-century modern movement in 1956, he designed the Pirelli Tower, which was once Europe's tallest building and one of over one hundred buildings that he created in his native Italy. But what to stock those sky-high offices with? Enter the simple and clean lines of the Leggera chair. Often called the Superleggera chair, this streamlined chair made in partnership with Cassina in 1951 looks as fresh and modern today as it did then.
Finn Juhl Pelican Chair
Some designs are so ahead of their time that it can take a while for them to grow on their audience. Such could be said of the Pelican chair. Designed by leading Danish design figure Finn Juhl, the Pelican was first produced in 1940 for the Copenhagen Cabinet-makers’ Guild Exhibition. His experimental chair was referred to as a “tired walrus” by one critic and as having “aesthetics in the worst possible sense of the word” by another. Eventually, it caught on. Juhl was also recognized for bringing Danish design to the United States in the 1940s. He further cemented this role when he partnered with Baker Furniture Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for a furniture collection called the “Baker Modern" line.