The post-World War II era marked a significant period in home furnishing design, with designers experimenting with new shapes and materials. Functional modern design emerged with scaled-down furniture for smaller homes, featuring innovative creations like the shell chair.
Womb and shell chairs, biomorphic tables, cat’s cradle pedestals, and architectural shapes are reminiscent of the Second World War’s fertile furniture design era.
Hand in hand with fashion trends – the “new look” of the 40s by Christian Dior and the “sack” dress of the 50s by Balenciaga – home furnishing designers cast aside wartime limitations and played with new shapes and materials such as plastics, tubular and stainless steel and lightweight alloys.
For home-furnishing design, this era was a significant period. Furniture, textiles and accessories were never affordable before that time, nor were they based on the general public’s needs.
A sense of optimism
A sense of optimism prevailed as designers, architects, manufacturers, and homebuilders positioned themselves to meet the demands of increased population growth and the standard of living enjoyed by the increasing middle-income community.
Massive housing developments were built to accommodate the newlyweds and their children in the postwar period. The architecture of this type of shelter required a different approach to furniture design.
The houses were much smaller, and they needed furniture that had been scaled down. The postwar population also wanted a more leisurely lifestyle and looked for furniture that could be taken care of more easily.
Functional modern design was born in 1940 when a competition and exhibition entitled “Organic Design in Home Furnishings.” was held by the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York.
Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen, two young architects, won the first prize for their groundbreaking shell chair, a mix of the back, seat and armrests in a single wood-veneer laminate frame. It had tremendous potential for low-cost mass production.
Their practical approach to design was rooted in the Bauhaus tradition, a German school of rational design that flourished in the 20s.
Charles and Ray Eames exhibited their new group of moulded plywood chairs at MOMA in 1946, when well-designed quality consumer goods were in demand, and they were an instant sensation.
Of all postwar items, the Eames plywood chairs made from 1946 to 1948 are the most prized. George Nelson, director of design for furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, purchased the chair’s distribution and manufacturing rights.
In 1948, an “International Competition for Low-cost Furniture Design.” was sponsored by MOMA. Don took the first prize. R Knorr, for a chair, that Knoll International made.
A single flat sheet of metal bent in a seam around the seat was made of the chair. It is hard to find early examples.
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Charles Eames, a distinguished American designer, filmmaker and architect, studied architecture at Washington University in St. Louis in 1924. In the early 1930s, having worked in private practice, he received a fellowship in 1936 to study architecture and design at the Academy of Art in Cranbrook, which proved to be a valuable experience.