After the horror of World War II, people longed for a warmer, organic aesthetic of earthy colours and natural materials such as wood. The design champions of this organic modernism - such as Charles and Ray Eames, Harry Bertoia and Eero Saarinen in the US, Arne Jacobsen in Denmark, Gio Ponti and the Castiglioni brothers in Italy - harnessed wartime advances in defence technology to develop new furniture and products for the fast-expanding post-war population.
Bent steel, moulded plywood
Production: Ernest Race Ltd, UK
Light, compact, and made with minimum material, the Antelope chair and sofa designed by Ernest Race (1913-1964) embraced all the practical requirements of post-war furniture. The Antelope’s jaunty curves, spindly legs and comical ball feet evoked the growing optimism of the British as they entered the 1950s convinced that science and technology would create a better future. The Antelope was commissioned to furnish the outdoor terraces of the newly built Royal Festival Hall for the 1951 Festival of Britain together with the stackable Springbok chair. After the festival Ernest Race’s furniture manufacturing company put the Antelope into commercial production.
Rocking Stool, 1954
Painted wood, chromed steel
Original Production: Knoll, US
Throughout his career, the Japanese-American designer and sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) applied a sculptural sensibility and fascination with the formal qualities of structure to an extraordinarily eclectic range of projects from landscape architecture and stage sets, to mass-manufactured objects such as lighting and the furniture he designed for Knoll. Noguchi studied sculpture in New York after dropping out of medical school in the 1920s and then moved to Paris where he worked as an assistant to Constantin Brancusi. His sculptural sensiblility is evident in this Rocking Stool, originally developed for production by Knoll, which also fulfils the practical function of a seat.
Series 7, Model No. 3017, 1955
Teak-faced plywood, tubular steel
Production: Fritz Hansen, Denmark
The Danish architect, Arne Jacobsen (1902-1971) was renowned for combining rationalist principles of modernism with a Nordic love of organic forms and materials in his buildings such as the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen. An exponent of Gesamkunstwerk, whereby the exterior and interior of a building are conceived seamlessly, he insisted on designing every element of his projects, including the furniture. Inspired by the plywood experiments of the US designers Charles and Ray Eames, the Series 7 is a sleek variation of Jacobsen’s Ant Chair. It became notorious in the 1960s when a portrait of the model Christine Keeler posing naked on a copy of the Series 7 was widely published during the Profumo scandal.
Lounge Chair No. 670 + Ottoman No.671, 1956
Rosewood-faced moulded plywood, cast aluminium, leather
Production: Herman Miller, US
Most of the work of Charles and Ray Eames’ (1907-1978 and 1912-1988) studio was devoted to developing mass-manufactured furniture at affordable prices, but the Lounge Chair was an exception. The Eames had first tried to design a contemporary US equivalent of a traditional English club chair in the early 1940s eventually producing the 1945 LCW (Lounge Chair Wood). Ten years later they decided to design a more opulent version which Charles envisaged as having the 'warm receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt.' The result combines industrial production with hand craftsmanship in leather upholstery and a moulded plywood shell with a rosewood veneer that enables the chair to move with the sitter.
Tulip Chair, 1955-1956
Plastic-coated cast aluminium, moulded fibreglass, upholstered latex foam.
Production: Knoll Associates, UK
The son of Eliel Saarinen, the eminent Finnish architect who co-founded the Cranbrook Academy after emigrating to the US, Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) emerged as an accomplished architect and designer in his own right. Best known for the TWA terminal building at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, he is also famed as the designer of the Tulip Chair. A friend of the Eames and Harry Bertoia, Saarinen shared their zest for harnessing the latest technologies to create modern furniture in fluid, organic forms. The Tulip is a fine example although Saarinen was disappointed by his failure – dogged by the limitations of 1950s plastics technology – to make it in a single piece.
Superleggera, Model No. 699, 1951-1957
Ash, woven rush
Production: Cassina, Italy
This ‘super-lightweight’ chair designed by the architect, writer, artist and design theorist Gio Ponti (1891-1979) was inspired by the traditional rustic Italian chairs made by artisans in the fishing villages around Chiavari in Liguria. Determined to design a light, compact, inexpensive chair, Ponti reduced the weight to 1.7kg by using triangular-shaped legs and struts rather than the usual round ones. Finely balanced as well as light, the Superleggera 699 can be lifted up with just one finger. One publicity photograph of the chair featured a young boy balancing one of the legs on his finger. Another featured a woman lifting it up using a single hook. It has been manufactured by Cassina since 1957.
Lacquered tractor seat, chromed flat steel, solid beech.
Inspired by the ready-made sculpture of the early 20th century artist Marcel Duchamp, Achille Castiglioni (1918-2002) and his brother Pier Giacomo (1913-1968) often made furniture from found industrial objects, such as the racing bicycle saddle of the Sella stool and the tractor seat of this Mezzadro chair. The choice of the tractor seat, a reference to the modernisation of Italian agriculture, evoked the brothers’ passion for industry and Italy’s rustic traditions. Although reduced to essential elements, these seats evoke wit and playfulness. Both were considered too radical to be manufactrued in the 1950s and it was not until 1983 that the brothers persuaded Zanotta to reissue their original designs.
Racing bicycle saddle, lacquered tubular steel, cast iron
'Start from scratch,' the Italian designer Achille Castiglioni (1918-2002) told his students. 'Stick to common sense. Know your goals and means.' Before designing a new product or improving an existing one, he believed that the designer should analyse first whether it was necessary to do so and then investigate what materials were available to produce it. The designer should then identify what Castiglioni called the 'Principal Design Component', such as a leap in technology or function. The Sella, a stool made from a bicycle seat and cast iron base, stemmed from Castiglioni’s desire for a comfortable seat in a telephone kiosk where he liked 'to move around' and 'to sit, but not completely.'