Organic Armchair

Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen

Design: 1940
Production: 1941
Manufacturer: Haskelite Corporation,
Chicago, Illinois together with Heywood-
Wakefield Company, Gardner,
Massachusetts, and Marli Ehrman
Size: 92.5 x 75 x 62.5; seat height 40 cms
Material: molded plywood, birch wood,
foam rubber, fabric

On October 1, 1940, the Department of Industrial Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York announced a nationwide design competition, with the goal of enhancing the level of private interiors of all classes of society through a cooperative effort between designers, manufacturers, and dealers. The theme of the competition was “Organic Design in Home Furnishings,” with organic design defined as follows: “A design can be called organic if, within the object as a whole, there is a harmonious relationship between the individual elements as regards structure, material, and purpose.”1 The competition was supported by twelve renowned American department stores, who promised to sign contracts with manufacturers; one of the conditions of the competition was that the design be feasible on an industrial scale. The jury members included, among others, Marcel Breuer and Alvar Aalto, whose chair made of two-dimensionally formed plywood was exhibited at the MoMA in 1938. Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen won two first prizes within the six furniture categories. Especially noteworthy were chair and armchair designs in the category entitled “Seating for a Living Room.” Starting in July 1941, Charles and Ray Eames began developing a process for the threedimensional molding of plywood in their Los Angeles apartment with the intention of producing first-class models with it. They fashioned a plaster inverse chair shell, which could be heated with electric heating elements. They covered this shell with several layers of veneer, the fibers running in alternating directions, and between each of these they placed a foil made of hot-melt adhesive. After sealing the mold, which they called the “Kazam!machine” owing to the noise it made, a bicycle pump was used to press a membrane against the veneer layers so that these clung to the inverse shell and melted the adhesive. Within four to six hours, the pressing procedure was finished. By making incisions in and cutting out pieces of the veneer, a three-dimensional form emerged. In keeping with the competition guidelines, Haskelite was entrusted with producing the shell, while Heywood-Wakefield was in charge of lining it with a thin layer of foam rubber. Fabric designer and Bauhaus student Marli Ehrman created the cover. In the intervening time before the inauguration of the exhibition in September 1941 at the MoMA, several chairs and armchairs were produced. The legs were made of solid birch wood instead of aluminum as intended, for the latter was not available due to the war. The backs of the chairs were not, as originally planned, a bare wood shell, since at this stage the veneer was invariably susceptible to damage. Because of the war, and the fact that production costs were still high, the prototype did not go into serial production, thus missing the original point of the competition. PD

[1] Organic Design in Home Furnishings, ed. Eliot F. Noyes, exhibition catalogue (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1941), inside flap.

Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen

Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen Organic Armchair