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The Organic Chair
Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) was a renowned Finnish architect known for designing the St. Louis Gateway Arch and the TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport in New York, among other notable structures. In addition to his contributions to the field of architecture, he is also known by fans of modernist design for his furniture made by Knoll.
While following in his father's footsteps teaching at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, in the mid-1930s Saarinen met many modernists with whom he would work with in the future. This includes Hans and Florence Knoll, who formed a fruitful partnership with Saarinen. The couple worked with him to create unique furniture from the late 1940s through the end of his life, which was cut short at age 51.
Before the Knolls began producing his designs, Charles Eames, who he also met at Cranbrook, teamed up with Saarinen. Both men had a strong interest in new techniques using molded plywood in chair designs. Together they developed the Organic Chair, which is a small-yet-comfortable reading chair. This simple and attractive design won first place in the Organic Design Home Furnishings competition hosted by the Museum of Modern Art in 1940.
The Organic Chair did not go into production until 1950 when manufacturing processes advanced enough to make mass production of molded shell-type seating possible. It is still being made in a number of variations including high-backed version in a number of upholstery colors (like the one here available through Vitra.com.) Vintage versions can also be found, but are not as readily available as other Saarinen chair designs.
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The Womb Chair
While the Organic Chair was one of Saarinen's first furniture designs, some of his more recognizable pieces made by Knoll are more readily associated with his name. The Womb Chair with its curvaceous appeal, along with the matching footstool, is one of those pieces.
As he sought a way to make a chair comfortable by the way its "shell" was shaped rather than the amount of cushioning it held, Saarinen started out with the idea of smaller task chairs. Florence Knoll, according to Knoll.com, influenced his direction by making a suggestion: “Why not take the bull by the horns and do the big one first? I want a chair that is like a basket full of pillows…something I can curl up in.”
What we know as the Womb Chair today looks quite plush and much more sculptural compared to the first stab at manufacturing a prototype during the late 1940s. Through trial and error, a shell that would work for this upholstered design was finally produced with the help of a boat manufacturer who had been experimenting with molding fiberglass and resin into various shapes. The result isn't quite the basket full of pillows Knoll requested, but it does fit the order in terms of combining comfort with an intriguing aesthetic.
These chairs are still being produced today, much to the delight of modernism fans who value both style and furniture designed for relaxation. The design has also been stretched into a settee for those looking for the same type of inviting piece with space for two.
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The Pedestal Collection
Saarinen's Pedestal Collection dating to 1957, featuring gracefully molded fiberglass chairs and upholstered stools, both with aluminum pedestal bases, has many fans as well. The popular seats in this collection are known as Tulip Chairs. They were made in versions with arms and without that can be stationary or swivel.
A matching round stool, also with a pedestal base, can be used with either version of the chair. Or, the chairs can be combined with a Saarinen table (see below) to make up a modernist dining suite.
From Knoll.com: "With the Pedestal Collection, Eero Saarinen vowed to eliminate the 'slum of legs' found under chairs and tables with four legs. He worked first with hundreds of drawings, which were followed by 1/4 scale models. Since the compelling idea was to design chairs that looked good in a room, the model furniture was set up in a scaled model room the size of a doll house."
In making the models for the Pedestal Collection over a five-year span assisted by Don Petitt of Knoll’s Design Development Group, Saarinen drew on his background as a sculptor which translated perfectly to the furniture medium. Using his artist's eye, he molded clay yielding models that would eventually become full-size molded fiberglass and aluminum pieces. They were even tested in his home for functionality before they were put into production.
The Tulip Chairs and matching stool are still in production with a variety of upholstery choices including leather, but they do not come cheap. Each chair sells new for around $1,500 and the stool is in the $1,000 range. Vintage versions of the chairs can be found more affordably, but will still sell in the $800-$1,000 range when purchased from a modernist furniture dealer.
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The Saarinen Table
As part of the Pedestal Collection produced beginning in 1957, the Saarinen Table features a durable aluminum base that coordinates nicely with the Tulip Chairs featured above. These tables are sometime referenced as Tulip Tables for that reason, although that is not the official moniker used by Knoll.
Also still in production, these tables come in a variety of sizes and shapes including round and oval. There are even side and coffee tables for those wanting the basic design in a more compact version. The tops for these tables can be made of wood or laminate, or a variety of colors in stone such as marble or granite.
The bases of Saarinen Tables, like the coordinating Tulip Chairs, are made of cast aluminum finished in black, white, or platinum. White is the most prolific color, but the design makes a statement regardless of the hue.
Outdoor versions of the Saarinen Table are also made using weather-resistant materials, including painted aluminum bases, in both black and white. The tops of the black tables are made of slate while the white versions are crafted of engineered quartz. Tulip Chairs are not designed for outdoor use, but Harry Bertoia's metal lattice indoor/outdoor chairs can be mixed nicely with a Saarinen Outdoor Dining Table.
Keep in mind that Saarinen designs have all been copied to a certain degree, but only authentic pieces made by Knoll will hold their high value in the vintage marketplace.