Produced 64 years after it was first designed
In 1940, the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) announced an ‘Industrial Design Competition for the 21 American Republics’, also known today as ‘Organic Design in Home Furnishings’. Participants were encouraged to enter original designs for furniture, lighting and textiles. The purpose of the competition was to discover talented designers and involve them in the task of creating a better environment for modern living. The winners were to be rewarded not only by the inclusion of their works in the subsequent 1941 exhibition ‘Organic Design in Home Furnishings’, for which curator Eliot Noyes sought out objects that demonstrated ‘an harmonious organization of the parts within the whole, according to structure, material, and purpose’. The museum also helped to arrange contracts with manufacturers, who would produce the winning designs and have them ready for the sponsoring stores to sell by the exhibition’s opening date.
At the time, Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen were in their early thirties and both design instructors at the renowned Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where Eero’s father, the architect Eliel Saarinen, served as director. The two friends decided to prepare eight entries – six of them chair designs – for the MoMA competition in the categories ‘A – Seating for a Living Room’ and ‘B – Other Furniture for a Living Room’. The typical chair from that era consisted of a seat and a backrest, sometimes padded with upholstery. Eames and Saarinen were captivated by the novel idea of creating a one-piece, three-dimensionally moulded plywood seat shell that followed the contours of the human body. However, no technology or machinery existed that could be used to produce such a shape out of plywood, forcing the two young designers to make prototypes of their chairs by hand. Helping to prepare the competition entries was a student by the name of Ray Kaiser, who had previously studied painting in New York City under Hans Hofmann – it was through this circumstance that Charles met his future wife.
Investing in innovation
Vitra currently produces the Organic Chair in three of the six versions that were introduced as prototypes for the MoMA competition: a reading chair with a medium-high backrest (Organic Chair) or high backrest (Organic Highback), and a model suited for dining and meeting settings (Organic Conference).
Charles Eames & Eero Saarinen
Eero Saarinen together with Charles Eames developed the first designs for furniture made from moulded plywood. In 1940, they submitted the Organic Chair as a joint entry to the “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.