It’s easy to forget that the chair you’re sitting on is part of a constantly evolving design that dates back pretty much to the start
of human existence. Furniture design has been a necessary part of life ever since early man first needed a place to sit or a shelf to store his tools. Things weren’t as easy as IKEA back then, but archeological research shows mankind was creating seats, cupboards, shelves and dressers back in the eighth century BC.
Fast forward several thousand years into the 1900s, and it’s easy to see why the 20th Century was an integral era for furniture design. Through the careful and creative vision of a leading few, furniture designers over the past 100 years have made sure furniture evolved to become more than just a practical form. With more emphasis being laid on architectural inspirations and the human physique, furniture design has now become a form of art. This explains the motivation of a select few who not only pioneered bold creations during their time but also crafted iconic designs that defined an era and beyond.
The early decades of the 20th Century saw the world seek a new alignment with modern industrial life, leaving a lasting societal impact. Like the kind printing had on literature. Before Modernism, heavy, expensive and cumbersome wooden furniture was the norm. With mass production being a non-existent concept back then, a piece’s value was measured primarily based on the time it took for an artisan to make it.
However, the rise of Modernism put the focus on creating clean, light and functional furniture that could be mass-produced affordably across the globe. It led to experimentation with new materials and techniques that created furniture that was functional, yet brilliant, stackable and comfortable. Designers and architects collaborated in creative hothouses like the Bauhaus School and De Stijl, and later through enormous furniture design houses like Knoll.
When you buy a new outfit, it’s easy to get away by opting for something that’s ‘in vogue’ but will probably be out of fashion next summer. But, when it comes to investing in new furniture, you may want to choose pieces that have a more lasting appeal. There’s a whole raft of iconic furniture designs (some of which have been around for nearly 100 years) that will probably never go out of style. Some of these include:
Designed by Harrison D. McFaddin in 1909
The vintage Emeralite (also known as the Banker’s Lamp) remains one of the most iconic lamp designs in history. The design’s easily recognizable brass stand, sloped emerald green glass shade and pull-chain toggle switch are unique features that made it stand the test of time. Its mass popularity is largely due to the belief that the green shade produced soothing light, and therefore improved productivity. This belief was held in high regard among people in detail-oriented occupations like accountants and editors of the early 1900s. Even today, it is often used in libraries across the United States, and its ever-presence in movies and TV shows is hard to miss.
The F-51 Armchair & Sofa Suite
Designed by Walter Gropius in 1920
Manufactured by Tecta
Walter Gropius was the founder of the Bauhaus School, which makes him one of the iconic figures of modern furniture. He designed the F-51 Armchair + Sofa specifically for the director’s office at the Bauhaus in 1920. Once you strip away the generous padding and it’s cubic form, the chair has an almost human-like appearance with it’s heavy yet floating upholstery and a simple frame. The F-51’s significance is down to its cantilevered frame, where the armrests float above the seat and the bottom of the sofa doesn’t touch the ground. Its design makes this massive object appear to be levitating by offsetting its weighty form. It radically questioned the traditional designs of the day by radiating calm and dynamism simultaneously. Before he designed this chair, Walter had already injected his modernist dynamic into the Bauhaus building by designing everything from small artifacts, like doorknobs, t o furniture. He believed in how nothing is random, and how everything is, and should, be connected.
The Barcelona Chair
Designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1929
Manufactured by Knoll
Inspired by Walter Gropius and his exemplary work at the Bauhaus, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed the Barcelona chair. Considered to be the Rolls-Royce of 20th Century chairs, this piece was never meant to be mass-produced. Made from chromed steel with stunning leather upholstery, this chair was intended to simply impress at the German Pavilion, at the Exposicion Internacional de Barcelona in 1929. However, it ended up being used as a throne for King Alfonso XIII at the exhibition’s opening ceremonies. In 1930, Mies was named head of the Bauhaus before it was shut down by the Nazis. It wasn’t until 1950 that Mies realized that the chair wasn’t all that comfortable and used updated techniques to create its cantilevered frame from a single block of steel. This refined version of the Barcelona chair was picked up by the Knoll furniture company who produced it for the world and made it one of the most well-known chair designs on the planet.
The Noguchi Table
Designed by Isamu Noguchi in 1944
Manufactured by Vitra
Owing to its impeccable shape and form, it is often argued whether the Noguchi Table is a piece of art or a piece of furniture. By creating his design for this coffee table, Isamu Noguchi translated the biomorphic aesthetic of his sculptural works into a piece of furniture with a distinctive form factor. It is made of just three components, all of which are revealed in their entirety. It features a heavy glass tabletop that rests on two interlocking identical base elements, thus creating a harmonious furniture sculpture. Isamu Noguchi stated that the table was his best work and described it as a “sculpture-for-use” when he finished working on the very first piece in 1944. This masterpiece of product design was licensed for distribution by Herman Miller in 1947 and continues to be a part of their catalog even today.
The Papa Bear
Designed by Hans Wegner in 1954
Manufactured by PP Mobler
Embrace yourself for this all-time maximum comfort chair. Most modern armchair designs get applauded for their innovative style, but only a few of them are truly comfortable. As cited by most furniture designers without any hesitation, Hans Wagner’s Papa Bear tops the comfort list by a long shot. The solid wooden frame is shaped to form a solid base for the comprehensive upholstery work. Four natural materials that constitute the comfortable upholstery include cotton fiber, palm fiber, flax fiber and horsehair. Add metal springs for sensitive back support in the mix, and you get an armchair with genuine upholstery that will wear in rather than wear out. There’s something about the precisely measured depth, angles and padding that makes the Papa Bear a perfect adult cradle. Owning one of these should be considered an investment for life as it’s an experience that won’t allow you to stand up ever again.
The Florence Knoll Sofa
Designed by Florence Knoll in 1954
Manufactured by Knoll
Florence Knoll joined the furniture design business after several years of experience in architecture. She decided to try her hand at furniture design when she moved to New York and met her husband Hans Knoll. Best known as the design director of the Knoll furniture company, Florence took over the day-to-day operations of the company after her husband was tragically killed in a car crash in 1955. Knoll (the company) acted as a record label for top-tier designers at that time, and Florence persuaded the likes of Mies van der Rohe to contribute furniture designs to its books. Her major contribution to furniture design was as a creative director for the entire industry. However, many of the company’s designs were her own and were a driving force in shaping the office aesthetic of the 1950s and 60s (think Mad Men). The sofa she designed is iconic in its own right and sums up her attitude toward aesthetics – square geometry with a mix of textiles and steel, and clean form that looks fresh and modern even today.
The Eames Lounge Chair & Ottoman
Designed by Charles & Ray Eames in 1956
Manufactured by Vitra
This iconic lounger was crafted by the legendary husband-wife design duo Charles & Ray Eames to improve the quality of lounge chairs in American households. The design itself was a result of years of experimentation that came out of Eameses’ research into developing machines that could mold plywood into compound forms. Their invention was first used during World War II to create lightweight leg supports for the battlefield, before it was eventually used for their famed plywood lounger. The homely introduction of the chair and the ottoman in 1956 led to much greater things. If you look closely, you’ll see the chair is a luxurious progression of their earlier bent-plywood experiments – with padding and leather inserts that includes tilts and swivels. The wood veneer shell and leather upholstery, designed to provide ‘a warm, receptive look,’ made the design one of the most instantly-recognizable pieces from the 20th Century. It epitomizes sophisticated, mid-century executive style and comfort.
The Egg Chair
Designed by Arne Jacobsen in 1958
Manufactured by Republic of Fritz Hansen
You’ve probably seen the Egg chair before – it’s everywhere. The swankier outlets of McDonald’s have one of these, too. Originally designed for the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen in 1958, Jacobsen ensured the curved form of the Egg was a soft contrast to the straight, hard edges of Denmark’s first skyscraper. His interpretation of an armchair was soft and comfortable, full of curves and fluidity. This unique shape resting on a swiveling base was an era-defining design that is unmistakably 1950s, yet truly timeless. It creates a cozy cocoon of privacy and lets you easily swivel away from someone you may want to mute or ignore.
The Arco Lamp
Designed by Achille Castiglioni in 1962
Manufactured by Flos
The Arco was designed to solve a simple problem – to create an overhead light without the hassle of wiring it into the ceiling. This resulted in a sweet spot where form met function perfectly. With its heavy marble base, an arched, slender spine and a free-hanging metal shade, the Arco totally nails its brief. Designed by Achille Castiglioni in Milan, this lamp is supposedly inspired by street lighting. Ever since its inception in 1962, it has become a much-imitated piece, causing many copycats to create several knock-offs. If you’ve spent time roaming in a modern lighting store thinking, “I’ve seen that a million times before,” do consider the origin of the Arco and you’ll realize how lighting design was changed forever, way back in 1962.
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