Five Midcentury Designers that Woodworkers Should Know

Furniture design changed significantly in the middle of the 20th century. The fine, detailed ornamentation that theretofore had been a trademark of a well built home, building or piece of furniture was stripped away with a renewed focus on functionality. That isn't to say that the importance of aesthetics were diminished, they simply were expressed in new ways. This style forever changed housing, office and furniture design and is now known as "mid century".

When I began my woodworking journey, for the first time in my life I started asking myself the question "what type of furniture do I like?". When you begin a journey towards learning anything, often times the best place to start is imitation. You learn to imitate, to understand the reasoning behind the original object. Then you use your own choices to build on those initial designs and eventually arrive at something new.

Reflecting on this question and seeing various styles of woodworking, I found myself particularly drawn to the simple beauty of mid century design. However, many people make the mistake that the too often repeated mantra of "form follows function" means that aesthetics should be the last thing considered when approaching a mid century style design. This is simply not the case, it really means that aesthetics should work in harmony with function to create a beautiful, functional object. These are some of my favorite mid century designers, whose work truly encapsulates these viewpoints.

Charles and Ray Eames

Charles Eames was learning architecture when he met Ray Gayber — a notable abstract painter who had studied under Hans Hofmann. Together they formed a lifelong partnership that resulted in innovations in furniture design, building design, textiles, film, animation and photography. They took their work very seriously and applied their processes to an incredibly wide range of disciplines. You may know the "Eames Lounge Chair", but their underlying vision and unique collaboration was successfully applied to so much more than a famous chair.

While working on techniques to perfect the bending of plywood in order to find a way to mass produce a bended plywood chair, the newly married Eames found that their techniques could be applied to the design of leg splints for soldiers serving in World War II. They secured funding to produce the improved splints and this allowed them to continue to refine and develop their plywood working methods which they would ultimately put to use in innovative furniture design.

They collaborated with the Herman Miller company in the 1950s to create several iconic pieces of furniture throughout the 1950s and 1960s. They followed the guiding principle of "The best for the most for the least" in reference to creating high quality products for mass production that were inexpensive. It's somewhat ironic today that many of these designs are so expensive that they are the best for the few for the most, but I digress.

They designed and built their own residence as part of Art and Architecture's Case Study House program along with several other architectural projects. They worked in film, creating notable educational and documentary films including Powers of Ten, as well as Glimpses of the USA — a film that was part of a cold war era cultural exchange between Russia and the United States.

Their work also included designing exhibitions for the World's Fair and various museums, animation for film, new fabrics for furniture and even whimsical toys and curiosities.

You can check out much of their work over at the official Eames Office website.

Eero Saarinen

Eero Saarinen was a good friend and early collaborator of Charles Eames — they created an award winning chair design together early in their careers. While this accomplishment was actually seen as a failure by Saarinen and Eames due to the inability to mass produce their design, it inspired Charles Eames to continue on innovating with Ray and Eero Saarinen would return to much success in furniture design later in his career.

Saarinen is perhaps most notable for his many contributions to the field of architecture. Growing up the son of a famous architect, he broke away from the looming shadow of his father's name and reputation by besting him in the nationwide competition to design the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. This success allowed him to garner a reputation in his own right and he would go on to design striking architecture such the TWA terminal at JFK airport in New York, the Washington Dulles International Airport, and the David S. Ingalls Hockey Rink.

While he is known for his architecture work, he also produced iconic furniture designs for the Knoll Company including the Tulip Chair, the Womb Chair and the Saarinen Dining Table.

One of the things I like the most about Eero Saarinen is that while he was creating designs that were considered modern, they were anything but minimal in nature. Saarinen believed that architecture should be striking and make an impression on the beholder. He fully understood that architecture was fundamentally functional, but should also be aesthetically striking and beautiful. You should walk away with a distinct impression of it.

Florence Knoll

Florence Knoll studied architecture in the U.S. and abroad before moving to New York and then starting a furniture company with her husband Hans Knoll. She actually studied under Eliel Saarinen and later became close friends with the entire Saarinen family, particularly Eero. She went on to essentially design the interior of the modern office as we know it.

Having studied under some of the most accomplished modern architects of the time, she used her skills as well as impeccable taste to form and direct the Knoll Planning Unit — which essentially served as the brains behind the Knoll Furniture company. They anticipated that a new, American modern architecture would require a new American modern interior and that corporate offices would serve as the perfect opportunity to establish this new design ethos.

They were right. After a few lean years, the Knoll company became well established and remains so to this day. They became widely known for their collaborations with various architects which resulted in some of the most iconic furniture and interior design of the modern era. The aforementioned Tulip chair, table and womb chairs were a result of a collaboration between Florence Knoll and Eero Saarinen.

George Nelson

After studying architecture abroad and returning to the U.S., George Nelson became an editor of Architectural Forum magazine before establishing his own design company in New York.

Nelson collaborated with the Herman Miller company to produce a wide range of furniture, much of which is still in production today due to its bold aesthetic and modern, but timeless sensibility. The Nelson Bubble Lamps, Nelson Swag Desk and Nelson Marshmallow Sofa are some great examples how to name furniture in addition to serving as great examples of George Nelson & Associates' work. I say "& associates" because there is some controversy about who actually did the design work for some of the company's creations.

Regardless of said controversy, Nelson oversaw the company that created some of the most iconic furniture of the mid century era. While some of the design tends to lean into aesthetics and lose its functional grounding at times, it certainly has a unique, striking style. When I needed to pick a replacement light fixture to hang over my dining room table, you bet your bacon that I picked a Nelson Bubble Lamp to oversee my nightly dinners.