It was a time of great excitement. Two World Wars had started and ended, economies were booming, and mankind had just sent its first object into space. Fuelled by a futuristic vision, novel materials, and new ways of manipulating old ones; a style of design, known today as Mid-century Modern, emerged between the 1930s to 1960s.
Characterised by clean, geometricforms and an emphasis on function rather than form, Mid-Century Modernism was led by designers – many of whom were also architects and artists – who became superstars, creating exemplary pieces of furniture that were not only lauded during their time, but have repeatedly returned as trends in the decades after.
Many of these furniture designs — like Eero Saarinen’s Womb Chair and the Eames Lounge Chair — are still being produced today by the original companies they were designed for. Meanwhile, a thriving collectors’ market has formed for rare and vintage pieces, which can fetch large amounts of money on the secondary market.
These chair designs have entered the public consciousness to such an extent that even if you’ve not heard of them, you’ve probably seen them on popular media, or noticed some of the many creations inspired by them. Having one in your home is guaranteed culture cred.
Bibendum (1926), Eileen Gray
One of the pioneers of Modernist design, as well as one of the first few women to enter a previously male-dominated world of design, Eileen Gray created the Bibendum as a “feminist answer” to the blocky, angular form of Le Corbusier’s Grand Confort chair, itself a reactionary design to the traditional club chair. Named after the rotund mascot of the Michelin tyre company, Gray’s armchair featured similar round rolls that envelopes the user — perfect if one’s ever wondered what a hug from the Michelin Man would feel like.
Womb Chair (1948), Eero Saarinen
Designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, the Womb Chair was the result of a brief from Saarinen’s friend and contemporary, Florence Knoll, who wanted something to “really curl up in”. Just like its namesake, the chair is meant to recall the same comfort and security of being in a mother’s womb, which it achieves with its ample frame, angled seat, and enveloping back- and arm-rest — allowing users to get comfortable in any number of possible positions. Because none of the furniture makers of the time could work with their material requirements — the Womb Chair was the first- ever mass produced piece of fibreglass furniture — the first chairs were built by a boat maker.
Eames Lounge Chair (1956), Charles and Ray Eames
The American husband and wife duo couldn’t have predicted the next half-century better by designing a chair to be a “special refuge from the strains of modern living”. Inspired to be a modern version of the English Club Chair, the Eames family designed the lounge chair with comfort in mind, wanting it to have the “receptive look” of well- worn baseball mitt. Both the chair and its accompanying ottoman are featured in Frasier, where the titular character describes it as “the best engineered chair in the world”. While Herman Miller still produces this, the chair has gone through small material and construction changes throughout the years. A 1956 version — the year it was first built — sits in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art.
Egg Chair (1958), Arne Jacobsen
Reportedly inspired by the Womb Chair, Arne Jacobsen’s iconic Egg Chair was originally designed to be used in the lobby and reception areas of the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, for which Jacobsen was responsible for designing every aspect — from the building’s outer structure, right down to the salt and pepper shakers. The Danish designer and architect was also responsible for other homeware icons such as the Ant and Swan chairs; as well as those futuristic plates used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Tying it together
To get an idea of how a Mid-century Modern aesthetic can effectively bring together seemingly disparate elements in a space, look no further than the Jigger & Pony group’s Live Twice, a bar inspired by the cocktail scene in 1960s Ginza, Tokyo. Envisioned by local firm Hui Designs, the bar features an eclectic mix of vintage furniture from that era – from Saarinen’s sculptural, vividly-coloured Tulip stools to austere, but preternaturally comfortable Falcon armchairs from Norwegian designer Sigurd Ressell – that all blend in seamlessly with the space, which has been given a distinctive Japanese flair with wooden panel-lined walled and a Washi paper screen.
“My solution for the interiors [of Live Twice] was to create a space that was cosy and intimate, with the vibe of being in someone’s home. Alcoves were added to enhance the intimacy of the space. I had images of Don Draper’s apartment from Mad Men and Dr No’s apartment in You Only Live Twice in my head. The collection was carefull curated with a mix of vintage pieces, originals, and replicas— while deliberately avoiding Danish vintage pieces as that was not the look I was going for. I preferred to use pieces from Bauhaus movement,” shares
Sitting on gold
In 2009, Eileen Gray’s Dragons Armchair sold for €21,905,000 (S$33,019,118) at an auction held by Christie’s Paris. Auctioned as part of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé’s collection, the armchair was designed and hand-lacquered by Gray between 1917 and 1919. Its astronomical cost – as described by the buyer, art dealer Cheska Vallois – was “the price of desire”. Meanwhile, Arne Jacobsen’s Ox chair, which was designed in 1966 and put into production for less than two years, was sold for US$36,000 (S$50,100) on Wright, an auction house specialising in 20th century art and design. Also discontinued, the IN-62 marble table that Isamu Noguchi designed for Herman Miller, realised for US$630,000 on Wright.
Where to buy Mid-century Modern designer pieces
This luxury, contemporary furniture retailer has a 40,000 sq ft space along Bencoolen Street, complete with five, distinct, architect-designed showrooms and interiors. Space carries nearly 30 brands, including ClassiCon, which produces Eileen Grey’s Bibendum with an agreement with license holder Aram Design; and the Italy-based Flos, which produces Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni’s distinctive Arco lamp.
77 Bencoolen Street
Danish Design Co.
If you hanker for the clean, elegant aesthetics of Scandinavian design, Danish Design Co. has you covered. Options include the works of legendary Danish furniture designers Hans Wegner and Finn Juhl – both pioneers in the field; as well as a wide range of contemporary creators.
100e Pasir Panjang Rd, 06-03 Century Warehouse
Fritz Hansen Lounge
Opened just last year within W Atelier, Fritz Hansen’s Singaporean outpost features a 4.300 sq ft space that’s split into different nooks representing the different parts of a house. This is where to get Arne Jacobsen pieces like the Egg and Drop chairs.
13-08 Outram Rd, Tan Boon Liat Building