Organic Design by Geoffrey Baker
Magazine of Art, November 1941


(above) general view of the gallery in the Museum of Modern Art furnished with Saarinen and Eames' unit furniture, chairs, sofa sections, and occasional table

Great expectations were stirred when the Museum of Modern Art announced a competition for home furnishing designs. The results of that competition are now on show at the Museum and on sale at one reputable department store in each twelve large cities scattered over the country from New York to Fort Worth to San Francisco. Even though some critics may consider that the mountain has brought forth a mouse, at least the mouse is being given a swell send-off. And the nation-wide promotion--a major triumph for Museum's recently created Department of Industrial Design--should also provide valuable data on the public reaction to this Organic Design.

In reviewing the prizewinning furniture, one is naturally guided by the stated objectives of the competition:"..a solution starting with a sound analysis of the requirements, and a fresh approach to what our way of living calls for...The best solutions will...reflect today's social, economic, technological and aesthetic tendencies and possibilities,...and will provide adequately and handsomely for--a typical American middle-income group family."

This challenges the critic to provide a logical analysis rather than and expression of personal taste. I admire and accept. It might be advisable to consider the question of price immediately and then remove it from discussion. According to the Brookings Institution report of 1934, the average family income in 1929 was less than $5,000. Only 8.2% had an income of more than $5,000. By comparing these figures with the prices quoted under the illustrations, it will be seen that this furniture has missed the class at which it was aimed.


(left) the same designers' competition sketch shows how much better looking these chairs would be with aluminum legs as specified

In most cases the high prices seem quite unjustified. Any little carpenter, for example, could make Saarinen and Eames' eighteen-inch cube with two shelves for less than $20; and he could save you even more in reproducing Craig and Hatfield's open shelves which now retail for $17.

Even a rich dilettante might boggle at being asked to pay $50 for a side chair as simple in appearance and material as that designed by Saarinen and Eames. Yet this price is in some ways more reasonable than those which I have quoted above, for the manufacture of this chair requires costly equipment which only mass-production can justify economically. For the same reason your little carpenter couldn't reproduce this chair on special order, even for $50.

The design of these Saarinen and Eames chairs is far more important than their price, for logical analysis shows them to be the single original design which this competition has brought to public notice. They alone among the exhibits are worthy to be set alongside the classic modern prototypes--chairs by Thonet, Breuer, Le Corbusier, van der Rohe, Aalto--which precede them at the museum showing.

These thin wooden shells, their thickness modulated according to predetermined local stresses, are built up by the Haskelite process, from the alternate layers of thin wood veneer and synthetic resin binder. These are placed in a cast-iron mold and fused into a single whole under heat and pressure.

Until now chairs have commonly been two-dimensional only, with deep upholstery or some other flexible material to accommodate the buttocks and thighs, which represent the third dimension. Despite increasingly exact definition of the points at which the body needs support, the supporting plane has remained two-dimensional, largely because of the difficulty forming wood into complex curves. This new method of manufacture allows these organic chairs to be affectionately molded to fit the average rump. A thin layer of foam rubber cushioning, cemented to the curving wood and covered with fabric, is sufficient to complete quite a comfortable chair.


(right) flexibility of Saarinen and Eames' unit furniture is shown
base benches $12 to $15
cabinet unit $23
bookcase unit $20
bookcase drawer unit $23
2-legged desk $16
desk drawer unit $20

In the original design the legs were of aluminum cemented to the chair shell by a very strong "rubberweld" joint. Owing to defense requirements these have been replaced by straight wooden legs bolted to the frame with a metal plate. They are probably not strong and certainly not elegant. They give the chair a gangling appearance of a young colt.

The other chairs on display are chiefly of interest for the way in which they attempt to replace with some less clumsy method of springing the traditional "coil springs hand-tied eight way with Italian twine." In their sofa units Saarinen and Eames employ a lightweight, bowed transverse spring which has been used by manufacturers of low-cost furniture these many years. Nicholson and Maier employ a lattice of spring steel slats which is similar in principle, but inferior in design, to the German Knoll method of transverse coil springs which has been used in Europe for at least ten years.

Earlier attempts by designers and manufacturers to introduce these new types of springing (even foam rubber) have always been met by public suspicion. Possibly the Museum's carefully nurtured prestige will serve to break down these prejudices.

I personally find a traditional overstuffed armchair more comfortable than any organic chair. Another matter of personal opinion: the best looking chairs are those by Nicholson and Maier. They are strong but not heavy, original, simple, not mannered.

The "case goods" on display show no originality in design, materials or structure. There are three different types of unit design among the prizewinners; not one of them has adjustable legs to allow for uneven floors. Only one of them, by Stonorov and von Moltke, provides any effective locking device to keep the units in place. And one of them (by Craig and Hatfield) has a base which can be justified neither by logic nor esthetics. It is high enough to allow dust to collect beneath, it is low enough to prevent cleaning and to make no allowance for clearing the baseboard on the wall behind. In addition it is arranged under some pieces in the form of a cross, and thus from the front it shows only as the end of a batten in the center of each cabinet, so that the latter appears to be teetering on a single foot.

Then consider the use and abuse of material. Every piece shown is of wood, solid wood, plain or veneered, bleached or stained, with flush joints and flush surfaces. This lack of originality in choice of material and finish would not be cause for criticism had the design which this wood was to serve been of equally traditional type.

But these "modern" designers, permeated by the Museum, are specifying flush doors of solid wood. After only a week of exhibition Craig and Hatfield's desk already refused to close. None of the tambour doors was in good working order. Furniture of such types can be made to work, but it requires very well-seasoned wood plus fine handwork and fitting. Obviously then, this is not the type of design best suited to low-cost mass-produced furniture.

What this competition might have been expected to produce was not a new form of cupboard or chest drawers (there is probably no better reason for that than for making any basic change in shape of a knife or spoon) but the designers might have experimented with other materials than wood. The kitchen cabinet manufacturers, our most experienced unit designers, now use a combination of wood and steel and composition board. And what about more color, and some sturdier surfacing? The Museum pieces don't even seem to have been given a heat and alcohol-proof finish.

Some of the rattan porch furniture, by Anderson and Bellah, is pleasant enough, but is so much of the rattan furniture already on the market and selling at half the price. The lunch wagon by Weese and Baldwin is worth affording. It is slightly better designed than any of those at present available.

As for the Latin American designs, the organizers have wisely relegated them to a second floor gallery. Surely $70 must be the highest price ever demanded for such discomfort as that provided by Roman Fresnedo's chair with seat and back of widely spaced leather strap. Put it on your list as a nice Christmas gift for the family fakir.

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