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A Brief History of Modernist Furniture

The modernist architecture movement gained traction in the late 19th century and was influenced by the post-war notion of practicality and eliminating excess. 

Notable modernist architects include Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Gehry, and Zaha Hadid. Along with designing structures, these architects also designed furniture that would harmonize with their buildings, while making their works more accessible to many.

Prior to the modernist movement, furniture was seen as ornamentation. Rather than taking comfort and practicality into consideration, the value of furniture was determined by the amount of time and level of craftsmanship that went into its production. The Industrial Revolution enabled the mechanization of furniture production, enabling furniture to become affordable and functional rather than ornaments reserved for the wealthy.

Modernist principles of furniture considered the interaction of the design and the user, creating designs that fit with the human form rather than forcing bodies to conform to the furniture.

Two Barcelona Chairs sit next to each other in front of glass windows.
Barcelona Chairs, designed by Mies van der Rohe

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s 1929 Barcelona Chair was inspired by the simplicity of ancient folding chairs. Supported on each side by two chrome-plated flat steel bars, the Barcelona Chair is upholstered in leather and combines simple elegance with comfort. Mies van der Rohe designed the Barcelona chair to sit in the lobbies of his buildings, where they accent the architecture and blend in with the surrounding space. 

The Eames Lounge Chair sits in front of a marble fire place.
Eames Lounge Chair, designed by Charles and Ray Eames

The Eames Lounge Chair, another iconic piece of modernist furniture, was released in 1956 and designed by Charles and Ray Eames. The Eames Lounge Chair is a rare example of modernist furniture that was not designed to be mass-produced and affordable. Yet, the chair still relied on the principles of simplicity, practicality, and comfort core to modernist furniture design. The chair, inspired by the English Club Chair, is composed of molded plywood and leather and became a cultural icon for its un-design-like appearance that invites sitters to rest for hours within the chair’s leather cushions.

The Noguchi Table
Noguchi Table, designed by Isamu Noguchi

Japanese-American artist and industrial designer, Isamu Noguchi, designed the famed Noguchi Table for the furniture company, Herman Miller. The Noguchi Table is a sleek glass-topped table supported by two curved pieces of wood at the base. The table became popular for its ability to fit both in the domestic and corporate spaces. 

The ability for modernist furniture to fit effortlessly into any space combined with its practicality made modernist designs into classic pieces recognized across generations. Modernist furniture can be found in suburban households and steel office buildings alike. Families gather around Noguchi Tables for chess games and curl up into Eames Lounge Chairs with long novels. Business moguls and architects meet in Barcelona Chairs and sign documents over Noguchi Tables. The versatility of modernist furniture and ease with which it is produced revolutionized how the general public views furniture and furniture’s place in the spaces it takes up.

Ray Eames: A Pioneer in American Architecture

A talented artist, designer and filmmaker, Ray Eames is a well-known name throughout the architecture and design industries. The name Eames itself carries weight; Ray Eames was half of the husband-and-wife duo that made an enormous impact on modern design. Though her husband, Charles, received most of the praise and spotlight during their partnership due to the gender conventions of their time, Ray was a powerful voice and creative in her own regard. Today, we look back on her life and contributions to the world of design.

Ray Eames, Untitled from American Abstract Artists, photo courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art
Ray Eames, Untitled from American Abstract Artists, photo courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art

Born in Sacramento, California in 1912, Ray was passionate about art from an early age, expressing interest in dance, illustration and art history. After pursuing art as a student for years, Ray eventually found her way to New York, fully immersed in the abstract art scene. By 1940, she decided to pursue a holistic approach to art and design at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, in Michigan, where she then met her husband, Charles. Upon meeting Charles, Ray took her strengths in color, form and structure and applied them to furniture design, and the two began a creative and life partnership that would thrive for decades.

Charles and Ray Eames
Charles and Ray Eames

Although Charles had a more public profile, Ray worked full-time and was equally devoted to their work. Together, they explored new, inventive designs for furniture, products, short films and architecture. Their own house is arguably the greatest representation of their architectural work. A structure of steel and glass, the Eames House is an iconic piece of modern architecture, with Ray’s background in abstract art informing the Mondrianesque panels on the front façade.

The Eames House
The Eames House

The Eameses worked as partners from 1941 until 1978 when Charles passed away. Their collaboration and creative vigor continues to inspire to this day, and is even reminiscent of our own David Hovey Sr. and Eileen Hovey, who have built Optima while also building a life and family together. 

To read more about the life and work of Ray Eames, check out a recent feature by The New York Times

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