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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.

Modern Design at Optima with Knoll

Design permeates every corner of our communities. Across our multi-family properties, we utilize furniture designed by globally renowned Knoll to craft spaces that are sleek, modern and comfortable. Not just purveyors of elegant and stunning design, Knoll also has a history entangled with our own, beginning back in 1938.

Modernist Roots

Knoll was founded in 1938 by Hans G. Knoll, a German immigrant based in the United States. Familiar with the seminal Bahaus School of Design and Modernist masters like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, he founded Knoll on the belief that modern architects would need functional, modern furnishings.

Later, Hans Knoll engaged with (and then literally got engaged to) Florence Schust, who studied with Mies van der Rohe at the Armour Institute in Chicago, and worked in the architectural offices from Gropius and Breuer in Boston. Her understanding of Modernist architecture, and the Bauhaus and Walter Gropius himself, transformed the Knoll approach to furniture design, placing new focus on offering objects that represented design excellence, technological innovation and mass production.

The Risom arm chair designed by Knoll at Optima Sonoran Village
The Risom arm chair designed by Knoll at Optima Sonoran Village

Their strong vision attracted high-profile collaborators, such as Isamu Noguchi, who contributed to a collection of furnishings now heralded as classics in the pantheon of modern design. With a repertoire of pieces spanning including the Wassily chair, the Barcelona chair, the Tulip chair; over 40 Knoll designs can be found in the permanent design collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. 

As seminal collaborators with the Modernist architecture discipline, Knoll is a natural fit for our modern residential and commercial spaces. Their executive designs embody elegance, craftsmanship and emblematic details across seating, tables and desks. The thoughtful and artistic creations of Knoll bring expansive history, elevated design and of course, comfort, to our communities.

Isamu Noguchi Spotlight

For our projects, design doesn’t stop on the outside of our buildings. We carefully curate each and every interior to be an activating space that is at once beautiful and inviting. As part of that careful curation, many of our spaces feature furniture designed by Isamu Noguchi, a Japanese American artist, landscape architect, sculptor and furniture designer.

The Mid-century Modern “Airplane” Bimorphic Coffee Table, designed by Isamu Noguchi, at 7120 Optima Kierland.
The Mid-century Modern “Airplane” Bimorphic Coffee Table, designed by Isamu Noguchi, at 7120 Optima Kierland.

The Style of Isamu Noguchi

Born in 1904, Isamu Noguchi became one of the 20th century’s most critically acclaimed and important sculptors. His sculptural work covered a wide range of creations, spanning from sculptures, gardens, furniture and lighting designs, ceramics, architecture and set designs. Midway through his career, Noguchi became inspired by the idea of a more reduced form, focusing on an abstract and Modernist approach to create intriguing designs that elicited emotional reactions.  

“Everything is sculpture,” Isamu Noguchi once said. “Any material, any idea without hindrance born into space, I consider sculpture.” Noguchi believed that as a sculptor, he could shape space to give it order and meaning, contextualized by the surroundings in which it existed. 

It was only natural that furniture fell into his wheelhouse. Perhaps his most popular work, Noguchi designed a glass-topped table in 1947 to be produced by Herman Miller. The base of the table is made up of two identical wooden pieces, reversed and connected, and topped with a heavy plate glass top. When first sold, the table was marketed in the Herman Miller catalogue as “sculpture-for-use” and “design for production.” Noguchi strongly believed in producing his designs for mass market in order to bring fine art into the home. 

At Optima, we are proud to showcase Noguchi’s furniture within our own spaces, designs which serve to amplify and activate the evocative Modernist exteriors and interiors of our buildings.

 

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