Organic Modernism

Posted by Randy Spearing on

One of the most frequent questions we get about the shop is with regard to the selection of products we sell. Why do we sell what we do?

While the shop is foremost a reflection of the things we love, there is an overarching philosophy behind most of what we choose. When we started getting this question more often, I decided to put more thought into it and write this post.

Frank Lloyd Wright is renowned for his organic modern architecture.

I typically think of the products we carry as being derivative of a form of organic modernism. While we source our offerings from a diverse array of makers, artisans and companies locally and from around the world, commonalities in design philosophy abound.

Much of what we know as modern design in furniture is the result of a 1941 MoMA design competition entitled “Organic Design In Home Furnishings”. The competition brief contained a definition of organic design:

“A design may be called organic when there is an harmonious organization of the parts within the whole, according to structure, material, and purpose. Within this definition there can be no vain ornamentation or superfluity, but the part of beauty is none the less great -- in ideal choice of material, in visual refinement, and in the rational elegance of things intended for use.” 

A view from the exhibit.

Rational functionalism, the defining characteristic of the modern architecture movement and reflected in the work of contemporaries Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus, and Frank Lloyd Wright is at the very heart of the design competition.

According to the brief, this rational functionalism had not transferred to the design of furniture on the same scale. While many architects of the time practiced what the Germans call Gesamtkunstwerk (a totality of work that included the building, the furnishings and the landscape) much of the furniture produced was traditional, and often handmade, making it expensive and out of reach for most.

The Bauhaus School in Dessau is a good example of Gesamtkunstwerk. The interior fittings, furniture and lighting were produced entirely in the school's workshops.

The MoMA design competition was significant in that it offered a contract to the winners to manufacture their pieces and sell them in major department stores. Mass production at this time was not what it is today.

While today we often associate mass production with a lower price due to lower quality, for modern designers at this time, mass production offered standardization of production with high quality materials. This standardization would lower the price of furniture and make it more accessible to a greater array of people.

The winners of the competition are two people you may be familiar with - Eero Saarinen (famous for the Tulip and Womb Chairs, as well as the architect of the Washington Dulles International Airport and St. Louis Gateway Arch) and Charles Eames.

Eames and Saarinen’s winning pieces at the MoMA competition.

The rational functionalism of our offerings, whether the designers realize it or not, are built on this foundation of modern organic furniture design. The beauty and functionality of the Modern Milkman Stool, for instance, is largely due in part to its simplicity. The material, a rich walnut or maple, is the star. The elegant shape of the piece belies the complexity of its construction. That it is entirely made of wood roots it in nature.

Take a look at the listing for the MoMA competition. The pictures are a record of the history of the future. The pieces are truly timeless design. 

If you are interested in reading an article about a gesamtkunstwerk materpiece, check out this BBC piece on the Royal SAS Hotel in Copenhagen, designed by Danish architect Arne Jacobsen. 

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