Design, we're told, is just within our reach. But, while we see the aesthetic glory of some of the pieces offered as classics, we miss (at times) their history.
Consider this a primer. A quick and easy list of key designers and the furnishings that have blossomed from simple ideas to international icons.
Kyle Garner, founder of Brooklyn-based antique gallery Sit And Read, has been scouring flea markets for furniture since childhood. His passion, not surprisingly, has generated an impressive knowledge base and understanding of 20th century design. Naturally, we pegged Garner to help us get to grips with the world of furniture design. He picked the names and designs that every man should know.
Written by Kyle Garner (@sitandread).
Check out The 25 Furniture Designers You Need To Know.
Le Corbusier (1987-1965)
Born In: La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland
Years Active: 1914 to 1965
Born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, Le Corbusier was the pioneer of modern architecture. His experiments with furniture began in 1928 (working with Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand), and found form in 1929 with the "Grand Confort." Later known as the "Le Corbusier Collection" this chair solidified his legend in seating almost as strongly as in buildings. The LC4, a chaise lounge, is perhaps the most recognizable piece (but, you'll learn more about that later...)
Charles & Ray Eames
Charles & Ray Eames (Charles, 1907-1978; Ray, 1912-1988)
Born In: St. Louis, Missouri; Sacramento, California
Years Active (as a duo):1940s to 1970s
America's quintessential husband and wife (not brothers!) creative team worked in just about every medium imaginable. They, more than any other designer, helped shape California and American Modernism in the early 1950s/ They are perhaps most well known for the Eames Lounge (670) and Ottoman (671), and their molded fiberglass lounge chairs.
Eero Saarinen (1910-1961)
Born In: Kirkkonummi, Finland
Years Active: 1940 to 1961
Eero Saarinen was a Finnish born American architect. His most iconic design is probably the St Louis Arch, but there's a great good chance you've sat in one of his classic executive chairs or ate dinner off of the tulip table that he designed for Knoll in the early 50's.
Jean Prouve (1901-1984)
Born In: Nancy, France
Years Active: 1923 to 1984
Jean Prouvé was a self taught architect and designer. Working primarily in steel, his designs are highly sought after on the contemporary auction market. Recently (as documented in this great post on Mondo Blogo) dealers and scavengers alike have been traveling to the far reaches of ex-French colonies in search of his wares.
Paul McCobb (1917-1969)
Born In: Medford, Massachusetts
Years Active: 1945 to 1969
Paul McCobb was a self trained American modernist. After establishing his own studio in 1945, he was active until his death in 1969. His Planner Group line, was among the best selling contemporary furniture lines of the mid century period. Launched in 1949 by Winchendon Furniture Company this line was in production for 14 years.
Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007)
Born In: Innsbruck, Austria
Years Active: 1947 to 2007
Ettore Sottsass was a late 20th century Italian Designer. He favored the bold colors of Pop Art and dramatic forms of Art Deco and helped define Post-Modernism when he founded the Memphis Group in 1981.
Florence Knoll Bassett (1917-)
Born In: Saginaw, Michigan
Years Active: 1943 to 1965
Though her case pieces and sofas are ubiquitous, Florence Knoll Bassett famously did not consider herself a furniture designer. She said the she would only design furniture when the existing Knoll collection did not meet the needs of her interior projects. She co-founded Knoll Associates with her husband Hans. When he died in a car accident in 1955 she took over the company and helped shape the the forefront of American Modernism by introducing collections designed by Harry Bertoia, Eero Saarinen, George Nakashima, Alexander Gerrared and countless other masters of mid century design.
Jens Risom (1916-)
Born In: Copenhagen, Denmark
Years Active: 1939 to present
A Danish born and trained designer, Jens Risom was one of the first to fuse Scandinavian and American styles. In 1941, after moving to New York, Risom helped Hans Knoll launch his furniture company. He designed 15 of the 20 pieces is Knoll's inaugural "600" line. He continued designing through the 50's and 60's under his own company Jens Risom Designs.
Edward Wormley (1907-1995)
Born In: Rochelle, Illinois
Years Active: 1928-1960s
After being hired at the end of the depression by American furniture manufacturer Dunbar, Edward Wormley helped make the manufacturer the producer of some of the most classic American design pieces of the 20th Century. Eschewing the boldness of most other modernists, Wormley chose instead to take his cues from classic and historical designs and manufacturing processes, and simplify and update them.
Milo Baughmann (1923-2003)
Born In: Goodland, Kansas
Years Active: 1947 to 2003
One of the most prolific designers of American Modernism the list of companies he designed for beginning in the mid 40's until his death in 2003 seems endless: Calif-Asia, Mode Furniture, Glenn of California, The Inco Company, Pacific Iron, Murray Furniture of Winchendon, Arch Gordon, Design Institute America, Woodard, George Kovacs, Directional, and Henredon. His most well known work was done for Thayer Coggin and Drexel where he produced seating and case pieces that have influenced nearly every modernist designer that came after him.
Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999)
Born In: Paris, France
Years Active: 1920s to 1960s
After initially being denied a job at Le Corbussier's studio, a persistent Charlotte Perriand continued developing her own work until she as eventually hired in 1927. Charlotte Perriand got her start co designing 3 chairs with Le Courbousier, and Pierre Jeanneret (one for sleeping, one for conversation, and one for sleeping) for Corbusier's studio in 1928. She went on to further develop a populist and egalitarian philosophy of furniture design and became one France's most prolific and collected furniture designers of the 20th century.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969)
Born In: Aachen, Kingdom of Prussia, German Empire
Years Active: 1908 to 1969
Mies (as he is often referred to) was a German-American most known for his minimalist architectural achievements. He also designed two of the most iconic (and widely copied) seating pieces of the 20th Century, the Barcelona Chair and the Brno Chair.
George Nelson (1908-1986)
Born In: Hartford, Connecticut
Years Active: 1936-1986
Despite having no experience designing furniture George Nelson was hired as the Director of Design at herman Miller Inc in 1945. He continued at the helm until 1972. In his nearly 30 year tenure he was responsible for brining Ray and Charles Eames, Harry Bertoia, Donald Knorr, and Isamu Noguchi as well as his own designs into the Herman Miller fold thus catapulting them to the forefront of American modernism.
Harry Bertoia (1915-1978)
Born In: San Lorenzo, Italy
Years Active: 1939 to 1978
In 1930, when Harry Bertoia was 15, he left his native Italy to visit his older brother in Detroit and never left. Seven years later found him studying design at the Cranbrook Academy of Art studying with Ray and Charles Eames. In 1950, after moving to Pennsylvania to open his own studio- he deigned his iconic wire frame Bertoia Collection for Knoll. In his own words, "If you look at these chairs, they are mainly made of air, like sculpture. Space passes right through them."
Marcel Breuer (1902-1981)
Born In: Pecs, Hungary
Years Active: 1920s to 1981
Marcel Breuer, a Hungarian born architect and designer, made his mark on modernist furniture design while teaching at the Bauhaus in the 1920's. Inspired by the handlebars of his Adler bicycle his experiments with tubular steel led to the design of the Wassily chair- one of the most ubiquitous pieces to come out of the Bauhaus.
Issamu Noguchi (1904-1988)
Born In: Los Angeles, California
Years Active: 1922 to 1988
Noguchi was an American born Japanese landscape architect, sculptor and furniture designer. When he was brought in to design for Herman Miller by George Nelson in 1947, he produced some of the most recognizable designs of the burgeoning American Modernism movement including the Noguchi coffee table (which has spawned a tumblr).
Sam Maloof (1916-2009)
Born In: Chino, California
Years Active: 1945 to 2009
Sam Maloof, a California-born mid-century craftsman, always described himself as a woodworker, but but his sensibility as a designer will be forever recognizable as his own. Steeped in tradition and comfort his rocking chairs have been owned by presidents, collected by museums, and coveted by collectors for decades.
George Nakashima (1905-1990)
Born In: Spokane, Washington
Years Active: 1930s to 1980s
George Nakashima, a Japanese-American architect, woodworker and furniture designer infused American Modernism with Japanese craftsmanship to develop a unique style of furniture that he produced by hand until his death in 1990. His style most notably makes use of unique slabs of trees with unfinished, natural edges.
Alvar Aalto (1898-1976)
Born In: Kuortane, Finland
Years Active: 1920s to 1970s.
Working primarily in his native Finland, Aalto helped define Scandinavian modernism. In the early 1930's he developed a process for bending plywood that forever revolutionized furniture production and greatly influenced American designers such as Charles and Ray Eames.
Gaetano Pesce (1939-)
Born In: La Spezia, Italy
Years Active: 1959 to Present
An Italian designer whose pieces for B&B Italian and Cassina in the 70's and 80's helped push the envelope of Italian post-modernism to the forefront of contemporary design.
Hans Wegner (1914-2007)
Born In: Tønder, Denmark
Years Active: 1927 to 1985
Perhaps best known for his chairs, Hans Wegner is one of the most prolific designers of the Danish mid-century modern period. his Papa Bear chair is one of the most iconic pieces from the 1950's Danish school and continues to fetch high prices at auction houses the wold over.
Poul Kjærholm (1929-1980)
Born In: Øster Vrå, Denmark
Years Active: 1948 to 1980
Kjaerholm was another heavy hitter of the Danish Mid Century period. His work for E. Kold Christensen (later produced by Fritz Hansesn) is some of the most sought after on the contemporary market.
Arne Jacobsen (1902-1971)
Born In: Copenhagen, Denmark
Years Active: 1924 to 1971
Arne Jacobsen was another influential Danish architect who made an impact on the mid century furniture movement through his minimalist functional chair designs. His Swan and Egg chairs are among the most recognizable pieces from this period.
Borge Mogensen (1914-1972)
Born In: Aalborg, Denmark
Years Active: 1930s to 1960s
After working under Danish master Kaare Klint in the late 1930's Mogensen went on to manage the design studio for FDB (the Danish Design Co-Operative) before establishing his own studio in 1950. Defined by clean lines and simple production methods, Mogensen's pieces are quintessential examples of the design principles popular with Danish modernist.
Greta Grossman (1906-1999)
Born In: Helsingborg, Sweden
Years active: 1920s to 1960s
After cutting her teeth in the burgeoning Scandinavian modernist scene in her native Sweden, Greta Grossman moved to Los Angeles in 1940. It was here that she made her biggest impact in furniture design helping to shape California modernism. Her lamps for Barker Brothers (later Ralp O. Smith) are perhaps her most well known pieces.