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Design Classics

Womb Chair and Ottoman, 1948

Designer: Eero Saarinen
Manufacturer: Knoll

Until recently the reputation of Eero Saarinen, the Finnish-born American architect and furniture designer, suffered at the hands of architecture historians and critics. They were undone by his stylistic promiscuousness. Some of his buildings are clearly influenced by Mies van der Rohe (who designed the TD Centre in Toronto). Then there's Saarinen's TWO Terminal at Kennedy Airport in New York, with its soaring organic wing-shaped roof it alludes to a bird in flight.

As a furniture designer however, Saarinen's sat firmly in the organic camp. His biomorphic moulded fibreglass-and-foam lounge chair was the result of a challenge from Florence Schust Knoll. A successful Cranbrook-trained interior and furniture designer herself, she also happened to be the wife of Hans Knoll, the founder of the company that bears his name. Mrs. Knoll said she was “sick of those chairs that held you in one position.” So she demanded of Saarinen “a chair that was like a basket full of pillows...,a chair she “could curl up in.”

Before the war, Saarinen had experimented successfully with formed-plywood as a way to make comfortable, cheap, mass-produced furniture. But fibreglass was a new material. He finally found a boat builder in New Jersey to agree to work through the many problems and failures needed to build the first prototypes. Then, Knoll's lawyers had to be convinced the innovative design was structurally sound.

This is a chair for relaxing. It supports and cossets the entire body – arms, head, back, shoulders, seat and legs. As the name – given by Saarinen himself – implies, the Womb chair creates a lavish sense of enveloping security. In Knoll's signature nubbly wool bouclé, it presides in a room like a modernist throne. The rusty red called cayenne is my favourite. Ask most designers which chair they covet and most will choose this one to lounge around on while reading Wallpaper* and Dwell magazines.

National Post, October 20, 2005