Collecting Mid-Century Modern Chairs: The Definitive Guide

Collecting Mid-Century Modern Chairs: The Definitive Guide

Le Corbusier once said: "poor materials, rich design" which was a philosophy adopted by many central figures in 20th Century furniture design, including Hans Wegner, Jean Prouvé, and Finn Juhl, who pushed boundaries of functionality, materials and form.
Le Corbusier once said: "poor materials, rich design" which was a philosophy adopted by many central figures in 20th Century furniture design, including Hans Wegner, Jean Prouvé, and Finn Juhl, who pushed boundaries of functionality, materials and form.

A Short History of the 20th Century's Most Desirable Chairs

I n the 1940s, while Christian Dior's New Look was captivating the fashion world in Paris, a parallel revolution was unfolding in furniture design. Like racing car drivers lining up on the grid, furniture designers were poised for action, eager to capitalise on the post-war economic boom. This movement, initially christened 'Modern,' saw Danes and Americans take the lead. America boasted the Cranbrook Academy, often hailed as America's Bauhaus, nurturing luminaries like Charles and Ray Eames, Florence Knoll, Harry Bertoia, and Eero Saarinen. In France the charge was led by Jean Prouvé and Jean Royère, and in Denmark, The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and the annual Cabinetmakers Guild Exhibition in Copenhagen were at the forefront of innovation.

Charles and Ray Eames at work in their studio. Courtesy of the Eames office.

Post-War Experimentation

The first tremors of a revolution in mass chair production occurred when Danish designer Jens Risom presented producer Hans Knoll with a lounge chair that stripped upholstery back to its essence, using leftover parachute strapping from the war around cedar offcuts. Risom drew inspiration from Scandinavian modernists of the 1930s, echoing the ethos embraced by the likes of Alvar Aalto and Bruno Mathsson. Similarly, the Eames embarked on their own experimentation, crafting ply sculptures from their early experiments with splints for the war effort and pioneering the iconic LCW (Low Chair Wood), influencing designers like Arne Jacobsen in Denmark.

Finn Juhl's Poet Sofa displayed at the Cabinetmakers’ Guild Exhibition in 1941.

Mid-Century Modern embodied a fusion of disciplines, with artists, architects, designers, and sculptors inspiring one another to new heights of creativity. Finn Juhl's minimalist approach, exemplified by stripping cushions to their essence, resonated in Denmark, while Eero Saarinen and Marco Zanuso in Italy embraced new materials like latex foam rubber, created by Dunlop and championed by Pirelli. This period witnessed a fervent exchange of ideas, where dinner parties among designers became veritable think tanks, birthing innovations from humble paper cups to matchstick creations.

Arne Jacobsen, Ant 3100 Chair.

The Birth of "Mid-Century Modern"

Television and advertising fuelled the demand for the new interior aesthetic, driving competition among production houses like Knoll and Herman Miller. Chairs took centre stage, with designers working tirelessly to push the boundaries of innovation. This era, spanning from Post-War to Pop, witnessed chairs becoming as iconic as movie stars, with designers mastering the art of creating buzz to propel production forward.

While author Cara Greenberg coined the term "Mid-Century Modern" in 1984, pinpointing the 1950s as its zenith when defining Mid-Century Modern chairs proves more elusive. Attempts to confine this pivotal era within a timeline, from the Eames' ply experiments to Gio Ponti's 'Super Leggera,' defy the spirit of boundless creativity embraced by designers of the time.

20th Century Design Classics Available at Auction

Five Designers who Define Midcentury Modern

1. Charles and Ray Eames

Renowned for their iconic reinterpretation of the 19th-century club chair, the Eames Lounge Chair 670 and Ottoman 671 stand as a testament to their quest for refuge amidst the pressures of modern living, drawing inspiration from the comforting embrace of a baseball glove. Among collectors, the first 200 editions hold the highest esteem, with their original glove leather cushions filled with feather and down. While almost impossible to come by, collectors live in hope. Originally crafted from five layers of plywood, the design evolved over two years, undergoing countless tweaks before reaching its final form. Notably, variations exist between productions by Herman Miller and Vitra, adding nuance to the collector's discernment.

The Eames 670 Chair and the 671 Ottoman. Image courtesy Vitra.

Eames' pioneering work with plywood extends beyond furniture, with their ply sculptures commanding high prices in the market. Occasional glimpses of their early endeavours for Evans Products Company surface, such as the Child's Chair from the initial sell-out production run of five thousand in 1945, where you can see a faint brush of the aniline red. It's worth noting that without iconic pieces like the Child's Chair or the acclaimed LCW (Lounge Chair Wood), heralded as Time Magazine's "design of the century," the landscape of design might have been vastly different. LCW's versatility was showcased in an exhibition dedicated to Charles Eames, thrown into a tumbling drum to demonstrate its flexibility and innovation.

2. Hans J Wegner

Wegner’s most famous chair’ The Round One’ JH503 is also his most minimal. This elegant curved design consists of eleven pieces of wood, with an arm that wraps around the sitter without a screw in sight. It evolved after the rattan that wrapped around the joints at the back of his 1949 JH501 was removed when Wegner perfected the wedged zigzag tenon that replaced the joins a year later. The cleaner version became the chair du jour after it was chosen to seat Kennedy and Nixon in the famous televised debate of 1960 that won Kennedy the presidency.

Hans J Wegner with a selection of his designs.

His sculptural ’Valet Chair’ JH540 has become an item collectors tend to jump over each other for. A four-legged model was designed in 1951 after Wegner told teak monkey designer Kay Bojeson he was finding it difficult to keep his clothes pristine when travelling. After seeing it exhibited at the Museum of Arts and Crafts the King of Denmark ordered one, but Wegner was dissatisfied with the way his jacket sat with four legs so made the king wait until he had created the more anthropomorphic and iconic three-legged version two years later.

Wegner used pine with a teak inlay and teak seat to show King Frederik IX what could be done with a humble fabric and one that had played such a huge part with the Royals. It was the former King Christian XI that suggested the Thai royals supply Denmark with teak at a very reduced rate in return for high quality Danish goods and services. This moment would have a huge impact on design the world over as teak became the material to use. Look for the underside branded with Johannes Hansen/Copenhagen/Denmark.

Other notable chairs: Peacock chair, Papa Bear chair

3. Finn Juhl

Finn Juhl’s refusal to comply with Kaare Klint and Borge Mogensen’s standardised measurements for furniture in Denmark coupled with his partnership with master craftsman Niels Vodder, yielded the most coveted midcentury chair to date. Expressive and organic, The Chieftain chair stripped away upholstery to the bare minimum, embracing a stick insect-like simplicity at a time when lounge chairs still came with springs and horsehair.

The chair earned its moniker after a journalist attempted to dub it "The King's Chair" upon witnessing the King of Denmark seated in it. Juhl, inspired by ancient tribal weaponry, insisted it be named The Chieftain's Chair. Authentic pieces bear Niels Vodder's inscribed signature, with only 70 crafted and purchased for Danish embassies worldwide. In the book,100 Midcentury Chairs, Hans Henrik Sorenson, co-founder of Onecollection, the current producer of Juhl's furniture, advises favouring a Soren Horn production over a Niels Roth Anderson one. Notably, the Chieftain in Finn Juhl's personal collection features four leather buttons.

 Other notable chairs: Poet Sofa, 45 Chair, Spade Chair

4. Arne Jacobsen

The story of a chair is as important as the chair itself. If you happen upon an original Ant 3100 from 1952 that can prove that its provenance goes back to the cafe of the pharmaceutical company Novo, or a Seagull 3208 that was designed for The original Danish National Bank commission or the Egg 3316 and Swan 3320 in duck egg blue that the king of the stackables created for Room 606 in the SAS hotel in Copenhagen, then you are onto a winner. Failing that go for the earliest production you can lay your hands on in the best condition.

Early versions of Arne Jacobsen’s Grand Prix chair, a chair that was inspired by the Eames early experiments in ply, occasionally come up for auction. The seat’s extraordinary shape was not a whim. It was designed to stop the ply lifting and strengthen the back. Equally the ridges in the legs add to strengthen their structure. One of the most coveted of dining chairs by mid-century collectors, the Grand Prix, 4130, was reissued in 2014 after the production team at Fritz Hansen noticed the wooden legged award winning Grand Prix was more in demand than the newer stackable version with its metal legs.

Other Notable chairs: Egg, Swan, Ant

5. Eero Saarinen

Anyone flying into JFK airport should spot the TWA centre designed by Eero Saarinen. Inside you can even sit on his Womb or Tulip chairs. The Womb 70 was all about comfort and pleasing his friend Florence Knoll who wanted a chair that was like a basket full of cushions she could curl up and read a book in. The Tulip 151 was to make room for the legs of you and your guests and create a piece of space age sculpture in a room.

Eero Saarinen in his Womb Chair. Image Courtesy Yale University Library.

Joking that he wanted to wipe Herman Miller (his old friend Charles Eames production house) off the map, Saarinen drew on his early training as a sculptor, tirelessly modifying his Tulip with its lacquered fibreglass shell seat on its aluminium stem, working with clay with both hands until he had the desired shape. Sadly, he was never able to fulfil his dream of designing a chair in one single piece which Verner Panton achieved in 1960 as he died fairly young from a brain tumour.

Eero Saarinen, Tulip Chair, 1940.
"The sweeping form offers endless postures and extra room for elbows, books or tablets."

Designers You Should Invest in Now

Depending on your budget, choose a chair that is important historically or as Carlo Mollino would say “fantastical”. The better the story and shorter the production line the more attractive to collectors.

Carlo Mollino

Mollino's chairs are veritable works of art. Hugely influenced by Gaudi, Dali and the Surrealists, these sculptural masterpieces are designed not only to serve a utilitarian purpose but also to captivate the eye and ignite the imagination. Among Mollino's oeuvre, the Casa de Sole or 'Pavia' side chair stands as a rare example of a design produced in any significant quantity. Despite their relative availability, they consistently achieve high prices at auction, captivating both art collectors and furniture enthusiasts alike.

Carlo Mollino, Paire de chaises pour la Casa del Sole, Cervinia.

George Nakashima

George Nakashima's reverence for wood as a medium was a spiritual odyssey. His journey began amidst the stark confines of an Idaho internment camp during World War II, where he cultivated his craft under the tutelage of master craftsman Gentaro Hikogawa. This formative experience not only honed Nakashima's technical prowess but also instilled in him a profound appreciation for the inherent beauty of wood and the craftsmanship that brought it to life.

As a former architect working with Antonin Raymond Nakashima seamlessly melded form and function. His furniture, often characterized by clean lines and organic forms, reflected his belief in celebrating the inherent beauty of wood grain and imperfections. Today, Nakashima's legacy endures, with his timeless designs adorning the homes of Hollywood celebrities and discerning collectors worldwide.

Where to Start

Research, research, research. Google lens is not always your friend. Good dealers and collectors have extensive libraries so snap up auction catalogues and well written books. The best research is often offline. Chat to dealers at fairs like Midcentury Modern® in the UK and Modernism in Palm Springs. Get tips on the screws to look for and the copies to watch out for.

Hans Wegner’s daughter Marianne Wegner tells the story of two copies of The Folding Chair that were bought for museums in Berlin and London that are missing the curved lines you should see where the chair hangs on a hook against a wall. Copying is not a new thing. Wegner’s Round chair was shamelessly plagiarised throughout the 1960s. Dyed in the wool dealers and collectors like provenance, receipts and knowing the movements from buyer to buyer of the piece. If only every midcentury chair came with a passport.

Find a Favourite Designer

Whether it’s Finn Juhl, Gio Ponti and Carlo Mollino, most people can start a collection with something they love. Soak up everything about said designer and their chairs. Get to know your favourite chair down to the last dowel or screw. Learn to date it from branding and upholstery styles like archivists do. Head to websites like design addict and enter the chat rooms. Become a member of Facebook groups that specialise in midcentury. Speak to auction house specialists who have spent years doing the research for you. They can help you build and develop your collection, and identify key pieces to look for.

Choose Chairs That Tell a Story

If you happen on an Ax by Peter Hvidt and Orla Molgaard Nielsen in its original packaging you are onto a winner with some collectors as this was an early example of the knockdown design Ikea became famous for. Without its original packaging or upholstered removable seat you may still be able to get an early example with a beautiful patina but it will never be worth as much.

Twiggy on a Le Corbusier Chaise Longue. Photographed by Bert Stern. Courtesy Condé Nast.

Proving a Jacobsen ‘Ant’ was from the original chemical lab cafe it was designed for or that David Bowie lounged on your Cameolonda Sofa will add more than gravitas when you come to sell. An Eames LCW from Evans is older and rarer than an Eames chair from Herman Miller. Know the story. To get ahead of the curve, you can familiarise yourself with the top prize winners at the following events: Cabinetmakers Guild in Copenhagen, Triennale di Milano, the Moma competition for Low Cost Design and Lunning Prize.

20th Century Design How to Collect

About the Author

More from Sotheby's

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

arrow Created with Sketch. Back To Top