Saarinen Womb Chair

Editorial Staff Art

  • Fig. 1. Womb chair and ottoman designed by Eero Saarinen (1910–1961) and first manufactured by Knoll Associates, New York, 1946, 1948. Tubular steel, fiberglass, with wool upholstery and foam cushion; height (of chair) 35 ½, width 40, depth 34 inches. Photograph by courtesy of Knoll.

  • Fig. 2. Sunday Morning by Norman Rockwell (1894–1978) as the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, vol. 230, no. 5 (May 16, 1959). In addition to Saarinen’s Womb chair, a fiberglass-reinforced plastic armchair designed by Charles (1907–
    1978) and Ray (1912–1988) Eames, c. 1951, is visible at lower left. Photograph by courtesy of Curtis Publishing.

  • Fig. 3. Another view of the Womb chair. Knoll photograph.

  • Fig. 4. Knoll Associates advertisement showing Saarinen’s Pedestal chair, c. 1966. Knoll photograph.

  • Fig. 5. Pedestal tables and chairs designed by Saarinen in 1955, and first manufactured by Knoll Associates, 1957. Tables: molded fiberglass,
    lacquered aluminum, and marble; chairs: fiberglass-reinforced plastic, and lacquered aluminum with silk upholstery. Knoll photograph.

  • Fig. 6. Cover of Better Homes and Gardens, vol. 30, no. 5 (May 1952) with the Womb chair at lower left. Photograph by courtesy of Meredith Corporation.

  • Fig. 7. Designs for Living photographed by Marvin Koner (c. 1921–1983) and Daniel Rubin for Playboy, vol. 8 (July 1961). Shown left to right are six designers and their furniture: George H. Nelson (1908–1986) on his serving cart; Edward J. Wormley (1907–1995) in his 5480 armchair, Saarinen in his Womb chair, Harry Bertoia
    (1915–1978) in his Diamond chair, Charles Eames in his DCM chair, and Jens Risom (1916–) standing by his U 140 armchair. Photograph by courtesy of Playboy. © 2010 Estate of Harry Bertoia, Artists
    Rights Society (ARS), New York; Charles Eames courtesy of Eames Office.

In the 1950s Eero Saarinen’s furniture designs for KnollAssociates were ubiquitous. The Womb chair and hisline of Pedestal chairs and tables appeared regularlyin shelter magazines, in advertisements, and perhaps most famously,at the end of the decade, on the cover of the May 16,1959, issue of the Saturday Evening Post (Fig. 2). NormanRockwell’s painting shows what appears to be a typical suburbanfamily on aSunday morning. The mother, twin daughters, and son,dressed forchurch and with prayer books in hand, file out of thehouse in lockstep, studiously ignoring the father, who is clearly notgoing with them. With his hair comically disheveled, wearing pajamas,slippers, and bright red robe, the father hides from hisfamily’s censure by slumping in Saarinen’s Womb chair, first designedin 1946 and put into production in 1948.

Charming and lighthearted, this image also encapsulates thecomplicated public reception of modernism in the 1950s. Atfirst glance, the Womb chair seems to suggest a daringnonconformity. The father is not only refusing to go tochurch, but his pose is excessively unbuttoned—especiallyin contrast to the marching-band formation ofthe mother and children, who not only walk in stepbut also carry their prayer books in almost identicalfashion. Modernism also seems to challenge thefeminized order of the domestic sphere. The chairallows the man of the house to escape his wife’sorder, and to indulge in his own leisure;it is a womb that shields him from his wife. (The youngboy is, notably, a bit ambivalent about his place in thisdrama. He walks in step with his mother, but his eyeslook in the same general direction as his father’s.)

Yet upon further reflection, the Womb chair’srole in Rockwell’s family drama is more nuanced.The modern house in which this scenetakes place (indicated by the plate-glass window andthe other modern furnishings, including a chair byCharles and Ray Eames in the lower left corner) is hometo both the father and the church-going mother. InRockwell’s world modernism has settled into suburbiaand has become a style that serves both the mother’spiety and the father’s stab at irreverence. We might liketo think that the father is rebelling against domesticorder, but in fact both he and modernism itself havebeen domesticated. After all, on another day, it is justas likely that the mother mightbe curled up in this chair.

If Rockwell’s magazinecover represents the domesticationof Saarinen’s chair, it marksthe final phase in a decade-longproject of convincing postwarconsumers to buy this furniture.In the early 1950s, modernism,with its lack of historical precedentsin both materials anddesign, was bound to unnervepotential buyers. In explainingthe aesthetic, magazines routinelylinked the new furnitureto discussions about simplifyinglife and opening up the newsmall houses of the suburbanlandscape. By the later 1950s,however, it was no longer necessaryto justify it. The architects,designers, and the biomorphic,irregular forms that had come to defi ne their designs hadacquired iconic status. Saarinen’s furniture was a key partof this shift in rhetoric.

The Womb chair was officially launched at Knoll Associates’New York showroom inMay 1948. Although it is partof the 70 Series—which includesan upholstered side chair andarmchair, both of which becamepopular office pieces in the1950s—its unusual shape andname has meant that the chairis usually seen as a singularobject. Made of a technologicallyinnovative molded fi berglassbase, and then covered with athin layer of foam rubber andupholstery, the chair looks likea fl at disk that has been pinchedand bent to wrap around thehuman figure.

From the time of its introduction,the Womb chair has been associated with informalityand comfort: as the New York Times explained whenthe design was fi rst introduced, it allowed for “curlingup with legs tucked under,” adding a quotation fromFlorence Knoll who described it as the “curling chair.”1Brian Lutz has documented the many confl icting storiesabout the origins of the chair’s name. What does seemclear is that the name was in use among the designer andhis collaborators throughout its development. Saarinenhimself, in what was undoubtedly a tongue-in-cheekremark, explained that “its unoffi cial name is the Womb chair because it was designed on the theory that a greatnumber of people have never really felt comfortable andsecure since they left the womb.”2 Clearly the very word womb, so different from the intimidating technical vocabularyof modern design, seems well suited to disarmingconsumer resistance: a chair that satisfi ed such abasic human need could not be all that threatening.

In the early 1950s, modernism’s newness was rationalizedin several other ways in the mainstream press. In anApril 1952 column in Better Homes and Gardens, a columnist posing as an everywoman homemaker expressedone of the standard complaints about modernism: inbreaking from the past, it seemed to eschew social propriety.Modern designers, she wrote, “have no ancestralresidues. No nostalgia. Their new houses are really designedfor a race of very young orphans of unknown parentage.With amnesia, if possible.” But the forgoing is only asetup for a narrative in which the writer ends up confessingto a surprising change of heart. No longer biasedagainst modernism’s newness, she now appreciates the factthat contemporary design allows for a liberating breakfrom precedent: “Today’s good Modern has an airy lightness, a lean, picked, bare-boned look. There is a thin, heronlike grace to it. Certainly it gives an uncluttered serenity to living that is a great relief after the last 50 years of… neo-Colonial with its arch, chintzy, revivals of coffee mills for ivy holders and bootjacks for book ends.”3

By the later 1950s, however, Saarinen’s furniture hadacquired a diff erent status, and it was no longer necessaryto argue for it. In 1957 Knoll introduced the architect’sPedestal line: the side and armchairs and assorted tables,each perched on a single lily-padlike base (Fig. 5). Theconfident pose of the designswas almost breathtaking:Saarinen had devised a slendermetal support that emerged, ina single liquid movement, froma round base (see Fig. 4). Hewas quoted in Knoll’s press release for this furniture andsubsequently in countless journals and newspapers acrossthe country, declaring, “I’ve been wanting to clear upthe slum of legs in our rooms for many years. Iwanted to make the chair all one thing again. Allthe great furniture of the past from Tutankhamen’schair to Thomas Chippendale’s have always beena structural total.”6 The designer had become anoracle, and his formalist explanation for thevalue of his work was rationale enough.

The celebrity status of this generation of designerswas immortalized in a photograph takenfor Playboy magazine in 1961 showing severalmajor designers with their creations (Fig. 7).Saarinen is represented by the Womb chair, buthe is emphatically not curled up in it, rather hashis feet placed commandingly on the ground.

Rockwell’s cover is part, albeit an irreverentpart, of this confi dent moment. It seems possiblethat modernism, and not the domestic scene,was the object of the illustrator’s joke: whiledesigners might preach and swagger, their productswere reduced to playing supporting roles inroutine family dramas. For the millions of consumerspicking up this issue of the Saturday Evening Post, these designs were no longer threateningor strange. They were as familiar as thefamily next door.

1 Mary Roche, “New Chair Offers More Relaxation,” New York Times, May 19, 1948, p. 24.

2 Quoted in Brian Lutz, “Furniture,”in Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future, ed. Eeva-Liisa Pelkonenand Donald Albrecht (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2006),p. 253.

3 Marian Castle, “I’ll Take My Modern in Moderation,” Better Homes and Gardens, vol. 30, no. 4 (April 1952), pp. 6, 9.

4 Marion Gough, “Are You Aware of the Increasing High Styleof Durability?” House Beautiful, vol. 94 (April 1952), p. 118.

5 “It’s Engineered to Speed Home Chores,” Better Homes and Gardens, vol. 30, no. 5 (May 1952), p. 62.

6 “Products: SaarinenStemware Sits Well in Today’s Architectural Space,” Architectural Forum, vol. 106 (July 1957), p. 169.

KRISTINA WILSON is the author of Livable Modernism:Interior Decorating and Design During the GreatDepression and The Modern Eye: Stieglitz, MoMA,and the Art of the Exhibition, 1925–1934. She teaches at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.