Mod Facade

Ringing in the New Year (1954), by Harold “Ike” Van Grunsven

We’re going retro today on Museum Bites with a tour through the Michigan History Center’s mid-century modern exhibit.  Step back in time to post-World War II when Chuck Berry rocked the airwaves, Marilyn sizzled on screen, Salk saved us from polio, and the Boomers were born.  Flush with post-war prosperity, many families migrated to the burbs and new homes with a modern flare.

Mid-century modern homes sported flat roofs, open floor plans, and lots of windows so homeowners could soak in the natural light and commune with nature.  The bulky wooden furniture of the past was cast off in order to complement this fresh, airy style.  The light and curvy Eames shell chair is quintessential mid-century mod.  Created by Charles and Ray Eames and introduced in 1950 by the Herman Miller furniture company, the shell chair was the first mass-produced plastic chair. Yes, plastic!

Eames Case Study House, by CM Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress

After developing lightweight and user-friendly equipment (stretchers, molded splints, glider seats) for the US Navy during World War II, the Eames team went back to work making furniture, particularly chairs.  In 1946, after much trial and error, they produced their molded plywood chair.  They next set their sights on creating an all in one chair, where the seat and seatback were molded into one piece.  They added 3-dimensional curves and lo and behold the shell chair was born.  The Eames experimented with various designs and materials (molded plywood, stamped metal, neoprene), but their eureka moment came when they discovered fiberglass reinforced plastic.  This light, malleable, dye-able, durable, and cost-effective wonder material was ideal for mass production.

Shell Chair, by cjverb, Michigan History Museum

The Shell Chair was designed on the principle of adaptability so that it could fit every body and any context—a chair that would be equally at home in a museum, living room, or the laundromat around the corner. ~ Amber Bravo, WHY Magazine

The Eames shell chair flew off the factory floor and into homes, schools, stadiums, laundromats, and my personal favorite, museums.  As the years rolled by, many variations were added to the Eames product line.  Buyers could choose arms or no arms, a padded or padless seat, rocker or stationary legs, plus a multitude of colors and a variety of heights.  Environmental concerns over the use of fiberglass brought production to a halt in the 1990s.  However, in 2001, manufacturing resumed and continues today with an eco-friendly (recyclable!) polypropylene shell.

Mid-century modern and the shell chair are still fashionable today.  Author Cara Greenberg, who coined the term mid-century modern, describes it best:

Paris Metro, by cjverb

[Mid-Century style] is enduring heartily into the next millennium, still defining modernism for our age. Its prototypical curve—the relaxed parabola that describes the trajectory of a rocket—was not just the cutting edge of a single decade, but an overarching form language that symbolizes the better part of a century. ~ Cara Greenberg, Mid-Century Modern Furniture (1984, 1995)

This charming clip is an excellent example of how the Eames shell chair continues to play an integral part in our everyday lives. Take a moment and enjoy…  Eames Shell Chair

Googie Architecture, by Smallbones, Wikimedia Commons

Fun Googie Facts: The term googie was coined by Douglas Haskell, to describe the futuristic architectural style inspired by and popular during the Space Age (think The Jetsons and Disney’s Tomorrowland).  He took the name from a popular coffee shop in Southern California that was designed by John Lautner, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright.  Unless you’re the Jetsons, the googie style was used to construct eye-catching businesses such as coffee shops, gas stations, bowling alleys, and motels.  Click on this link if you’d like to geek out on googie.

Next week I’ll be digging into the archives and taking you on a trip to Kristallwelten in Wattens, Austria. We’ll tour the Chambers of Wonder and learn more about crystal.


AnOther Magazine



Herman Miller



Mid-Century Modern Furniture (1984, 1995) by Cara-Greenberg

Michigan History Center

Smithsonian Magazine

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