There’s nothing like the feeling of being ensconced in big cushy chair, with your knees pulled up and softness all around – that’s something that Florence Knoll knew when she asked legendary designer Eero Saarinen to design a chair for her. The product of his innovative design skill was the womb chair, which has become an iconic mid-century classic.
Saarinen’s patented “Womb Chair” came about thanks to his collaboration with Charles Eames and their desire to mold laminated wood three dimensionally, according to the Design Museum. Saarinen wanted to create a comfortable chair that would not by like the typical rigid chair. He wanted people to be able to sit easily in a variety of positions.
While searching for a carpenter to create their model, Saarinen and Eames came across a shipbuilder who was using fiberglass, which ended up being very useful for creating complicated curves and shapes. For the seat and back of the chair they used loose cushions filled with latex foam. The Womb Chair was designed in 1946, and finally produced in 1848.
Saarinen was a Finnish-American architect, recognized for his solo work as well as his collaborations with other designers, such as Charles Eames. Probably best known for his furniture designs, Saarinen was firstly a prize-winning architect whose creations include the St. Louis Gateway Arch, the TWA terminal at JFK and the main terminal at Dulles International Airport, along with striking corporate buildings around the world.
The Womb chair was and still is produced by Knoll, a well-known high-end furniture producer, making commercial and residential lines. The Pennsylvania-based company was founded in 1938 and has the distinction of having working with designers such as Mies Van Der Rohe, Ray and Charles Eames, and Marcel Breuer, in addition to Saarinen. More than 40 Knoll pieces are part of the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The piece is also interesting for its role in the acceptance of modern furnishings. In 1959, the Womb chair landed on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, when the famous Normal Rockwell included it in one of his iconic cover paintings. In an analysis of the painting The Magazine Antiques says that the image “encapsulates the complicated public reception of modernism in the 1950s.”
“If Rockwell’s magazine cover represents the domestication of Saarinen’s chair, it marks the final phase in a decade-long project of convincing post-war consumers to buy this furniture,” says the magazine. It goes on to say that early in the 1950s, furniture buyers were afraid of modernism because of the new designs and unfamiliar materials.
In that era, magazines tried to sell the public on the new style of furniture by focusing on simplifying life and opening up the space in new, small suburban homes – ironically still topics of great interest today.
Eventually, Saarinen’s pieces acquired a cult status and the public didn’t need any more convincing to buy his chairs, which epitomized “uncluttered serenity,” says The Magazine Antiques.
Buying an authentic womb chair today can be an expensive proposition – the Knoll-made models cost around $1,000. Yes, you can buy cheaper versions of the womb chair, but if you read comments across the internet, it’s “buyer beware” as with most knock-offs. If you’re buying a used or vintage womb chair, there are a few details you can watch out for to help identify an authentic womb chair.
First, size is important. The official Womb chair dimensions are 35.5″x40″x34.’ Popular knock-offs are usually about 5 or 6 inches larger. If possible, sit in the chair to see if it feels right –and don’t buy one without having sat in the real thing first!
Another telling detail is the stitching, which should be even, neat and tight. Sloppy details indicate it’s not a real womb chair.