The Crucible of Mid-Century Modern

Crow Island School chair

The present chair illustrates a unique moment in the history of twentieth century furniture design. This Crow Island School chair, designed by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen (with Larry Perkins of Perkins, Wheeler and Will), reflects each designer's formative past and predicts the miraculous futures they will achieve. Developed in 1939 for Eliel Saarinen’s Crow Island public school in Winnetka, Illinois, the chair utilizes both laminated ply and solid wood. The chair was developed as part of a system of furniture for the school by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen under guidelines presented by the educational director, Frances Presler. This chair is the predecessor to the seminal Organic Design chairs Eames and Saarinen created in 1941 for the Museum of Modern Art.

Crow Island School classroom. Image courtsey of the Chicago History Museum, HB-06184-B; Hedrich-Blessing, photographer

Three seating types were used in the Crow Island School. The first type is a free standing chair that graduates in size, following the physical development of the children.  The present lot is the smallest example of the three sizes. The second is a chair for older students with an attached desk mounted on a single-cast Staput pedestal base, predicting Eero's iconic Tulip chair of subsequent years. Finally, a molded plywood bench system was designed for the auditorium which, like the classroom chairs, graduates in size. In addition to the seating, a compatible square shaped table was created, allowing for use in clusters or individually with the freestanding chairs, to accommodate the progressive teaching methods practiced at the school.

Friends since their days at Cranbrook, the young Eames and Saarinen were excellent designers and problem solvers, making them an easy choice for Eliel Saarinen to task with conception of low-cost furniture that met the specially defined needs laid out by the school. Plywood has been in use for furniture design since the late 19th century; however, mass production and stronger gluing and lamination techniques were developed during the war years in an effort to limit the reliance on steel and metals, precious during this time. Eames was instrumental in the selection of this material and the project was his first use of bentwood in a commercial application. (To locate an economical producer, the designers contracted the government sponsored WPA, Works Projects Administration, to manufacture the few hundred units, as evident by the branded mark on the underside of the chair.) Saarinen, born in Finland and versed in the furniture of fellow Finn Alvar Aalto, was drawn to the sculptural potential of plywood. It is interesting to note the development of a plywood bench at the Woodland Cemetery Chapel by Eric Gunnar Asplund in 1937-1940 as it closely echoes the work by Eames and Saarinnen made at this time.

Crow Island School chair. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, HB-06184-C; Hedrich-Blessing, photographer

In analyzing the details and material of the Crow Island School chair, it is plain to see that this important chair lays the groundwork for subsequent landmark designs by Eames and Saarinen. First, the use of molded plywood in furniture design by Eames and Saarinen begins with this chair and is further explored for their award-winning system in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1941 competition, Organic Design in Home Furnishings. Dowel wood legs are also used first in this chair and are further refined with a tapered silhouette in the MoMA chair and seen in several variations by Charles and Ray Eames as bases for their fiberglass and wire chairs. The H shaped structure of the base is simultaneously used by Eames and Saarinen in the Kleinhans Music Hall chamber room chairs of 1940 and is found in many variations of Eames furniture bases. Finally, the overall spirit of integrated, organic design and inventive furniture had its impetus at Crow Island and defined the innovative aesthetic of both designers for the rest of their careers.

Furniture, and especially chairs, interest me because it is a piece of architecture on the human scale…That’s why architects design furniture—so you can design a piece of architecture you can hold in your hand.

—Charles Eames