In 1941, Elliot Noyes the curator of the Industrial Design Department at the Museum of Modern Art here in New York opened up the doors on one of his first major projects, “Organic Design in Home Furnishings. The exhibit would show for only a month and a half, but it forever changed how Americans view mid-century modern design, helping to transform it from a short-lived craze to an immortal style. The idea behind the exhibit was born a year prior, when Noyes, in his first year as the first ever curator of the museum’s Industrial Design Department, decided to hold a competition based around furniture. Inspired by his mentor Walter Gropius, and architect and the founder of the Bauhaus school, Noyes’ goal was to find the intersection between man and material, or as he put it “organic design.”
The competition, which brought together some of the design world’s biggest names, was ultimately won by Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames in a joint production between two of the most famous men to ever turn sketches into seats. The Saarinen/Eames chair was a design feat in that it looked like it hadn’t been designed at all – it was at once innovative and yet so simple that it easily could have taken straight from nature. This was Noyes’ vision come to life, and a year later when he put on the “Organic Design” exhibit in celebration of all the entries that he had received, it was a marriage of design and function.
Guests to the exhibit were encouraged to lounge around the rooms – to try out different chairs and become acquainted with the designs. The exhibit was a grand success, as it showed people just how modern design could fit into their lives, not as something to be stared out like a canvas on a wall, but as something to live in and on. What’s better yet was that for the exhibit MoMA actually paired with Bloomingdales to sell some of the pieces from the show. Attendees could not only admire the designs but they could easily walk out of the museum and head just a few avenues east to actually buy some of the pieces for their own homes. It was a partnership that would be rarely seen today, but it certainly helped solidify modern furniture as a central piece of the American home for decades to come.
(A large hat tip to Gothamist for turning me on to this exhibit.)