It is often referred to as organic design, but what does organic design really mean? Elliot Noyes, curator of the like-named exhibition at the MoMA in New York, defines organic design as “designing objects having structure, material and function in perfect harmony, just like it happens in nature”. Nature offers many examples of perfection, but in the furniture history we simply talk about organic design in home furnishings while referring to fluid shapes, with seamless and soft curves.

Lounge chair Lockheed, in aluminum, by Marc Newson, 1988.

A bit of history of organic design furniture, from its origins to today
Reference to organic architecture started in the 1920s and 1930s, with the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who saw it a little like the architecture of the wild prairie, capable to establish a new relationship between man and nature. Later on, another key figure in organic architecture was the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, who had a very fitting name (“aalto” in Finnish means “wave”), and was also well known for the shapes of the furniture he designed, made of curved birch wood. Before that, the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudì had left his mark on the curves of wood and architecture, thus being considered one of the main forerunners of organic architecture.

In New York, in 1940, the MoMA – Museum of Modern Art, launched a competition for furniture, lamps, and fabrics, with the theme being “organic design”. Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen won the competition, in the “living room” and “chairs” categories, with the “Organic Chair” and armchair, which later became a design icon and was showcased in the exhibition dedicated to the contest, “Organic Design in Home Furnishings“, in 1941, curated by Elliot Noyes.

Organic Chair, project by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen, 1941, manufactured by Vitra.

The list of furnishings that came out of this research on shapes and materials, and are still widespread today, is very long, and includes most of the design furniture icons, designed between the 1930s and 1950s, some of them produced only in more recent times, as they required technologies not yet developed. (Browse the gallery for product images)

The popularity of organic forms did not decline over the years: on the contrary, many designers created objects and furniture with organic forms, also supported by new technologies. Among these, Ross Lovegrove, who developed many innovative projects, for example with Moroso; Ron Arad, who created endless shapes forging metals, and offered inspiration to companies such as Moroso and Kartell to re-invent traditional objects, such as bookshelves and armchairs, into contemporary versions; Marc Newson, who designed icons for Cappellini and Moroso, and many others. (In the gallery, images of contemporary products inspired by organic design)

In recent years, thanks to the development of new technologies, some artists/designers, such as Matthias Pliessnig, blend craftsmanship and technology to create chairs reproducing waves of various sizes. Others, such as Mathias Bengtsson, manage to create forms which seem impossible to reproduce, made of materials such as wood, aluminium and bronze, creating works of art thanks to the help of special softwares. And when it comes to forms which can be only made real through software, Frank Gehry, who has made of free forms his stylistic signature, is of course a prominent figure.