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Eero Saarinen’s Womb chair is one of his most recognised designs and was produced at the request of his boss’s wife, who wanted a chair “like a basket full of pillows . . . something I can curl up in”.
In 1948, Finnish-born Saarinen was teaching at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, US, where Charles Eames was head of the department of industrial design. The two men had become friends (Saarinen would later name his son Eames) and collaborated on several projects, the most famous of which was the design of a moulded plywood chair for which the pair took first prize in a competition run by the Museum of Modern Art in 1940.
It was at Cranbrook that Saarinen also met Florence Schust, a protégée of his father, who later married Hans Knoll. When she joined her husband’s company, she asked Saarinen to design for them.
Over the next 15 years he produced many well-known pieces, including the Tulip table and chairs, the Grasshopper chair and then the Womb at Florence Knoll’s request. While it does not quite resemble a basket of pillows, it is one of Saarinen’s most comfortable pieces. Like many of his designs, it made use of new technology. In the end, he was helped by a sceptical boatbuilder in New Jersey who was experimenting with fibreglass and resin.
Florence Knoll later said: “We just begged him. I guess we were so young and so enthusiastic that he finally gave in and worked with us. We had lots of problems and failures until they finally got a chair that would work.”
Saarinen began designing at the age of 12 when he won his first competition in 1922 for a story illustrated with matchstick pictures. The same week his father Eliel, an architect, took second place in a competition to design a tower for The Chicago Tribune newspaper.
The following year, the family left Finland for the US, where Eliel began work on a proposal for the Chicago lakefront.
Eero Saarinen continued to enter, and win, design competitions and eventually trained as an architect too. He had been taught from an early age that each object should be designed in its “next largest context” – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment and an environment in a city plan – and he would stick to those principles throughout his life.