ORGANIC DESIGN IN HOME FURNISHINGS. Eliot Noyes. New York: Museum of Modern Art, September 1941.

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ORGANIC DESIGN IN HOME FURNISHINGS

Eliot Noyes

Eliot Noyes: ORGANIC DESIGN IN HOME FURNISHINGS. New York: Museum of Modern Art, September 1941. First edition.  Quarto. Printed thick wrappers. Publishers dust jacket.  50 pp. 109 black and white illustrations. Book covers feature the iconic design of E. McKnight Kauffer. Jacket edges chipped and mildly worn. Book with a faint indent to lower edge [?]. A nice copy of a desirable catalog from this legendary competition—a very good copy in a scrappy dust jacket.

7.5 x 10 softcover book with 50 pages and 109 black and white photographs and diagrams of the winning entries in the legendary 1940 MoMA competition which introduced the furniture designs of Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen to the world. In 1940, these two Cranbrook partners stunned the judges at the MoMA competition for Home Furnishings with their Seating and Living Room designs - and  the rest is history. Important early document of the partnership that eventually spawned the much-loved designs for Herman Miller and Knoll.

A  magnificent snapshot of the way the modern movement was blossoming in the final days before the start of World War II. A very desirable title.

  • Organic Design
  • Winning Designers
  • Acknowledgments
  • A Note on the Competition
  • Outline of the Development of Modern Furniture
  • Unit Furniture
  • Chair Construction
  • Chairs by Saarinen and Eames
  • Furniture by Craig and Hatfield
  • Furniture by Nicholson and Maier
  • Furniture by Stonorov and Von Moltke
  • Furniture by Saarinen and Eames
  • Furniture by Anderson and Bellah
  • Furniture by Weese and Baldwin
  • Lamps by Pfisterer
  • Weaves by Marli Ehrman
  • Prints by Antonin Raymond
  • Latin American Designs
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Biographical Index

Artists whose work is presented in this volume: Carl Anderson, Benjamin Baldwin, Martin Craig, Charles Eames, Marli Ehrman, Roman Fresnedo, Bernard Greenberg, Xavier Guerrero, Ann Hatfield, Henning-Rees (Carolyn Rees and Henning Watterston), Carl Koch, Stephen MacDonald, Harriet Meserole, Frances Miller, Chester Nagel, Virginia Nepodal, Emrich Nicholson, Peter Pfisterer, Norton Polivnick, Antonin Raymond, Bernard Rudofsky, Eero Saarinen, Oscar Stonorov, Marianne Strengell, Hugh Stubbins Jr., Ulla of Ugglas, Julio Villalobos, Willo von Moltke, Harry Weese, and Charles Wyckoff.

In 1940, probably due to the widespread influence of his mentor Walter Gropius, Elliot Noyes became the first curator of the new Industrial Design Department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. That year Noyes organized and presided over the famous competitive exhibition Organic Design in Home Furnishings and published a catalogue documenting the results. On the inside cover Noyes set the competition terms with his definition of Organic Design: A design may be called organic when there is an harmonious organization of the parts within the whole, according to structure, material, and purpose. Within this definition there can be no vain ornamentation or superfluity, but the part of beauty is none the less great—in ideal choice of material, in visual refinement, and in the rational elegance of things intended for use.

This last statement is telling, because the competition was as much a business deal as a museum exhibit; each of the winning designers was awarded a production and distribution contract with a major American department store. The overwhelming winner of the competition was the team of Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames, taking the two most important categories --living room and chair design -- with their innovative method of anthropomorphically bending plywood.

Noyes defined design, albeit implicitly, as a matter of teamwork. The exhibition was itself a collaboration between museum, designers, and corporations, and all of the winners of the competition, with the exception of textile designers, were teams of two or more designers. More important, Noyes stressed in Organic Design not only the role of the machine in design and production but its formative impact on society as well.

Also on the inside cover, alongside his own definition of organic design, Noyes included two quotations from Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization: Our capacity to go beyond the machine rests in our power to assimilate the machine. Until we have absorbed the lessons of objectivity, impersonality, neutrality, the lessons of the mechanical realm, we cannot go further in our development toward the more richly organic, the more profoundly human. The economic: the objective: and finally the integration of these principles in a new conception of the organic — these are the marks, already discernible, of our assimilation of the machine not merely as an instrument of action but as a valuable mode of life.

Here was the central problem of design, as Noyes saw it in 1940. The chair, and the living room, were points of interface between the human and the machine. The success of that interaction hinged on the development of a newly organic —  that is, newly organized — environment, and demanded the study of the boundary between human and machine (to be defined later as ergonomics). Thus the appeal of Saarinen and Eames's designs, which expressively mapped the form of the human body onto machine-made furniture and integrated these new forms into the bright white rooms of the modern home. It was these preliminary efforts at achieving a synthetic and social approach to the mechanical and the natural—that is, of navigating the liminal territory of the ergonomic— that Noyes spent the rest of his life exploring.

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