The pioneers of furniture design

December 14, 2022

In response to major social changes, the aftermath of wars, and technological innovations, 20th century design was born. Through the innovative eye of some designers, furniture became more than just a practical form, it became a form of art, and their designs still inspire many today. While it’s difficult to limit ourselves to just five names, let us take a look at the leading furniture designers who not only made bold creations in their time, but also developed iconic styles that defined an era and beyond.

Le Corbusier

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, was a Swiss-French architect, designer, painter, urban planner, writer, and one of the pioneers of what is now regarded as modern architecture. His groundbreaking ideas were sometimes met with criticism, but he also revealed designs that shaped modern architecture. Towards the end of the decade in 1928, he presented the LC4 recliner, believing that furniture should be “extensions of our limbs and adapted to human functions.” Le Corbusier also laid a foundation for the theory of proportion and design that is now part of the basic studies of every architecture student.

Exhibition of furniture by Le Corbusier, Van der Rohe, Rietveld and others in the Bouwcentrum in Rotterdam

Arne Jacobsen

For more than half of the 20th century, Arne Jacobsen’s ideas shaped the Danish design landscape, making Scandinavian design known worldwide and influencing architects and designers around the world. With an eye for detail, he worked on architectural projects that also included elements of interior design, creating visionary minimalistic and functional concepts. Most of his famous furniture designs such as “the Ant”, “the Swan” and “the 7 Series” chairs were originally designed for architectural projects. During his lifetime, Arne Jacobsen received several prestigious awards and was a professor at the Royal Danish Academy for 11 years, influencing an entire generation of Danish architects.

The Swan chair designed by Arne Jacobsen in the Danish modern style in 1958 for the Radisson SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen

Charles and Ray Eames

Charles and Ray Eames were an American husband and wife team of industrial designers who made a significant historical contribution to the development of modern architecture and furniture. They were graphic and textile designers, architects and filmmakers, and best known for their iconic chairs that changed the way we think about modern furniture. Their mission statement was bold and simple: “We want to make the best for the most for the least.” Over the course of their careers, Charles and Ray Eames were honoured with many prestigious design awards, including the British Royal Gold Medal and the American Institute of Architects’ Twenty-five Year Award, and in 1985, the Industrial Designers Society of America awarded the Eames “The Most Influential Designer of the 20th Century.” Charles Eames continued his prolific career until his death in 1978. Ray Eames passed away in 1988, ten years to the day after Charles.

LCW (Lounge Chair Wood) by Charles and Ray Eames, designed 1945-46, molded plywood, teakwood veneer, rubber shock mounts

Charlotte Perriand

Charlotte Perriand was a French architect and designer whose goal was to create functional living spaces, believing that better design would help create a better society. Her groundbreaking designs shaped the 20th century and her modern ideas are reflected in the way we live today, from the use of materials to her belief that good design is for everyone. Charlotte Perriand was born in Paris in 1903 and studied at the Ecole de l’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs. In 1927, Le Corbusier rejected her application for a position in his studio, writing, ‘We don’t embroider cushions here.” Perriand didn’t give up; she gained the attention of Le Corbusier’s partner Pierre Jeanneret, who persuaded him to reconsider his decision. She was hired, and her collaboration with Le Corbusier resulted in some of the era’s most iconic designs, including the LC4 chaise longue. In a career spanning three-quarters of a century, she has designed buildings, furniture, interiors and decorative objects, completing projects in Brazil, Congo, England, France, Japan, French New Guinea, Switzerland and Vietnam.

Charlotte Perien, photo by Robert Doisneau, January 1991

Marcel Breuer

Marcel Lajos Breuer was a Hungarian-born modernist architect and furniture designer. At the Bauhaus, he designed the Wassily Chair and the Cesca Chair, considered by the New York Times to be some of the most important chairs of the 20th century. Breuer often collaborated with other designers and developed a thriving global practice that earned him a reputation as one of the most important modernist architects. During his time at the Bauhaus, he revolutionized the modern vocabulary with his tubular steel furniture. His early designs – inspired by bicycle construction and made with the techniques of local plumbers – are among the most influential and important of the modern movement.

Isokon reclining chair, designed by Marcel Breuer, Isokon Furniture Company, London, 1935, bent laminated wood and plywood – Museum für Angewandte Kunst Köln – Cologne, Germany

As interest in mid-century design has grown, several of the designs have been reissued – and the work of the talented designers mentioned above is beginning to receive more attention than ever before.