Organic design

What is organic design?

Organic design, like organic architecture, has the philosophy of bringing man closer to nature and creating a harmonious relationship between man, nature and the object. In this sense, it descends from a design that can be considered “intuitive”, as opposed to the rationalist design advocated by the Bauhaus School in the 1920s.

The precursor of organic design is the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) who built no less than 500 buildings during his career. Ahead of his time, Frank Lloyd Wright popularised the “prairie” style and later a new type of house, the “Usonian” house. His aim was to integrate the house into its natural environment, a clear break with classical European architecture. The quintessence of the organic style, the famous house on the Cascade (1936-1939) built for the businessman Edgar J. Kaufmann is an architectural achievement in perfect symbiosis with nature and its elements.


The Fallingwater House, Mill Run, Pennsylvania, 1936-1939. The architect chose to place the house above the waterfall so that its inhabitants would “live” connected to the natural element.


The House on the Waterfall 1936-1939. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright. When architecture integrates with the landscape and its elements.

Before really taking off in the 1950s and achieving international success, organic design really originated in Scandinavia, a country where the inhabitants have an intimate understanding of nature and where craftsmanship, particularly with wood, is a deeply rooted tradition. Three Scandinavian designers embody organic design: Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) the Finn, Arne Jacobsen (1902-1971) the Dane, and Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) the American of Finnish origin.

In the 1930s, Alvar Aalto wanted to abandon the overly “cold” and rigorous design of the Bauhaus. After establishing himself as a remarkable architect, he founded the company Artek with his first wife Aino Marsio in 1935 and developed his taste for organic forms. This is the case with the world-famous Savoy or Aalto vase from 1936. The sinuous contours of Finnish lakes directly inspired the designer to create this piece. The name of the vase is also a nod to the designer, since “aalto” in Finnish means “the wave”.


Savoy Vase, design by Alvar Aalto, 1936.

An aesthete at heart, Alvar Aalto rejected the rigid geometric forms inherited from the European avant-garde at the beginning of the century, and the progressive use of metal tubes in furniture revolted him. At the same time, his near-compatriot Eero Saarinen, architect and designer, son of architect Eliel Saarinen, one of Finland’s leading architects who moved to the United States in 1923, popularised Scandinavian organic design in the United States.

In contrast to European countries, the United States was not very receptive to the rational aesthetics of the Bauhaus, particularly under the impetus of the “Streamline” style put forward by Raymond Loewy(link to design-market website). Saarinen came to prominence in 1940 when he won a competition organised by the MoMA entitled Organic Design. Together with his colleague Charles Eames, an American designer who had already collaborated with Eero Saarinen’s father, they won the prize in the chair design category (but also in the living room category) with the famous Organic Chair, which has become an icon of the organic style and is now published by Vitra.


Organic Chair, 1940. Design Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames. Publisher: Vitra


The Organic Chair, published by Vitra, in its Organic Highback version, an armchair version with a high back. Design Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames, 1940.


View of the Organic Design in Home Furnishings exhibition organised by MoMA in 1941 on the basis of the 1940 competition. In the foreground you can see the Organic Chair and the Organic Highback armchair.

TheOrganic Chair, and even more so its little sister, theOrganic Highback , are a perfect definition of organic design: loose, supple forms that allow for comfortable seating. In 1948, Charles Eames and his wife Ray created another iconic piece of organic design simply called The Chair. The seat, inspired by the sculpture Floating Figure by the French-born American artist Gaston Lachaise, allows you to sit in a variety of ways, from sitting to lying down.


The Chair, designed by Charles & Ray Eames, 1948. Now published by Vitra.

In the same vein as La Chaise, the Eames went on to produce a large number of models using plastic, which have since become international design bestsellers, such as the DAR, DAW, or DAX seating models in 1950.

In the same way as the ample forms and ‘sculptural’ work of La Chaise, the Italian designer Arieto Bertoia, known as Harry Bertoia (1915-1978), who became a naturalised American, designed another icon of organic design for the furniture publisher Knoll in 1952: the Diamond Chair. The designer likes to say that his chairs, and in particular the Diamond Chair, “are traversed by space”.


Diamond Chair, design by Harry Bertoia for Knoll, 1952

The 1950s saw the triumph of Scandinavian design, which placed well-being and the human being at the centre of its concerns. Eero Saarinen and especially the Danish designer Arne Jacobsen (1902-1971) definitively move away from rigid geometric forms and practice an organic design that favors curved and enveloping lines.

Arne Jacobsen is often considered one of the fathers of organic design. Influenced at the beginning of his career by the “Streamline” style, he closely followed the work of Saarinen and Eames and then proposed his vision of organic furniture in the early 1950s. We owe him a great design classic: the Ant chair(Myre, model n°3100). Distributed by the Danish manufacturer Fritz Hansen, this seat, as its name suggests, evokes with remarkable simplicity the body of an ant. It is a technical feat as the seat is made from a single sheet of plywood.


Black Ant Chair, design by Arne Jacobsen for Fritz Hansen, 1952.

The organic “Jacobsen” style subsequently became cosy and perfectly illustrates a concept specific to the Danes, Hygge, which in the Scandinavian spirit combines the qualities of a very special object, both soft and comfortable. In 1957-1958, Arne Jacobsen created the Cygne armchair(Cygne, model no. 3320) and in 1958 the Egg armchair . Both pieces were designed to furnish the lobby and reception areas of the Royal Hotel in Copenhagen.

Jacobsen designed simple, functional and elegant pieces, combined with comfortable materials. A unique organic design vision for which he was known.


Arne Jacobsen, Swan Chair, 1957-1958


Arne Jacobsen, Egg armchair, 1958

The Danish designer designed a set of furniture and seating for one of the rooms in the Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, suite 606, including the Cygne and Egg models. This room still exists, and is the only room in the hotel that has never been restored since..


Suite 506 of the Royal Hotel in Copenhagen with furniture and seats designed by Arne Jacobsen.

written by François Boutard