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Why Does Everyone Love the Womb Chair?

An icon of the 20th century, the 75-year-old Knoll staple may always feel ahead of its time.

three womb chairs

"Mid-century modern." The label may refer to designs that date back as far as the 1940s, but countless examples remain as popular as ever — few more so than the Knoll Womb Chair. Created by Finnish-American designer Eero Saarinen, the Womb Chair came out 75 years ago in 1948. And yet, it remains a coveted piece of furniture among homeowners with a penchant for futuristic flair. So why does this oddly named chair that’s now been around for three-quarters of a century still feel so fresh?

The Birth of the Womb Chair

Florence Knoll, cofounder of Knoll Associates and an acclaimed designer herself, wanted a new kind of chair: a “basket full of pillows” she could “curl up in,” the Knoll website reads.

"What I find interesting is just challenging the idea of what's comfortable and how a person can sit," says Amy Auscherman, Director of Archives and Brand Heritage at MillerKnoll. “You know, this is the late forties, and Florence prompted that exploration and then tapped into her amazing Rolodex of the best designers of the time.”

At the top of that Rolodex was Eero Saarinen. Knoll was a mentee of Saarinen’s father, the architect Eliel Saarinen, so she and Eero were "almost siblings" who "grew up together," says Auscherman. "I love the convenience of [Knoll saying], ‘Hey, Eero, what would a lounge chair look like from your brain?’"

florence knoll and eero saarinen at a table with a design prototype
Florence Knoll looks on as Eero Saarinen shows progress on another eventual Knoll icon, the Pedestal Collection.

To fulfill his friend’s request, Saarinen reexamined what sort of shape a chair could take on by utilizing molded fiberglass-reinforced plastic, a then-new technology born out of the Second World War.

Would the chair exist today were it not for the innovation in materials brought about by the conflict? "Full stop, no," says Auscherman. "That shape was totally enabled by the material itself."

To really understand the Womb Chair, however, you need to go back several years, long before Knoll made her famous request.

A Tale of Two Chairs

Saarinen studied at Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art, where his father was president and Florence Knoll was a student. There, he teamed up with another student, Charles Eames, to create a chair for the Museum of Modern Art’s Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition in 1940.

organic chair
The Organic Chair laid the ground for both Saarinen’s Womb Chair and the Eames Lounge.

Their design, later known as the Organic Chair, took first place in both the chair design and living room categories. It was sculpted in an organic shape from molded plywood, and you can see the seeds not only of Saarinen’s Womb Chair but also its eternal rival: the Eames Lounge Chair, designed for Herman Miller by Charles and Ray Eames and released almost a decade later in 1956.

"Saarinen kind of went more into the plastics realm with fiberglass and the Eameses really perfected the 3D-plywood-molding process," Auscherman says. "I think the legacy of both lounge chairs really lies within that first collaboration between Saarinen and Eames for the MoMA competition. Then they both would take their ideas and execute them in different ways for different companies."

A New Era

In 2021, Knoll was acquired by its longtime competitor Herman Miller, creating the new company MillerKnoll and transforming the Womb Chair and the Eames Lounge from rivals into siblings.

"You put those two chairs in a room together and it looks cool and it works, right?" Auscherman says. "Obviously they're very different, but they share a sensibility and a DNA that aesthetically also works well."

eames chair
The Eames Lounge Chair and Womb Chair make for a perfect pair.
Herman Miller
womb chair

But just because the Womb Chair has a new owner, that doesn’t mean we should expect big, sweeping changes to its design. "I think very simply it's a great design and … I think it also sort of recalibrated people's perceptions of what is comfortable or beautiful," Auscherman says. "There's little to improve on."

The partnership with Herman Miller does offer up some tantalizing new possibilities for the Womb Chair's future — mainly through the use of new materials such as vegan leather, as seen on a custom one-off chair made for its 75th anniversary, or fabrics previously exclusive to the Herman Miller archive.

"I know at one point we will see a Womb Chair in an Alexander Girard textile," Auscherman says, referring to one of the great textile designers of the 20th century.

New materials and collaboration with iconic mid-century designers? Meet the new Womb Chair, same as the old Womb Chair.

Knoll Womb Chair



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Gear Patrol

A version of this story first appeared in Gear Patrol Magazine. Learn More.

Johnny Brayson is Gear Patrol's associate home editor.
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