Vintage 1980s American Mid-Century Modern Office Chairs and Desk Chairs
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Steelcase for sale on 1stDibs
The Michigan-based furniture maker Steelcase has a long and distinguished history, but collectors focus on its vintage office furniture and desk chairs from the 1950s to the ’70s, when, along with such companies as Knoll and Herman Miller, the firm helped define the aesthetics of American mid-century modernism.
Steelcase was founded in Grand Rapids in 1912 as the Metal Office Furniture Company, promoting steel desks and other furnishings as safer, fireproof alternatives to wooden pieces at a time when smoking in the workplace was common. Boston’s first skyscraper — the 32-story Customs House — was furnished by the company in 1915. Frank Lloyd Wright, an American architect and furniture designer whose work had a profound influence on the shape of modern life, turned to the firm in 1937 to fabricate the enameled metal chairs and desks for his Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin.
In the 1950s, when Steelcase formally adopted the name it still uses today, the company developed a sleek and functional style employing rectilinear chrome frames for glass-topped tables and upholstered seating pieces. The look is similar to that of the minimal, Bauhaus-inspired designs of Florence Knoll, another icon of furniture design who helped shape the ethos of the postwar business world.
By the 1970s, Steelcase had enlivened its styling, offering such pieces as chairs and side tables designed by Gardner Leaver, with circular bases and curving supports. As you will see on these pages, Steelcase designs offer a perfect foundation for a modernist decor, with a touch of flair.
Find vintage Steelcase furniture on 1stDibs.
A Close Look at mid-century-modern Furniture
Organically shaped, clean-lined and elegantly simple are three terms that well describe vintage mid-century modern furniture. The style, which emerged primarily in the years following World War II, is characterized by pieces that were conceived and made in an energetic, optimistic spirit by creators who believed that good design was an essential part of good living.
ORIGINS OF MID-CENTURY MODERN FURNITURE DESIGN
- Emerged during the mid-20th century
- Informed by European modernism, Bauhaus, International style, Scandinavian modernism and Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture
- A heyday of innovation in postwar America
- Experimentation with new ideas, new materials and new forms flourished in Scandinavia, Italy, the former Czechoslovakia and elsewhere in Europe
CHARACTERISTICS OF MID-CENTURY MODERN FURNITURE DESIGN
- Simplicity, organic forms, clean lines
- A blend of neutral and bold Pop art colors
- Use of natural and man-made materials — alluring woods such as teak, rosewood and oak; steel, fiberglass and molded plywood
- Light-filled spaces with colorful upholstery
- Glass walls and an emphasis on the outdoors
- Promotion of functionality
MID-CENTURY MODERN FURNITURE DESIGNERS TO KNOW
- Charles and Ray Eames
- Eero Saarinen
- Milo Baughman
- Florence Knoll
- Harry Bertoia
- Isamu Noguchi
- George Nelson
- Danish modernists Hans Wegner and Arne Jacobsen, whose emphasis on natural materials and craftsmanship influenced American designers and vice versa
ICONIC MID-CENTURY MODERN FURNITURE DESIGNS
- Eames lounge chair
- Nelson daybed
- Florence Knoll sofa
- Egg chair
- Womb chair
- Noguchi coffee table
- Barcelona chair
VINTAGE MID-CENTURY MODERN FURNITURE ON 1STDIBS
The mid-century modern era saw leagues of postwar American architects and designers animated by new ideas and new technology. The lean, functionalist International-style architecture of Le Corbusier and Bauhaus eminences Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius had been promoted in the United States during the 1930s by Philip Johnson and others. New building techniques, such as “post-and-beam” construction, allowed the International-style schemes to be realized on a small scale in open-plan houses with long walls of glass.
Materials developed for wartime use became available for domestic goods and were incorporated into mid-century modern furniture designs. Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen, who had experimented extensively with molded plywood, eagerly embraced fiberglass for pieces such as the La Chaise and the Womb chair, respectively.
Architect, writer and designer George Nelson created with his team shades for the Bubble lamp using a new translucent polymer skin and, as design director at Herman Miller, recruited the Eameses, Alexander Girard and others for projects at the legendary Michigan furniture manufacturer.
Harry Bertoia and Isamu Noguchi devised chairs and tables built of wire mesh and wire struts. Materials were repurposed too: The Danish-born designer Jens Risom created a line of chairs using surplus parachute straps for webbed seats and backrests. The Risom lounge chair was among the first pieces of furniture commissioned and produced by legendary manufacturer Knoll, a chief influencer in the rise of modern design in the United States, thanks to the work of Florence Knoll, the pioneering architect and designer who made the firm a leader in its field. The seating that Knoll created for office spaces — as well as pieces designed by Florence initially for commercial clients — soon became desirable for the home.
As the demand for casual, uncluttered furnishings grew, more mid-century furniture designers caught the spirit.
Classically oriented creators such as Edward Wormley, house designer for Dunbar Inc., offered such pieces as the sinuous Listen to Me chaise; the British expatriate T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings switched gears, creating items such as the tiered, biomorphic Mesa table. There were Young Turks such as Paul McCobb, who designed holistic groups of sleek, blond wood furniture, and Milo Baughman, who espoused a West Coast aesthetic in minimalist teak dining tables and lushly upholstered chairs and sofas with angular steel frames.
As the collection of vintage mid-century modern chairs, dressers, coffee tables and other furniture for the living room, dining room, bedroom and elsewhere on 1stDibs demonstrates, this period saw one of the most delightful and dramatic flowerings of creativity in design history.
Finding the Right seating for You
With entire areas of our homes reserved for “sitting rooms,” the value of quality antique and vintage seating cannot be overstated.
Among the earliest standard seating furniture were stools. Egyptian stools, for example, designed for one person with no seat back, were x-shaped and typically folded to be tucked away. These rudimentary chairs informed the design of Greek and Roman stools, all of which were a long way from Sori Yanagi's Butterfly stool or Alvar Aalto's Stool 60. In the 18th century and earlier, seats with backs and armrests were largely reserved for high nobility.
The seating of today is more inclusive but the style and placement of chairs can still make a statement. Antique desk chairs and armchairs designed in the style of Louis XV, which eventually included painted furniture and were often made of rare woods, feature prominently curved legs as well as Chinese themes and varied ornaments. Much like the thrones of fairy tales and the regency, elegant lounges crafted in the Louis XV style convey wealth and prestige. In the kitchen, the dining chair placed at the head of the table is typically reserved for the head of the household or a revered guest.
Of course, with luxurious vintage or antique furnishings, every chair can seem like the best seat in the house. Whether your preference is stretching out on a plush sofa, such as the Serpentine, designed by Vladimir Kagan, or cozying up in a vintage wingback chair, there is likely to be a comfy classic or contemporary gem for you on 1stDibs.
With respect to the latest obsessions in design, cane seating has been cropping up everywhere, from sleek armchairs to lounge chairs, while bouclé fabric, a staple of modern furniture design, can be seen in mid-century modern, Scandinavian modern and Hollywood Regency furniture styles.
Admirers of the sophisticated craftsmanship and dark woods frequently associated with mid-century modern seating can find timeless furnishings in our expansive collection of lounge chairs, dining chairs and other items — whether they’re vintage editions or alluring official reproductions of iconic designs from the likes of Hans Wegner or from Charles and Ray Eames. Shop our inventory of Egg chairs, designed in 1958 by Arne Jacobsen, the Florence Knoll lounge chair and more.
No matter your style, the collection of unique chairs, sofas and other seating on 1stDibs is surely worthy of a standing ovation.