erman Miller and Knoll are giants in the world of furniture and office design. New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, more famously known as the MoMA, is one of the most prominent museums in the world. The fascinating history of these three iconic companies is intertwined throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. One could even argue that some of the mid-century modern, classic furniture that we know today would not exist without the MoMA.
In the years following World War II, there was a desperate need for budget-friendly furniture that could be used in the small, low-cost housing units that were popping up at the time. Enter the MoMA. In 1948, they announced that they would be hosting an International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design. Designers from all over the world presented thousands of submissions. Once the contest closed, the final exhibition showcased various prototypes of chairs made from metal, papier-mâché, and plastic. Charles and Ray Eames submitted their now famous Shell Chair, at the time made of stamped steel, and earned second place in the contest’s “Seating Units” category. However, shortly after, they determined that there was a cheaper way to manufacture the chair. Thus, the fiberglass version of the Shell Chair was born, and it went on to become the economical, yet resilient and versatile design that is still synonymous with Herman Miller all over the world today.
However, this was not Charles Eames’ first brush with the famous MoMA. In 1940, he and good friend, Eero Saarinen created a collection for the MoMA’s Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition. Charles and Ray also gained the attention of the museum’s director of Industrial Design with their molded plywood chairs. Charles was subsequently invited to host another exhibition at the MoMA, this time a “one-man show” that ultimately connected him to then-president and founder of Herman Miller, D.J. De Pree. Now one could say the rest is history, but that is only the beginning. In the 1970s, the MoMA hosted Charles Eames: Furniture from the Design Collection and gave over 50 Eames pieces a permanent home at the museum. These include the Eames Side Chair in 1969 and the Eames Armchair that followed shortly after in 1971. The MoMA’s director of the museum’s Architecture and Design Department, Arthur Drexler, said “[Charles Eames] has influenced furniture design in virtually every country, and his mastery of advanced technology has set new standards of both design and production.”
Throughout the years, the MoMA continued to recognize numerous MillerKnoll designers and architects. In 2016, the museum hosted an exhibition titled, How Should We Live? Propositions for the Modern Interior. It explored “the evolution of interior design in domestic, commercial, and cultural environments from the 1920s to the 1950s.” The exhibition featured a full-scale replica of Knoll’s original 1948 showroom. A showroom that Florence Knoll had a hand in bringing it to life. Upon Florence Knoll’s death in 2019, the museum paid tribute to her design career with an exhibition showcasing some of her most renowned furniture designs. It also included archival documents, photographs, and samples from Knoll Textiles, which she personally founded in 1947.
Other notable MillerKnoll designs that live in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection include, but are not limited to, the Herman Miller Aeron Chair, Knoll’s Cesca and Wassily chairs designed by Marcel Breuer, the Brno and Barcelona chairs by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; and the Hat Trick chair designed by Frank Gehry.