The Coconut Chair was designed in 1955 by the then design director of the Herman Miller furniture company, George Nelson, and immediately became a modern classic. Success should come as no surprise, as the chair’s creator is one of the most notable figures in American modern history.
The history of the Coconut Chair has its roots in early European modernism and its pioneers, including Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, Gio Ponti and Le Corbusier, whose work greatly inspired the young Nelson during his stay in Europe. Clear, simple shapes without unnecessary ornaments shaped Nelson’s future designs. A few years after his return to the US, Nelson’s potential was realized by DJ Depree, chairman of the Herman Miller company. Despite Nelson’s lack of experience in furniture design, Depree offered him a position as the company’s next Director of Design, which he accepted in 1945. Since then Nelson has provided furniture projects for the company for over 25 years, including the sensational playful design of the Coconut Chair.
As the name suggests, the chair resembles a piece of coconut with inverted colors. This tropical fruit wasn’t the only inspiration for Nelson, however. The shell of the chair is strikingly similar to the dome of MIT’s Kresge Auditorium. It is also worth remembering that the chair’s design originated in the mid-1950s, the beginning of the space race between Russia and the United States. This period in modern history, when mankind was deeply fascinated by space, was also reflected in Nelson’s designs. He firmly believed: “Design is an answer to social change.” If you look at the Coconut chair you can easily connect to the early satellites like the Russian Sputnik 1.
The chair is shaped like an eighth of a ball. However, the vertical corner is slightly longer than the two side corners. The chair lacks well-defined backrests and armrests so that the user is not prevented from adopting a wide range of positions. This feature of the design was represented particularly well by Nelson himself, who summarized the Coconut Chair as follows: “I developed the chair to offer seating comfort in the lounge and great freedom of movement.”
The chair’s lightweight shell is made of plastic that is molded in a molding process. It looks white and has a satin finish. Sitting comfort is guaranteed by a thick layer of foam rubber covered with black, supple leather. The color scheme creates an interesting, intense contrast between the white bowl and the black pillow. The chair is supported by three thin, chrome-plated legs made of curved steel rods with nylon gliders at the ends. The legs are spanned with the diagonal cross bars for additional structural strength. The balanced proportions of the chair are achieved through the geometric consistency between the three-legged base and the triangular seat pan.
The Coconut Chair is an absolute essence of modernist design. More than 50 years after its presentation, the chair has lost none of its futurism. This timeless piece of furniture still looks extravagant and fascinating and is a great, tasteful addition to any modern interior.