A Taste for Coconut
An excerpt from a serendipitous tale of design provenance, starring a pair of vintage Coconut Chairs with a cameo by an influential California modernist.
Written by: Brent Lewis
Foreword by: Amy Auscherman
Over the years, I’ve received many emails from curious people asking for any “receipts” in the Herman Miller Archives that help tell a story about the piece of George Nelson- or Eames-designed furniture they’ve picked up at auction, a garage sale, or in the back corner of an antique store. They want to know exactly where (usually Michigan) and when (mid-century, most likely) a piece was made, and how much it cost when it was introduced. Most of the time, I guide them to look for product markings to help them guess a DOB for their furniture and consult our price lists, with a reminder to adjust the seemingly low price for inflation. Herman Miller just wasn’t keeping track of customer order data like that at the time these vintage pieces were produced. When I read Brent Lewis’ story about the Coconut Chairs and other Herman Miller deep cuts that lived in Craig Ellwood’s Hunt House, I was thrilled to see that literal receipts kept by the Hunts helped some Coconuts find their way back to their original beachside home in Malibu. With Herman Miller relaunching the original Nelson Office design in a new, more sustainable shell material and more extensive upholstery options, we're thrilled to share the story with WHY readers.
Amy Auscherman, Head of Archives and Brand Heritage at Herman Miller
Coconut Lounge Chair advertisements designed by Irving Harper and Don Ervin for George Nelson Associates, 1956.
Quite the Pair
The Coconut Chair could also come with an ottoman, and I have seen many nice sets over the years. That said, it’s a chair unburdened by the responsibility of one, unlike, in my view, the Eames 670/671. To see the Eames Lounge Chair without an ottoman seems almost unnatural – at once vulnerable and naked. Not so with Coconut, which sits proudly and quite comfortably alone. There are some chairs where one is enough, but the Coconut Chair is strong with a mate, which I attribute to the compositional effect provided by two in proximity to each other. As each ascends upwards at the top of the backrest, negative space is created between them, echoing the form of the chair itself. When photographed well, this has an enthralling effect.
Simple, but Far from Plain
It’s worth considering that as far as chairs go, few are as simple as the Coconut. It really has the appearance of one fluid gesture, which aside from the angularity of the seat’s edges and legs, gives it a quite elegant overall appearance. If you study its form as if it were sculpture, you see how balanced it is. As one moves around the chair, it moves with you, always submitting its supple curvilinear shapes, while simultaneously confounding the organic quality with a geometric rigour. It’s really a perfect chair.
Craig Ellwood’s Hunt House (1955–1957) in Malibu. Photo © Marvin Rand; courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
But back to the invoice itself that kicked off this particular story ... As invoices go, it included all the usual details you’d find, including the name of the purchaser at the top: Craig Ellwood, one of the foremost proponents of mid-century modern architecture on America’s West Coast.
Intrigued? Continue reading on Design Miami.