The Grasshopper is weird and wonderful and angular and smooth and retro and modern all at once. Of course we want to know more about it!
The original Grasshopper is attributed to Eero Saarinen and was produced by Knoll. Saarinen was an architect and designer often attributed with spearheading the modern movement alongside Charles and Ray Eames in the USA. Saarinen attended the Cranbrook Academy of Art’s Architecture studio alongside Charles Eames and future Knoll Collaborators Florence Shuster and Harry Bertoia.
The school had many ties to the Bauhaus movement, which, along with the materials shortage post WWII, informed a design ethos dedicated to producing the best designs with the least materials.
The Grasshopper was the first commercial venture by Eero Saarinen for Knoll. The design is true of the limitations of manufacturing in the late 40s. The frame uses a minimal amount of raw timber, filled in with scrap ply and flat springs. As limitations eased and technology became more available, He would go on to explore bent and undulating forms in plywood through the womb chair and 70’s series, as well as the iconic pedestal ’tulip’ chairs.
WHY WE LOVE THE GRASSHOPPER
*Their angular, architectural forms are unusual in today’s line up of curvaceous and organic minimalism, although the grasshopper is not the only chair of it’s era to explore this form and style (See below)
*The bulky upholstered form suspended in light undulating birch has a sculptural quality.
*As with Danish TV Chairs, the open (laminated) timber arms provides the comfort of an arm chair and yet ensures this style won’t dominate even small spaces.
*It fulfills a niche, managing to be bold and sculptural without resorting to ‘cold’ materiality of bent chrome and black leather.
HOW TO SPOT THE GRASSHOPPER
- Ergonomic ‘C’ shape profile – sculpted to support head in an upright position
- Tapered back in front elevation – The widest part of the chair body is the seat front, which tapers marginally to the first bend at the back of the seat. The middle back tapers further still to a narrower head rest. The side profile maintains a uniform thickness.
- Solid/Upholstered body suspended between two italic “G” forms in laminated birch
- Upholstery detail – Seat, back and headrest completed in one piece of fabric, anchored with 2 lines of buttons at each ‘crease’. Sides are piped and un-padded.
The suspended ‘C’ shaped form of the Grasshopper could be seen as a reference to Breuer’s Lounge chair of 1935. It is also evident in the work of Robin Day for Hille, at a similar time on a completely different continent.
Breuer’s forms were derived from studies on posture and the seated human figure, so it’s no surprise that other designers were also interested in the idea and reaching similar conclusions. Robin Day’s Reclining Chair is very similar to the Grasshopper, being a solid C shaped weight suspended between lighter forms. Day’s original version also featured seat/back and headrest as one form, though later versions adopted the seat as a separate form to improve manufacturing speed, precision and wear over time. Later models also showed a more curved side profile.
This chair was brought in by a client for re-upholstery and new covers, converting it from drab black canvas to plush caramel mustard. The state of the inside certainly confirmed our suspicions that the piece was from the 50s, as would the styling of the pedestal legs. But there is no documentation of a Grasshopper pedestal edition and no brand or markings. It has the C shape hallmark of a grasshopper, and the one piece seat/back/headrest. Flat piped sides and even the little soft wave in the seat profile, just like the ones from Saarinen and Day. This is why the notion of provenance becomes so important! Without it, the jury is out on who or what this guy is. Do we mind? Not so very much, he’s beautiful none the less!
IS IT A BARGAIN?
An original Grasshopper from 1949/50 is estimated at $2000-3000USD by Christie’s. As always, the exact retail value will depend on the condition & and provenance of the piece.
At that ‘resale’ price, if you already own a Grasshopper, you can have it completely refurbished and still stand to make a profit. Do note that it’s always hard to guess a future buyer’s desires and intentions. Some will prefer the original upholstery no matter how threadbare. It’s much more fun to think about refurbishing it in something that will place it at home in your own space! Over the years grasshoppers have been re-upholstered in everything from original worsted wools to heavy cut velvets and even a little 80’s rainbow geometry. The next owner can always have it re-upholstered in something more ‘authentic’ if they truly wish!
Modernica recently began licensed re-productions of the Grasshopper, and you can snag a new version for $1495 USD. If you own an original you can have it completely refurbished by MAAIKE in the original upholstery techniques for a similar price, and have your pick of upholstery fabrics. Knoll Textiles still offer iconic fabric designs from the 50s and 60s, or you might think of plush Italian velvets in retro tones to add a layer of softness to this angular form.
SOME THINGS TO THINK ABOUT
If you’ve spotted an original grasshopper for less than $1200, be sure to do your due diligence!
- Structural Stability – When possible check frames by applying slight pressure to arms and shifting side to side. Loose joints can be fixed, but split timber may need complete replacement.
- Laminate condition – Are those arms starting to split and separate? This can indicate prolonged time outdoors, exposure to rain and/or strong sunlight, all of which can affect the structural stability of your frame.
- Provenance – can the seller prove it’s an original Saarinen? The grasshopper developed from a school of thought and exploration around functionality and minimal materials. Saarinen worked alongside plenty of iconic names and no doubt plenty of others pursuing similar directions. The age of the upholstery fabric can be key to dating an unlabelled piece.
- Padding – does this piece look ‘puffy’ or ‘bloated’? Thin, streamlined forms are essential to this style of mid-century modern piece. Upholsterers in the 80s and 90s were prone to overstuffing these designs in the pursuit of comfort. Your tubby armchair might be hiding model bones! Be sure to visit an upholstery with a strong understanding of Mid Century Modern aesthetic and techniques to be certain you’re going to achieve the most authentic revival!