The Museum of Modern Art describes Eero Saarinen's Tulip chair as a "flower but also a stemmed wineglass." The iconic Mid-Century Modern chairs and their matching table are in the museum's permanent collection and received the 1969 MoMA Award. If you suspect you have an authentic Tulip chair in your collection, do some sleuthing to determine whether it was manufactured by Knoll, the only licensed maker of the chair since its introduction.
Pedestal vs. Legs
The Pedestal table and chairs, Saarinen's last major furniture design, represent his public stand against clutter. The designer said he wanted to banish "the slum of legs" that plagued the underside of tables and chairs. Saarinen licensed his Pedestal collection to Knoll from the beginning and Knoll still holds the license for authentic Tulip chairs -- the nickname assigned to the chairs due to their recognizable shape. The Pedestal collection debuted in 1958; MoMA has chairs made in 1955-56, which may be prototypes. The version of the Tulip chair with arms still meets these specific dimensions: width 26 inches; depth 23 1/4 inches; height 32 inches; seat height 18 inches; arm height 25 3/4 inches. From the first, the chairs sold well and inspired plenty of knock-offs. Measure your chair to see if it matches the ones made by Knoll.
Marks and Labels
Identifying an authentic Knoll-manufactured Tulip chair isn't as simple as flipping it over to look for a label on the bottom, although there are marks you can use to trace the chair to Knoll. The Brooklyn Museum has a chair manufactured by Knoll around 1970 with a rectangular paper label pasted to the seat under the cushion that says: "Knoll International / 320 PARK Avenue / New york, NY 10022." The label also bears the red "K" inside a circle that is the Knoll logo. The chair is unsigned and there are no other identifying marks on it. Early chairs might have the Knoll logo under the pedestal base; newer ones have a logo and Saarinen's signature. The cast aluminum base may be stamped with BR-50 or BR-51 on American-manufactured chairs. Knoll subcontracts some European manufacturing.
The Right Stuff
Tulip chairs have a one-piece molded aluminum base coated with Rilsan, a synthetic plastic coating, and are made of plastic reinforced with fiberglass, with fabric-covered foam cushions. The chairs were only made in white and black, with the exception of a commemorative platinum edition manufactured by Knoll which can be special-ordered. The signature base has never been altered and never had any sort of casters or wheels. The chairs with arms have seats and arms molded in one piece, with no seams or cut-outs.
Provenance is one means of validating original designer pieces. If the same person owned your chair from the day he bought it until you acquired it, you're in luck. If the original sales receipt is part of the deal, you can't have stronger proof. But, even without paperwork, the story of the chair's travels may reveal its meandering route from the Knoll factory to you. A carefully handled single chair or dining set will show little wear -- the furniture is fairly sturdy -- although you should expect some signs of age. Very minor scratches, nicks or slight wear along the arms or seat edge are no cause for alarm. The original fabric might still be on the cushions -- maybe even in need of no more than a good cleaning -- but the foam in the older chairs has often disintegrated.