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Many a rendition from the fabled Eames design duo must feature among the most iconic designs of the 20th century. Throughout the years, these iconic designs have endured in production until now thanks to the efforts of Herman Miller. The story behind the chairs really is remarkable. In the early 1940s, when Charles Eames was working at MGM set designs in Hollywood, he and his wife Ray experimented with wood-molding techniques that have since produced profound effects on the design world. They had been molding plywood in their apartment with what they affectionately called the “Kazam Machine,” which essentially pressed thin sheets of wood veneer against a heated membrane inflated by a common bicycle pump.
Their discoveries at the time led to a commission from the US Navy to develop plywood splints, stretchers and glider shells—molded under heat and pressure—for the military during World War II. After the war, Charles and Ray applied the technology they had developed to making affordable, high-quality household chairs that could be mass-produced using curved plywood instead of then-typical cushioned upholstery. When they found that the wood could not necessarily withstand the stresses that occurred where the chair seat and back met, they abandoned their original single-shell idea in favor of separate molded plywood surfaces for the seat and back. The process resulted in more efficient use of materials, reduced weight, sleeker design and greater comfort — and the Eames chair inadvertently became the basis for modern furniture design.
Abundant in modernity, the Eames chair finds distinction at the MOMA, posterity in paintings and magazines, and anonymity in stylish homes, around offices, schools and random yet tastefully decorated public areas. It has also been subject to much examination, documentation, scrutiny and acclamation, and seems able to transcend trend and decade with its solid wood, unparalleled design and beautiful craftsmanship.
Molded Plywood Chairs
The Eames established their enduring partnership with Herman Miller in 1946 with the first molded plywood chairs. These have been widely acknowledged as genius, including being hailed by Time magazine as “The Best Design of the 20th Century.” The Eames’ innovative technique for molding plywood allowed them to shape wood and dramatically soften the aesthetics of hard materials, elevating comfort and improving its appearance. Low slung, snug and curved in all the right places, the Eames chair provides the utmost ergonomic support and even employs rubber shock mounts for cushioning against jarring motion. These chairs can be incorporated practically everywhere, and they have—over the last sixty-something years.
Molded Plastic Chairs
These were the first industrially manufactured plastic chairs designed for production by the Eames in 1948. Their clean, simple, comfortable design has been copied, adapted and possibly bettered, but never supplanted. They continue to exist copiously in offices, libraries, schools, universities, museums, conference rooms, auditoriums, cafeterias and community areas for their easy stacking ability, but have invaded modern homes as charming living room pieces since the late last century.
Designed with comfort-over-extended-periods in mind, these chairs have highly supportive yet flexible backs, deep seat pockets and instinctive waterfall front edges. They also come four-legged, with swivel glides, as rockers or with a wire base known as the “Eiffel”. Simple shell or armchair, the seats come in varied color and finishing. They are also proudly made in America of Eco-friendly 100% recyclable polypropylene and can be completely customized to individual satisfaction.
Lounge Chair and Ottoman
This classic icon of 20th century design remains a modern quintessential and style token of luxury. Its emergence in 1956 from the Eames Office was nothing short of revolutionary, accompanied by Charles’ appearance on Arlene Francis’ hour long Home show which later became the Today show, and a short film of its making by Charles himself. Novel design, extreme comfortability and ease of assembly were all worthy points of praise, but the tale inspiring its origin decidedly more interesting.
A famous friend of the Eames, director Billy Wilder, had been rigging up makeshift lounges for catching naps in between exhausting film takes, and this had caught their attention. The hectic Hollywood set and their poor friend’s challenged comfort set in motion the process that resulted in the Eames lounge and ottoman — their comforting solution to a harried world — a lounge chair that still resembles and feels like a well-worn baseball mitt.
Incorporating American tradition, industrial innovation, comfort and a fresh approach toward materials, the Eames managed to encapsulate the spirit and concern of the age in an inanimate object by producing a chair design guided both by scientific engineering and domestic consideration, that put to rest the modern human dilemma between work and play, experiment and rest.
Exceedingly comfortable and classic, the Eames lounge and ottoman is said to better with age. Hand-assembled with great attention to detail, the chair is maintained with replaceable cushioned upholstery and interchangeable die-cast aluminium back braces and bases, resilient natural rubber shock mounts and adjustable stainless steel glides, completed by a timeless look poised to outlast generations.
Hot on the heels of its debut, Herman Miller launched an advertising campaign that highlighted the versatility of the Eames lounge and ottoman. Print ads showed off the chair in a Victorian parlour… on the porch of a Gothic-American house… in the midst of golden fields, and an Eames-produced advertisement early warned against knock-offs.
The production of countless Eames chairs, not to mention reproduction, testify to the superior engineering, intelligent treatment of materials and visionary design sensibilities of Charles and Ray Eames. Even though imitation was always an issue, the couple’s altruistic urges to make available low-cost factory-produced furniture to the masses have been satisfied many times over now.
While — ironically — the originals are now far from affordable, Herman Miller and Vitra faithfully produce a gamut of gorgeous Eames designs in the present day. The Lounge and Ottoman retails at above $4,500 USD in the U.S. and more steeply around $9,000 USD in Europe — depending on your choice of veneer and leather — but it promises to remain for future generations an heirloom classic in the history of modern furniture.
With a plethora of “vintage” and “heritage” design elements playing an ever-increasing role in contemporary fashion aesthetics, it is often easy to loosely associate visual tenants of a brand or style with a certain era, and yet far too easily pass over the rich history of both the design and designer found in each element. Passed down through the ages, there is a vast array of patterns, prints, models, and textiles that have stood the test of time and seen their way through to new applications and uses in both modern street and high fashion spheres. Likewise, the relevance and resume of some of the world’s most pioneering designers, brand founders, and prolific artists often suffers as a result of the desensitization that can come from a now surging industry. Our latest feature The 101 aims to bring to light some of the foundational components of a range of iconic design elements as well as highlighting a series of personas who have played a substantial, albeit in some cases, a less publicized role in the creation and growth of a culture and lifestyle that many of us now live.