Eames icons

Have you seen this chair?

Image courtesy of Herman Miller

I’m guessing you have.  Original models of it live in major US museums. It’s in a lot of movies.  And tv shows. And commercials.  It’s a superstar.  Owning this chair is like owning the most gorgeous sports car you can imagine.  Except you can “drive” this sports car in your pajamas while eating cereal.  It welcomes pajamas.  It will welcome you into its seat regardless of what you are wearing.  It reclines.  It is, in many people’s opinions (including mine), quite possibly the most comfortable chair you could ever sit in, which is why it also comes with a sports car price tag.  What would it take to get you into this chair today?  Approximately $5,000.  Shipping not included.

Ok.  Wait, wait!  I hear you!  $5,000 is a lot of money for one chair.  Even if it is THE most comfortable chair in the world (which I maintain it is.)  Does it help to know that most owners of this particular chair pass them down in their families as treasure heirlooms?  The chair does age really well.  No?  Well then, let’s talk about why this chair such a superstar.  Such an icon of modern design.

Image courtesy of Design Within Reach

The Eames Lounge Chair (let’s call it by its proper name) debuted in 1956.  It was designed by Charles and Ray Eames (that’s them on the left) who went on to make great strides in modern furniture design and technology.

Charles and Ray Eames became such stand outs in the world of furniture design because they used different materials to make different profiles.  Charles had worked in the steel industry and had architecture training that allowed him to see the structural needs of the furniture pieces beyond the traditional shape that was expected.  This was modern design that made many people uncomfortable in the 1950’s.  For others, it was very exciting.

Here’s an example.  If you went to high school before 1960, your school desk probably was something along the lines of desk below.

Image courtesy of craigslist.com

Okay, this desk has metal bars connecting the seat and the desk (a little “Bauhaus”-ish for you AP level design fans), but really, separate them onto wood legs and you have a desk that could make a cameo in any Dickens period drama on PBS.  Did you notice?  That little circle above the lift-up writing surface.  It’s for an inkwell!  Old school, indeed.

Now. let’s say you went to high school after 1960, ballpark age range here.  At some point in your high school or college life you probably sat at some version of this Eames desk below.

Image courtesy of twentyfirstcenturyretro.com

I’m right, aren’t I?  I bet if you really thought about it, you can still remember how this type of chair sounds as it is stacked.  That metal and plastic scraping sound.  I bet if you really, really thought about it, some of you could remember the gross-out factor of  when you discovered that someone else had stuck gum on the underside of the seat.  But seriously, this desk changed the way chairs and desks were considered for public spaces.  Many, many companies tried to copy this design.  Think about how many of us are familiar with this chair.  It is an icon.  And we can see the steel and architecture background Charles brings to the project.  The legs are just weighted enough to support many different sized people, comfortably, but everyone can lift and stack that chair.  See how the plastic back (plastic! that’s new, too!) is molded to fit the human back in a relaxed state?  You are not supposed to practice your good posture in this chair.

Image courtesy of Herman Miller

Here’s the back of the Eames Lounge Chair again. Slouching for everyone, because it’s what we all prefer to do.  While we’re here, check out how beautifully that wood is shown off.  The original models were made of rosewood, a beautiful wood, but not very planet friendly.  The company that produces these chairs, Herman Miller, now finishes the wood sections from sustainable forests.

Here is another  reason why Eames design is so iconic:  It is fun.  Really fun.  At a time when a huge, youthful generation of mid-century Americans were discovering backyard grills and how to use a patio to entertain, Ray and Charles Eames embraced the colorful party of it all.  The coat rack below is called the “Hang It All”.

Image courtesy of Herman Miller

That is a fun little play of words for a furniture store to market to people who want to have enough guests over to really need this coat rack.  What a cute anecdote a hostess can share with her friends.  Canape, anyone?

There has been a huge market for mid-century modern design in the past decade. People just can’t get enough of it.  You can argue it is new to a new generation of consumer. You can argue that the clean lines and bright colors are clearly defined for a modern world where life’s choices rarely are anymore. I think the reality is much more simple.  Eames design is perennial because it is made of classic materials, streamlined into realistic, ergonomic forms.  It can really satisfy the soul to find an item designed to perform for the way you want to live.

How about you?  Anyone out there own an Eames designed product?  Do you like mid-century design?  Any Mad Men fans out there?  Let me know what you think!

Posted on March 15, 2011, in Design Vocabulary, Designers, Furniture. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. They had a set of stamps from the post office about Eames chairs a couple of years ago. I loved them but I had no idea they were so upscale. I’m going to see if our office supplier has something similar and affordable for my office. It looks so comfortable. Do they make these in a generic/more budget-friendly style?

    • Thanks for your question, Janice! If you are looking for the Eames Lounge chair, there really is substitute for the original. As you can imagine, the Herman Miller company fiercely protects the patent for that great design.

      If you are looking for something for your office in an Eames style, you might enjoy browsing the Design Within Reach website. I’ve also seen decent replicas of Eames desk chairs at Crate & Barrel and their modern catalog “CB2”.

  2. I may be showing my age but I can remember school desks like the Eames desk you show. We didn’t have the Eames desk itself but the style was widely copied and, yes, they were much more comfortable than their predecessor with the ink wells!

  3. I have sat in many an Eames inspired chair—schools, offices, airports—-who knew?!

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