What is an Eames Chair?

Quite simply, an eames chair could be any chair, designed by the now legendary American mid-century designer Charles Eames. The reality however is that there are some, more than others, that profess to have created that reputation, let's explore in more details.

There would be lots to choose from let’s face it, the original Eames Office was turning out furniture designs for forty years after all. Of course, it goes without saying that what makes a chair an ‘Eames Chair’ goes a lot deeper than that. Here, we take a retrospective look at what made original ‘Eames Chairs’ quite so special and which ones stood head and shoulders over the rest in creating that reputation.

If we consider that we can see the history of everything backwards, it is so much easier to imagine that everything was created equally or that everything was received equally. Those involved in the creative process will be the first to tell you that it takes ‘breakthrough moments’ to make the building blocks of success and that one thing can easily lead to another. We must consider that, whilst there is no doubting the marketability of the Eames portfolio did wonders for many years, we could and should narrow the field of vision to a handful of designs that truly forged the reputation that became known as the 'Eames Chair'.

Let us delve a little deeper and hand pick the three most defining eames chair designs, the ones that planted the very idea in one’s mind that something is not merely a ‘chair’ nor a ‘designer chair’ or even a ‘modern chair’ but an ‘Eames Chair’.

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The Eames DCM - The first 'Eames Chair' ?

 

What a difference a decade makes! Charles Eames' early struggles with the molded plywood technology were all but consigned to history following years of great effort and research, not to mention collaborative expertise from colleagues and peers. The war years had re-enforced Charles’ long held belief that the strengthened plywood could be something, and so it would be proven.

The 1946 release of the plywood furniture group would see a collection of very well thought out pieces that appealed across the board. It would also see the first indication of an Eames trait whereby various chair bases utilizing the same tops could create what was essentially variants of the same thing. The plywood group had a bit of everything, tables for dining (DTW) tables for occasional use (CTM, CTW, OTW) and chairs for lounge (LCW, LCM) alongside the chairs for dining, the DCW and DCM.

So just how did the DCM elevate itself above the other designs of the plywood group? What was so special about it? How or why would it become known as the first ‘Eames Chair’? Of course, it is safe to say none of it happened merely by accident! Let’s look at a few of the most important reasons for the rise of the Eames DCM.

Look at this 1955 snippet from a full page Herman Miller advert - the first indication of the notoriety of the DCM

Look at this 1955 snippet from a full page Herman Miller advert - the first indication of the notoriety of the DCM

We can consider the hard work, determination and endeavour of those involved in the project as a factor, can't we? Yes of course, given the success, not only with this but for the entire duration of the Eames Office, I think it is safe to say it is a given! But commitment by an inventor or a designer is a must in any project and let’s be honest, this can also be present even in ones that ultimately fail. It takes more than that and we believe the stardust of the DCM comes down to a few things namely MOMA, Herman Miller, Timing and Styling. Let's find out more.

MOMA

MOMA is the abbreviated name for the Museum of Modern Art, located on 53rd street in New York, where it is still located today. Charles had previous history with the Museum after winning prizes at an earlier design contest for ‘organic design’ back in 1940, alongside colleague Eero Saarinen. The museum bent its rules by allowing an exhibition of the brand-new plywood group, even though it could be considered commercial in nature rather than merely educational. We can thank the heavens for this relaxation of protocol as it was the kick start for the DCM and other plywood designs. It is very likely that the real need for post-war stimulation was at the heart of the decision and let’s face it, the designs were ultra-modern for the time. The three-week exhibition (13th to 31st March 1946) brought with it a huge recognition and showcased the new products to the watching world, including a rather large furniture brand.

Herman Miller

Make no mistake, Herman Miller turned around the fortunes of this furniture ‘start-up’. The war time collaboration between Charles Eames and the Evans Molded Plywood Division was moving into uncharted territory post war and Evans had zero experience in the furniture industry. Their reluctance to ‘go all in’ was somewhat hampering the ambitions of the fledgling Eames Office and help was sorely needed. Up steps George Nelson and the Herman Miller Furniture Company.

As director of design at a changing Herman Miller, George Nelson held a great deal of sway and an enormous respect throughout the industry. He introduced the Miller bosses to the works of Charles Eames at the MOMA exhibition of the new plywood furniture. As if written in the stars, the marrying together of the endeavour of the product and design, the reluctance of the Evans Company and the interest by Herman Miller was near on perfect. Miller negotiated and agreed to be the sole and exclusive distributor for the range. This is likely the single most important factor in the success of the DCM, the range and the Eames Office as a whole. Herman Miller was an established furniture giant with showrooms in many major US cities and a marketing experience at the top end of the industry, happy days!

Herman Miller would use their expertise, and indeed their faith in new design, to push the product to new boundaries. They would both create and sustain the legend of the ‘eames chair’ through clever and eye-catching marketing campaigns that elevated the piece as ‘world famous’ as ‘cutting edge’ as ‘the Eames Chair’. Adverts appeared in major periodicals of the time and sales were climbing and climbing, breakthrough had been made and the lift off to the proverbial moon was underway.

Herman Miller recognized that the DCM would ‘tick the boxes’ of customers in a changing time, a time when 18th and 19th century was still the norm. This is what prompted the marketing that portrayed it as the center-piece, the prime design. Herman Miller’s own historical records confirm this, with 1952’s sales records showing that out of 21,526 plywood group chairs sold, some 18,000 of them were the DCM.

As this 1961 Herman Miller newspaper advert shows, the Eames DCM was held in such high regard they believed it would be the one design still famous a hundred years later! Its getting there!

As this 1961 Herman Miller newspaper advert shows, the Eames DCM was held in such high regard they believed it would be the one design still famous a hundred years later! Its getting there!

 

Timing & Styling

Post second world war USA was quite different to how things were in Europe. Whilst one continent was concentrating on rebuilding, the US was striving forward with innovation and creativity in everything from furniture to the auto-car, from fashion to architecture. The timing therefore of the DCM was literally ‘perfect’. The particular Eames chair was made from materials sourced within the US and without the need for neither import nor export. It was conceptual, it was new, it was exciting, and it offered value for money, all of which are the building blocks of a successful product. Post war USA had a big vacuum of need, need for housing, for furnishing, for value and the plywood group and DCM flat out offered this.

You could argue that there were other designs in the plywood group that were more stylish, more unique and perhaps more unusual than the DCM, but that is exactly the reason for the success of the chair. As we look back on anything fashion-wise in history, things tend to get Pigeon holed into decades. But the reality is that fashion rather crawls into changes, like a rolling stone, gaining popularity as it goes. So, imagine the introduction of this range of amazing conceptual furniture designs but then consider the audience. The DCM was a bridge between the new and the old. It wasn’t made entirely of ply but combined with bright chrome, it still had simplicity and it still consisted of a more traditional four-legged approach. But it was new, and it was interesting, and it was conceptual too. The audience could see an eames chair design that they could relate too and was not entirely ‘out there’ yet still new and exciting – the Eames DCM.

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The Fiberglass Chairs - The 'next' Eames Chair

 

John, Paul, George and Ringo would go on to ‘conquer’ America with their music as part of ‘The Beatles’ during the 1960’s. Conquer in the sense that every single person, unless living a hermits life, would have heard their music or seen the mass hysteria on the television and would not go untouched by it. This is how we see the Fiberglass Chairs of Charles Eames! They were literally everywhere, in our schools, our offices, homes and hospitals. You may sit on one at the laundromat or pull one up during a lecture or conference. Rock star furniture design indeed, with us and around us through the decades, never changing but ever present. We know them because we use them, have always used them and recognize them, even if we don’t know what they are.

The fiberglass chairs were released in 1950 with the arm chair version, followed a year later with the side chair. It would prove to be a design that would keep on giving, growing and growing as each year past with seemingly no end to their practical uses and potential. By 1955 and scholastic ‘stacking’ versions had been added providing commercial, educational or governmental organisations the chance to bulk install at a fraction of the room required. The beautiful colors were quickly expanded from six to twenty size and over a dozen more commercial only choices. It would be mass production at its finest, a solid and practical product, easily made, easily distributed and eagerly embraced.

So, what was it that thrust the Eames fiberglass chairs into every room across America? Why would this chair, above any others, be just so successful? And why would it be so successful, for so long, literally decades? One may ponder this for some time, the answers of which would unlock the reasons for rise of the next ‘Eames Chair’ in the minds of all who know and see it. If we had to hazard our ‘reasonably educated’ guess, we would say it was about Versatility, Value and of course Herman Miller.

Early 1960's Herman Miller Advert for the Eames Fiberglass series with a view of comparing the beauty of the Eames Chair to that of nature

Early 1960's Herman Miller Advert for the Eames Fiberglass series with a view of comparing the beauty of the Eames Chair to that of nature

Versatility

Read the advertisements for any piece of furniture up and down the country and this is a term loosely added to seemingly everything. What does it really mean, versatility? How many ways can you sit on a chair exactly? The ability to place a chair in different parts of a room surely doesn’t add up to versatility, does it? We think not and we believe it is one of those furniture-related terms that you can throw in there to add another feature/benefit to a sales pitch. But it does exist, underneath the myriad of false pretenders and buzz-word filled sales talk, it really does, and the Eames fiberglass chairs had it in abundance.

They had flirted with it in the Plywood Group, the ability to ‘interchange’ a base in order to provide an entirely different look and feel to a chair. But the fiberglass chairs took this concept to a whole new level. Up step the traditional four-legged chair (DAX, DSX), one with conceptual ‘Eiffel’ style (DAR, DSR) even a wooden dowel base (DAW, DSW), maybe a rocker (RSR. RAR), how about to stack (DSS) or for work (PAC, PSC), lets make it a lounge chair (LAR) or a tilt and sit back (DAT). If you have caught your breath back, lets let that sink in for a minute. That’s the same top, yes, but all those bases make it an entirely different design, entirely different look, versatility at its very best. Talk about appealing to every crowd, there was literally no place that couldn’t handle an Eames fiberglass chair, all bases covered, and so it would go on to be. This winning formula would be something the Eames Office would continue, with the wire chairs and to some extent with the Alu Group, only the other way around (same base, different tops).

Value

It is more than well publicized that the whole concept of the chair revolved around them being ‘value for money’. The first versions of the chairs were made from Aluminum before the advent of the new fiberglass blend would enable them to genuinely compete on that front. The 1948 MOMA International Competition for Low Cost Furniture would be the springboard for the Fiberglass chairs, and they would be presented with some of the base options. The post war competition was setup to stimulate quality design with value in order to service the desperate need for housing and associated materials (furniture). What may be quite surprising to hear is that the Eames design only won a share of second prize, but it was a tough competition with noted designers from all around the world taking part. One thing is for sure though, the Eames Fiberglass Chairs would go on to be the flag bearer of the very intention of the competition. Made to a significantly low cost, mass produced easily and catering for domestic and commercial needs, it was the perfect design for the times.

The original and first 1950 Herman Miller advert to feature the new Fiberglass Chairs - these were leaflet style brochures provided to furniture showrooms

The original and first 1950 Herman Miller advert to feature the new Fiberglass Chairs - these were leaflet style brochures provided to furniture showrooms

Herman Miller

Make no mistake, Herman Miller was once again instrumental in the Fiberglass chairs becoming the phenomena they have. But unlike the struggles of the Evans company with the molded plywood, the chairs were initially being made and made well by Zenith Plastics, based in Los Angeles, California. Miller was once again initially utilized as the distributor, creating the advertising, the marketing and exclusively selling the pieces through their network of stores country wide.

It made perfect sense, as Herman Miller was a specialist in utilizing wood in furniture design, to use Zenith plastics as an advocate of this new fiberglass material. It also meant that Herman Miller didn’t have to put all the money in to fund the tooling, molds, research and development as Zenith would also contribute half towards the successful creation of the product.

Herman Miller acquired the full manufacturing rights from Zenith following their sale to 3M in 1955, providing for themselves the unlimited potential of realizing true mass production. They were able to manufacture the chairs in plants around the US, in Chicago, LA, Cincinnati and Michigan. This intervention was the single reason for the overwhelming success of the chair, production was multiplied by the thousands, new colors added to the range, fabrics and textiles would be available, new base types and installation possibilities brought in. Even as tastes changed into the 1970’s and 1980’s Herman Miller was still able to capitalize on commercial success through sales to hospitals, schools, businesses and government institutions.

Time would catch up on the Fiberglass chairs in the end, seeing to their discontinuation in 1989 but demand never went away. Miller renewed production in 2001 for the design but instead used an injection molded Polypropylene, something that never sat quite right with the purists. A welcome return however was made when Herman Miller announced in 2013 that they would once again make the chairs in a selection of colors from the original material, adding to the unknown quantities of vintage originals.

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The Eames Lounge Chair & Ottoman - 'The' Eames Chair?

 

The third design that defined and created the very term 'Eames Chair' needs little introduction, it is the 1956 Eames Lounge Chair and matching Ottoman.

The design was a real step away from what had come before as it was no longer constrained by the need for being of ‘value’ and for mass production at low cost. It was essentially the Eames’ first foray into producing luxury design, something that would be coveted, invested into and desired. It didn’t always start life that way though with various tales placing the roots of the design back to the early 1940’s with collaborative work in the early days of the Evans Company. It is also well worth pointing out that the finished Lounge Chair (and Ottoman) was a true collaboration within Eames Office personnel, with their go to guy Don Albinson a chief protagonist. Rumor had it that revision after revision would fall by the wayside as Charles Eames’ need for perfection was prevalent. Let’s face it, this meticulous need to strive for the very best in something really reaped reward here. The Eames Lounger is a visual masterpiece (and more) and the result of an unbelievably high amount of technical expertise.

We described some of the work of Charles Eames and the Eames Office before as ‘rock star’ design and we can certainly draw some similarities between them and those that choose a musical path for a career. The early musical artist is often bursting with ideas, foraying into new sounds and creating music that’s new, original and interesting, so much as to put them at least on the musical map. The years thereafter are often spent solidifying their image and unique sound and working towards their very best material (usually seen around the second or maybe third album). This is often followed by excellent (albeit not reaching the heights of previous work) new material, and in turn a latter career whereby they live off their earlier work. The Eames Lounge chair was that peak, the best material and rest that followed (though excellent of course) was arguably never quite as good and the furniture designs all but vanished in the later stages as Charles pursued his other artistic interests.

It pays to remember that reality during the 1950's had women as 'homemakers' and men as 'breadwinners' and 'leaders'. Advertising reflected this and Lounge Chair ads were always aimed at 'the man of the house'

It pays to remember that reality during the 1950's had women as 'homemakers' and men as 'breadwinners' and 'leaders'. Advertising reflected this and Lounge Chair ads were always aimed at 'the man of the house'

So just what was it about the Eames Lounger that thrust it into the limelight? What was it that made it even more important on the timeline of ‘Eames Chairs’ that we covered so far in this article? It goes without saying that Herman Miller was once again involved, after all they made it (and still do) but this time there was no need for them to save the day. You could say it is once again the timing, the styling, and yes you could but it's not even that. The single most important element of the success of this chair was desirability! Desirability brought about from so many angles, let’s explore more.

Desirability

The Eames Lounge Chair elevated itself into design stardom and it didn’t take long to achieve. The early sales forecasts were blown away and the design became an instant hit. But what was it that created this desirability for a new design?

Let’s start with the design of the chair itself which managed to create an emotional response from the user/viewer. This was achieved by the sheer luxury of the style, the crumpled high-quality leather and soft cushioning, all surrounded in the beautifully oiled Rosewood frame. There are age old tales of the chair being designed to resemble a ‘used baseball mitt’ although the inspiration is more likely to have come from the traditional ‘gentleman’s club’ chair. Either way, here was a chair you could place in your home or office and it literally beckoned you in and fed the subconscious with the belief that true comfort and relaxation await. What better after a long hard day at work or tough meeting than to literally ‘sink’ into this chair of modern luxury. It was desirability created by a new and modern design that managed to retain that ‘fireside’ feel but in the guise of something new and interesting.

The Eames’ earlier work had concentrated on providing value for money and fulfilling that need for post war conservatism. Here however was a chair meant for luxury and it was priced accordingly, after all it was not cheap to make with most elements being made by hand. Even by today's standards, the pricing may well be seen by many as ‘out of reach’ or at the very least ‘high value’. This however is exactly what created that extra dimension of desirability in the design. It was expensive, it was rare, an investment into your life, it was something to desire and strive for because it wasn’t (for many) easily available. And for those that could afford it, here was a status symbol, a new modernist statement of luxury to go alongside your motor car and expensive Swiss watch.

Herman Miller marketing would have course play a role, they were good at it! Adverts would appear all over the national press in various high-level publications and journals, but this was normal from a company well used to getting the word out there. But that extra level of desirability came from the marketing of others too, often by association because everyone ‘wanted to be seen’ with the Eames Lounge Chair. Big powerhouse firms such as Marlboro would employ the look and feel of the lounger to match with their own advertising. The advertising of the chair was very much aimed at ‘the man of house’ which was normal for the times. Both Herman Miller and others would look to create that high level of desirability for a man to create that gentleman’s club in his own personal space.

The centuries old saying ‘a face that launched a thousand ships’ may have originated from Greek mythology, but more contemporary uses of the phrase tend to be aimed at originators of work or models of beauty etc. It is the perfect phrase too for the Eames Lounge Chair because the ripple effect on the industry would be far and wide. Chairs modeled on the look and feel of the Lounger would begin appearing from furniture manufacturers the world over. Some would be loosely based on the design whilst others could be described as direct copies. It was a look that clearly resonated, that had high levels of desirability and this ‘extra copy market’ was testament to this.

The Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman was the third and, in our opinion, greatest and last of the three designs that forged the reputation of the Eames Chair, no ordinary chairs indeed.

Everyone wanted to be seen with the Eames Lounge Chair & Ottoman, including this well known double page advert for this major brand in the 1950's

Everyone wanted to be seen with the Eames Lounge Chair & Ottoman, including this well known double page advert for this major brand in the 1950's