June 1, 2006
Charles and Ray’s Timeless Take
On the 50th anniversary of the Eames Lounge Chair, an intriguing new book and exhibition shed light on the arduous process behind the making of a Modern classic.
The Eames Office, Los Angeles, 1955: Efforts to produce a big, soft lounge chair on a molded plywood shell had reached a “dead end,” according to designer Don Albinson, an Eames employee. “The development of that one chair had gone on for so long that Charlie actually began to feel guilty about it,” Albinson recalls. One problem was the price: the idea had been encouraged by film director Billy Wilder, who had told his friends the Eameses that he “would really appreciate an ultra, ultra, ultra comfortable modern lounge chair.” Up to that point the Eameses had embraced the Modernist ethos of bringing mass-manufactured low-cost design to the American public, but the lounge chair—with its proposed multistep assembly, rosewood veneer, and down-filled leather upholstery—was a far cry from their earlier, simpler LCW and DAR chairs. Charles Eames was also unhappy with the form; Albinson had reached his 13th version of the chair’s arm before Eames settled on the design. The form continued to plague him after production. In the late 1970s Eames remarked that there was a “sort of ugliness” to the chair.
Today, however, the Eames Lounge Chair is an undisputed icon. Its 50-year anniversary is being celebrated with a traveling exhibition and new book about the design, which has been in continuous production since its launch in 1956. A new version is being produced by Herman Miller in Santos Palisander veneer—a sustainable rosewood closer in appearance to the original (unsustainable) rosewood that the manufacturer phased out in the early 1990s for cherry and walnut. Sales are also on the rebound: after hitting a low of 692 in 1992 (at a time when knockoffs were widely available), Herman Miller sold 2,756 in 2004. But how did the chair, after such a hesitant start with such exclusive connotations, become a successful centerpiece of American Modernism?
In the book accompanying The Eames Lounge Chair: An Icon of American Design (which opened in May at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design), essayist Thomas Hine aligns the Lounge Chair’s luxury status with the “Populuxe era”—his term for a time in which business leaders and policy makers purposely set out to sustain a postwar buying binge with the help of design and advertising. Cars sprouted fins and breast- or bomb-like protuberances, houses became larger, and basic products were “elaborated” to justify higher prices. “Even though the number of consumers was not increasing, individual incomes were on the rise,” Hine writes. “Thus, as the formula went, you might not be able to sell more cars, but you might be able to sell ‘more car’ to each person.”
The Lounge Chair was launched in 1956 on national television, amid swelling violins in a segment on NBC’s mid-morning Home program. But its high profile hardly ensured its current position in the canon of Modernist classics. In another essay in the book, art historian Martin Eidelberg argues that the chair—heavy, ostentatiously cushioned, and formally complex—occupies a rather ambiguous place among twentieth-century chairs. By contrast, its precursors—like Breuer’s tubular steel and cloth Wassily chair—purged excess, aspiring to reductivism and an architectonic sense of order. The Eames Lounge Chair barely qualifies on grounds of technological innovation either since bent plywood was old news by 1956: it had been deployed with elegance by Alvar Aalto in his cantilevered Springleaf chair of 1933 and by the Eameses themselves in the LCW Potato Chip chair of 1945-6. Eidelberg concludes that the Eames Lounge, which was first conceived as a modern updating of the traditional club chair, may have become a Modernist benchmark because its “unabashed combination of modernity and traditionalism” presaged a shift about to happen, away from the asceticism of the early twentieth century to embrace other values. In other words, it is less a Modernist icon than what Pat Kirkham calls, in another essay, a “proto-Postmodern” icon.
The project was one of those fabled fruits of wartime. The Eameses’ development of lightweight molded plywood splints for the army during the Second World War enabled them to master their prewar plywood seating experiments (with Eero Saarinen) and gave them, as military contractors, access to new gluing technologies. Ray Eames’s sculptor’s sensibility and appreciation of abstract art also plays a part in the fable; the exhibition includes some original sketches from 1943-6 that seem to reveal her early conception of several designs bearing names like “Bomber Seat” and “The Great Quillow,” both hinting at the striving for a luxurious, well-worn cocoonlike seat for the retiring serviceman. Yet as if to remind us that creation myths are always written by victors, in an interview in the appendix of the Lounge Chair book, Albinson claims that Ray had no involvement in the chair’s design development. “To me these drawings are a total and complete mystery,” he adds. “I never ever saw any drawings of furniture drawn by Ray.”
In the spirit of the chair’s continued sublimation, one of the centerpieces in the traveling exhibition—organized by the Grand Rapids Art Museum—is a three-dimensional exploded sculpture of the chair that shows each component, from the rubber shocks to the black cushions, suspended by wires from the ceiling. The spectacle will be familiar to followers of Mexican artist Damián Ortega, who did the same with a Volkswagen Beetle. The exploded Lounge Chair seems to fetishize its assembly and elevate its status to literally unreachable heights. This, as Herman Miller reminded the world in a 2003 marketing campaign, is the exclusive, authentic Eames. After lengthy litigation, the manufacturer secured patent office “trade dress” protection for the design, putting an end to most of the prevalent knockoffs and securing its exclusive status.
It would be a misrepresentation to conclude that the Eames Lounge Chair is an icon purely as a result of mythmaking, savvy litigation, and marketing. Charles’s misgivings notwithstanding, the chair’s sculpted, tailored form not only signifies a bygone luxury but also provides a distinct sitting experience. The large squashy cushions, articulating back and pivoting seat, and pliant plywood shell conspire to lower and cradle the sitter. With the ottoman in place, slouching becomes slumping, and potentially sleeping. As Hine notes, the chair has the “ability to make its occupant seem detached from his or her surroundings.” Combined with its connotations of power, this detachment has a unique effect. Hines finds accounts of the chair cradling impresarios from David Geffen to Martin Scorsese as well as the young Steve Jobs and Bill Gates (in the same photo—Gates gets the ottoman, Jobs the chair). The Lounge Chair has become, Hine says, “the throne of choice for movie moguls and other powerful businessmen who seek to project an air of informal but total control.”
For those lower on the ladder of American fame and fortune, the chair offered not only the vicarious pleasure of feeling important but the visceral appeal of repose at a time when reposing in front of television screens was about to take off in a big way. The chair’s most recent high-profile run has been on the TV sitcom Frasier, as a prized piece in the radio psychiatrist’s overcurated apartment (aside for a La-Z-Boy by his more down-to-earth father). The popularity of the chair among therapists as a place for their patients to sit perhaps sums up its current appeal. It is a place to surrender—whether to a shrink or a TV show, to a long day’s work, or to a lost night’s sleep. Clearly there’s as much demand for slouching, slumping, and surrendering today as there was in the 1950s.