June 1, 2011
Going Back Outside (Again)
Created as an outdoor collection but sold for more than five decades as indoor furniture, the newly reintroduced Eames Aluminum Group returns to the patio.
Sometimes it takes a midcentury modern dream team to create a chair: Alexander Girard, visiting Charles Eames, talks about the J. Irwin Miller House he has just completed with Eero Saarinen. But he has a complaint: while there are Saarinen chairs for the dining table, and he has devised a conversation pit to replace the pedestrian sofa, he can’t find outdoor furniture for the patio. “As we were trying to analyze the reasons why there was nothing on the market to suit him, why we were of course starting to write a program for designing the object to fill this void,” Eames told Interiors magazine in 1958. The object that resulted is the Eames Aluminum Group, a set of furniture in continuous production since that date—albeit primarily for indoor use.
Herman Miller aims to right that historical wrong by reintroducing the Aluminum Group for outdoor use with textured mesh seats and powder-coated bases in white, off-black, and clear. The outdoor chairs won’t be available commercially until September, but Herman Miller wanted to capitalize on the recent opening to the public of the Miller House, in Columbus, Indiana; its booth at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair last month was inspired by the house’s flowing indoor-outdoor spaces.
The original Aluminum Group chairs combined cast-aluminum side pieces with stretched, structural fabric seats, giving them a slim and sinuous profile. “I suspect that it is probably one of the first uses of a suspension seating design, stretching material between two side members,” says Herman Miller Classics product manager Gregg Vander Kooi. Such systems have become commonplace since the 1990s, with Herman Miller’s Aeron chair a prime example, but the Eames office was there first.
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Seats were made of a saran nylon in a variety of muted multicolor weaves (the fabric was developed with Girard), and the designers doubled and tripled the translucent fabric at stress points. But the outdoor version appeared in Herman Miller catalogs for only a few years. The saran proved friable, fraying as it turned the corner of the chair frame, as well as too costly; the uncoated aluminum also needed to be waxed annually, like a car.
So rare are saran-covered examples that Vander Kooi had to travel to Los Angeles to see an original version. “The seat of the outdoor version was one long piece of nylon, wrapped, overwrapped, and layered,” he says. “It took us an hour of pondering it: how did they do this, where does it start, and where does it end?” The new version will have a simpler method of construction, but the engineers are working on a synthetic mesh with some of the style of the original. “We unearthed a swatch card that shows the six original colors,” Vander Kooi says. “Our current indoor mesh [Cygnus] is just one color—black, gray, or quartz—and we want to put a little more life into it with texture and color. We are trying to get one that works like a mesh, feels like a fabric.”