A HISTORY OF THE CHAIR DESIGNS OF CHARLES & RAY EAMES 1946 - 1979.
This guide is intended to be an independent overview of the background and history of these iconic chair designs and in being an independent review it is not funded or officially supported by any of the factories mentioned here under.
Charles Eames (1907-78) and Ray Eames (1912-88) embraced the thought of modern design being an agent of change - they believed that design can improve peoples lives. Their broad interests which varied from civil engineering and architecture to modern art culture and design allowed them to solve challenges with imagination, practicality and beauty.
With more than 224 ground breaking designs for furniture, toys, exhibitons, films, graphics, and architecture, achieved during a 45 year collaboration, Charles and Ray Eames had an unprecedented effect on 20th century design. Their focus on elegance and functionality has created designs that have endured the test of time and the majority of their chair designsare still produced by Hernan Miller Inc in the United States and Vitra AG in Switzerland amongst others to this day.
Charles and Ray Eames worked with a group of industrial partners spanning fourty years, to create affordable, quality furniture for a wide variety of needs and locations throughout the world. They often experimented with new ways to create furniture, working with new materials and production techniques. The corner stone of their work was an understanding of human ergonomics - design around the human form. They were particularly successful in creating three dimensional shaps using highly flexible materials that could comfortably adapt to and support the human body.
During World War II Charles and Ray Eames were commissioned by the US Navy to design leg splints and emergency stretchers made out of moulded plywood and after the war they put this experience to use to create commercial products made from moulded plywood.
PLYWOOD GROUP CHAIR.
The moulded plywood chair was their first attempt to create a single shell chair that would be comfortable without using padding or fabric and a chair that could be quickly mass-produced. The design was based on chairs that Eames and Saarinen had previously entered in the Museum of Modern Art's 1940 "Organic Design" competition, where they had achieved an award for first place. The chairs and also a moulded plywood table together with a wall screen were unveiled in 1946 and are still in production today by Herman Miller Inc in Michigan USA and also Vitra AG who are the authorised manufacturers for Europe and the Middle East amongst others. The moulded plywood chair was letter described as the chair of the century by the artitecture critic Esther McCoy.
La Chaise was created for the 1948 "International Competition for Low Cost Furniture Design". The name "La Chaise" was both a reference to sculptor Gaston Lachaise and a pun on his name. Originally produced by Herman Miller but dropped later it was introduced to the market by Vitra in 1990.
CONTRACT TABLE GROUP
In 1950, Charles and Ray Eames designed a range of tables for contract, meeting, dining and coffee uses. The base for the contract group range was subsequently used on the plastic group the the aluminium group chairs up until 1968, when Charles and Ray Eames designed the segmented table base, which was used from 1968 until today.
PLASTIC GROUP CHAIR
Now called the Plastic Group Chair these chairs were originally made from fibreglass. These chairs were designed by Charles and Ray Eames to solve the problem of how to make a seat out of a single body fitting shell. In 1950 as plastics began to take centre stage as the material of choice, Charles and Ray Eames partnered with Zenith plastics to create the first one piece plastic chairs with an exposed rather than an upholstered surface.
Although all the early chairs were fibreglass, environmental pressures grew, and the chairs became more acceptable in plastics, which is now the normal manufacturing process - even though this may seem strange today.
Inspired by trays, dress forms, baskets and animal traps, Charles and Ray Eames investigated bent and welded wire mesh as the basis for furniture designs. Designed in 1950, the wire chair shell could be adapted to various base configurations and upholstery types. Ingenious techniques were defeloped to mass-produce suitable upholstery, and spec ial moulds were created as forms over which to weld wire shells. Eames office adapted a resistance welding technique used for making drawers and devolped an innovative method for reinforcing the shell's rim with a double band of wire.
LOUNGE CHAIR AND OTTOMAN.
The first batch of 50 Lounge Chairs with Ottomans designed by Charles and Ray Eames were released in 1956 at a cost of $404 and were made from moulded plywood and a duck down envelope surrounding foam pads, which was later changed to foam pads surrounded by Dacron.
The "shock mounts" were a new method of connection developed to allow the headrest and backrest to flex when the chair is in use.
The chair has been in continuos production since it's release in 1956 by Herman Miller Inc in Michigan, America and by 1975 Herman Miller had sold over 100,000 units and the chair later became available from Vitra AG in Switzerland under a sole manufacturing licence for Europe and the Middle East which came into effect on the 1st of January 1986.
In the eraly days the Lounge chair came fitted with a "contract" style base but Herman Miller subsequently changed the base design to the flat topped version now used today.
ALUMINIUM GROUP CHAIR
The Aluminium Group chair was originally designed in 1958 by Charles and Ray Eames as a special project - an exterior chair for a private residence being designed by Eero Saarinen and Alexander Girard. The seat design was a radical departure from the traditional concept of the chair as a solid shell. The seat-back is made from a continuos piece of upholstery stretched taut between two aluminium ribs. This allows it to subtly conform to the shape of the user's body and makes it wonderfully comfortable.
The prototype of the aluminium group chair used the "contract" style base and even after it's launch in 1958 the aluminium group chair went through continuous development but it was only in 1968 when the contract base was changed to the "universal base" that the chair became a thing of great beauty.
True Original aluminium group chairs were manufactured using the "contract base" from 1958 until 1968 when it was changed to the "universal base" used on all aluminium group chairs to this day.
The aluminium group chair was first manufactured by Herman Miller In c in the USA who later granted four manufacturers a "Licence to Produce" for their own markets in Europe.
The four original licencee's were Vitra in Switzerland, Hille in the UK, ICF in Italy, and Mobilier International in France, of which only Vitra still retains a licence from Herman Miller Inc to manufacture for the European and Middle East markets, after becoming sole licencee with effect from the 1st of Januaray 1986.
The first Lobby chair was designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1960 for the lobby area of the Time Life building in New York City. It's generous size, high quality construction and sumptous cushions mean that it has now become associated with board rooms throughout the world.
The Lobby chair was to become famous during the 1972 World Chess championships in Reykjavik, when the chess grand master Bobby Fischer created an international incident by insisting on using one of these chairs during the competition.
Herman Miller decided to despatch two identical chairs to the championship - one for Bobby Fischer and one for his opponent in the final, Boris Spassky.
Mr Spassky recieved his Lobby Chair from the late Mr Fred Appleton, who was then Managing Director of Herman Miller Europe..... Mr Appleton went on to found Scott Howard Office Furniture Limited in 1977.
Ironically it is now more famous for being the chair that Dr No sat in whilst stroking the white cat in the James Bond movie of the same name.
TANDEM SLING SEATING
Throughout the 1960's Charles and Ray Eames produced a range of sturdy, comfortable and elegant designs for office chairs and public seating areas at airports, stadiums and schools. The Aluminium chair concept formed the basis of the 1962 design for the Tandem Sling Seating range, an institutional multiple seating system designed for the Dulles and O'Hare Airports in America and these chairs are still to be seen in use in airports throughout the world today.
SOFT PAD CHAIR
After the Aluminium Group chair had been on the market for over a decade Charles and Ray Eames were pressed to make the range softer or more comfortable and in 1969 "Soft Pads" were stitched directly on to the original design, the name stuck, and the Soft Pad Group of chairs came into being.
Ironically the chairs are now far more recogniseable in their Soft Pad form than they are in the original Aluminium Group form even though the chairs are identical in every other way save for the pads.
This Soft Pad design has become so synonymous with the very highest standards of executive chair in the world that many Chief Executives strive to own one today.
Both Herman Miller and Vitra still produce these chairs today as do many factories in the Far East.
Sadly in 1979 Charles Eames died and Ray Eames died 10 years later. Since their deaths, their chairs have become design icons, attracting interest from manufacturers the world over.
We are often asked when Herman Miller awarded Vitra the sole agency for Europe and the Middle East. - In 1984 Herman Miller, Vitra and Ray Eames met to decide that Vitra should have a sole manufacturing licence for Europe and the Middle East, but it was not until the 1st of January 186 that this formally took place.
As time has moved on patents, design rights and copyright protection have all fallen away in various countries, opening the way for a host of copies and reproductions, and at the time of writing this history we here at Scott Howard know of 53 manufacturers worldwide producing Charles and Ray Eames designs.
Clearly the subject of Genuine versus Copies opens up a huge an emotional debate .... so in closing this history review we let Charles Eames have the last word.
In a recorded discussion with Harvard professor Owen Gingerich he gave us all his opinions on both patents and plagiarism.
"Now what divides the patentable from the non-patentable is entirely different from what divides the good and appropriate from the bad and the inappropriate. If one has bitten the apple and has been seduced into the idea of having a patentable item and royalties, there is always the temptation to make the design such as to be patentable rather than good ... If the client wants to patent them, that's his problem ... but we will not put any of our effort into twisting the thing so that it's patentable".
"What you really worry about in the design of furniture or in architecture are the bad copies, when your idea is used in a booby kind of way. You don't mind if someone carries your idea further in a better way, although at first your nose may be a bit out of joint"
The rest, as they say is history.