Vintage View: Eames’ chairs

The achievement of an unqualified architect, Charles Eames (1907-1978) and his remarkable wife Ray (1912-1988) — the Eames’ collection holds a unique place in the history of art and design.

As a body of work, it was so beloved and successful that it has fuelled a worldwide industry of close reproduction to the present day. A whole era of furniture design and form is also immediately recognised by the Eames name.

There was a heady gang of other brilliant creatives in the States and Europe littering up those mid-century years of roughly 1933 to 1969 with tables, chairs, shelving and more. Arne Jacobsen (Denmark), Eero Saarinen (US), Alvar Aalto (Finland), Sir Terence Conran (GB), Mies van der Rohe (Germany/US), and Hans Wegner (Denmark). If you love and collect 20th century design, you will recognise their unique contribution, but for populist mid-century modern — Eames is the name everyone knows.

Charles succeeded as an award-winning furniture designer and architect having been streamed out of his first college for being ‘too modern’. The equally talented Ray, (whose commercial input was not formally recognised in the early 50s), when not at her husband’s side at the drawing board, painted professionally, and designed textiles that were exhibited alongside those of Salvador Dali. She came to know Charles while organising his entry for a competition on the theme of ‘organic furniture’ at the Museum of Modern Art in 1940. Graduating from pupil to professional and life partner, together they created pieces ranging from military stretchers, packs of play cards, buildings and single chairs tat are poetic in beauty and function.

The couple embraced the aesthetic possibilities of fibreglass and plastic to hold revolutionary new shapes that were not only practical and attractive but crucially, were easy to manufacture. Some revelations, such as their economical storage furniture (ESU), are less known with strong industrial styling. Still, the synergy of craftsman’s care and easy replication, has kept this and so many of their inspired designs in production (and reproduction), right to the present day.

In 1972, Charles explained to the LA Times, that he believed in the idea of the designer as a ‘host’ carefully anticipating the needs of the guest (the furniture’s user). There’s a modesty and touching belief in the taste of the public, that not only freed up the originality of their designs, but which also makes the pair so attractive as personalities.

The Eames plywood chair c.1946 using Alvar Aalto’s wood-ply moulding techniques and manufactured by Evans Products, was branded by critics, the ‘chair of the century’. There was much more to come in the hands of Herman Miller Inc, who still makes their furniture today.

For me, the upholstered chairs remain their most sublime gift, worthy of a place in the opus of great furniture of all time, never mind modern times. It’s something to do with the surprisingly spare lines, beautiful materials and luxurious ergonomics. I own two beaten-up but amazingly beautiful soft-pad office chairs c.1958 from the aluminium group. Drinking in that airy hammock of chromed aluminium, a crouching swan leg floating with boxy flat upholstery, they bring me fresh new pleasure every day of my life. The joy and energy of invention still flows through every line.

The big boy of the Eames opus, featured in a thousand rough-luxe, palatial and iconic stage sets in magazines, films and interior volumes is the Eames lounge chair/670. Designed as a gift for actor/ director Billy Wilder, it confidently reclines into the same sentence as E-type Jaguar, or the original Coca-cola bottle.

Still produced under patent by Vitra Inc of Italy and Herman Miller of Michigan, lying on the 670 is being cradled head-to-heel on a butter soft leather cloud by a legion of synchronised angels who love you. The masculine up-facing ‘hand’ prompted by a catcher’s mitt, reaches tenderly across the floor to a demure foot rest. The downy feathering and rumpled hide of the antique club-chair is re-gifted in an edgy slingshot of scarlet veneer and aluminium.

Quality is a nebulous term. Have you ever had the pleasure of looking at couture clothing up close? Examined the tiny hand stitching that takes a suit or dress to skim the body? Truly great furniture has that impact — the way it surrenders under the fingers, the exquisitely geared motion of the shell of seven-skin veneer as it slides inside against a chassis of die-cast aluminium. It just sings of attention to detail and good engineering. As Charles Eames himself put it in one lean remark “you know what looks good can change, but what works, works”.

If you long for some genuine EA Eames seating but can’t afford a Herman Miller or Vitra model, look out for pieces by Italian manufacturer ICF. One of the four original makers of Eames they held a full patent for the Eames’ work, and ignored its loss in 1986, going on to make the chairs to the requirements of Herman Miller until 2004.

There should be a sticker on the central column stating ICF. Second-hand examples of Vitra and Herman Miller Eames chairs and tables in good condition command prices of about two-thirds of a new chair or lounger depending on colour, rarity and of course, condition.


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