Charles Eames – together with his wife, Ray – was a champion of mid century modern design, helping to herald the new democratic movement into American homes in a myriad of different ways. While he became best known for his architectural and furniture work, he also experimented in photography, textile design, cinema and even helped in the war effort, creating molded plywood leg splints for injured WWII soldiers. Looking back, it is easy to single out this utilitarian invention as the precursor to the forthcoming iconic Eames Lounge Chair.
In fact, even the leg splints betray Charles’ fondness for biodynamic form and sculptural elements. Really, in everything he created, his driving design principle was accessibility without sacrificing aesthetic beauty. He was not an elitist and did not design only for the rich (though the wealthy worshipped at his feet). No, he strove to reach the middle class as well and hoped to impart both form and function into the suburban dream home.
Plastics and plywood were the Eames’ preferred material of choice. In the early 1940s, the couple began collaborating with Eero Saarinen (of Tulip Table fame) on a group of wood furnishings to enter into the Museum of Modern Art’s “Organic Design in Home Furnishing” competition, which the talented trio of artists swiftly won. This group of wood furniture included some molded plywood chairs, the first glimpse into the Eames’ ingenuity with materials.
The couple moved to Los Angeles soon after their MoMA design award win and began their plywood experimentation in earnest. Using the information they’d learned from their work with the military earlier on, the couple prototyped a number of plywood based sculptural chairs with varying degrees of disappointing results. But as in all aspects of life, there is failure until there is a success and finally, with the help of the Herman Miller Company in Michigan, the original Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman was born. Initially called the ECW (Eames Chair Wood), the plywood and leather chair is still in production today and has become the jewel in the mid century modern furniture crown.
The Eames Lounge Chair was first introduced to the world on November 14th, 1956 – on television! Charles and Ray unveiled their latest creation on the NBC show “Home” hosted by Arlene Francis in front of a live audience, above the sound of swelling violins, on view only after it came through parting curtains. Dramatic, sure, but also delightful and fun. A fitting tribute to the chair.
The Lounge Chair became a symbol of the prosperity and domesticity of the 1950s. Its image was used in any number of ways, like in a 1956 print ad in US News and World Report for an electronics company asking the question, “how soon can you enjoy on-the-wall television?” In the ad, a man leans back in his Lounge Chair with both feet propped on the ottoman, absentmindedly puffing on his pipe while watching television attached to the wall. The company wanted to create an atmosphere of hope in the future, of technological advancement and prosperity. It is no coincidence that marketing team chose the Eames Lounge Chair over any others. Out of his ingenuity and passion for design, Eames created an icon.
To talk now about the chair itself – the Eames Lounge Chair is unabashedly comfortable. The chair’s body is languid and relaxed; it’s definitely had a glass of red wine to take the edge off. Quite literally, actually. The Eames is all rounded corners and curving lines. It invites you to sit in it, really sit in it; stretch your legs out and run your hands down its arms. It’s seductive. The sumptuous leather paired with the gleaming plywood is pure luxury, both visually and tactilely. This high-low dichotomy – rich, tufted leather paired with common, economical plywood – is the exact thing Eames had been aiming for all along. He felt beautiful aesthetics were of paramount importance in design but also knew he would never pander to one particular group of people. His joy for design was infectious and the entire country fully embraced his ideas and creations.
Eames was serious about creating something lasting, something user friendly and something adaptable. Each leather cushion is fastened to the chair’s shell by Velcro and metal clasps for easy cleaning and changing out sections as necessary. Eames knew these were chairs that were going to be used, not looked at. He made them sturdy and strong but never sacrificed aesthetics.
After creating the Lounge Chair to unrivaled success, Eames went on to produce a number of other iconic mid century modern furniture pieces like the plastic shell office chairs that fit as seamlessly into a middle school counselor’s office as they do a New York City marketing office. That’s the beauty in Eames’ designs. He knew how to create simple, classic pieces of furniture that enhanced its environment, rather than overwhelm it. The couple also responded to the housing shortage crisis that came on just after the war ended by creating a “Case Study House” wherein a home could be built easily and economically using builder’s grade materials. The Eames’ home boasted large expanses of space (ushering in the era of the open floor plan) and corrugated steel roofing. Yet another example of the Eames’ ability to see the beauty in the basics.
Eames famously said that he wanted the Eames Lounge Chair to mimic the look and feel of “a well-used first baseman’s mitt”. Is there a more egalitarian, all-American analogy to be made for his design? Eames’ passion for design is evident in his predilection for experimentation, in his joy for helping others, in his ability to solve a crisis with grace and utility and in his continually curious mind. His interests were wide-ranging and so were his abilities. And of course, while he created a number of iconic, timeless pieces of furniture we still adore today, the Eames Lounge Chair completely embodies the fundamental design principles of the era, all wrapped up in plywood and leather.