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Our Independent History of the chair designs of Charles and Ray Eames 1946 - 1978

Charles and Ray Eames on a Triumph motorbike   "We must be committed to a concern for quality in everything in the world around us. We must learn to care deeply."
- Charles Eames from slide show "Excellence", 1967
Charles Eames (1907-78) and Ray Eames (1912-88) embraced the visionary concept of modern design as an agent of social change - they believed that excellent design could improve people's lives. Their unique blend and breadth of interests, ranging from engineering and architecture to modern art and design enabled them to solve each design challenge with an unrivalled combination of imagination, practicality and elegance.
Portrait of Charles and Ray Eames   With a legacy of more than 224 groundbreaking designs for furniture, toys, exhibitions, films, graphics and architecture, developed over a 45-year collaberation, Charles and Ray Eames had an unparalleled impact on 20th century design. Their focus and insistence on beauty through functionality has meant that their designs have endured and the majority of their chair designs are still produced by Vitra today.
In the field of furniture design, Charles and Ray Eames collaborated closely with a series of industrial partners over a period of forty years, to create affordable, yet high quality furniture for a wide variety of settings. The Charles and Ray Eames Office experimented with new ways to create furniture, embracing new materials and developing new production techniques. The foundation of this work was ergonomics - design around the human form. They were particularly interested in creating three dimensionally shaped surfaces or flexible materials that could comfortably support the human body, without the need for traditional cushioned upholstery.
Label designed by Ray for World War 2 moulded plywood leg splint

During World War II, Charles and Ray Eames were commissioned by the federal government to design leg splints and stretchers made out of moulded plywood. They later put this expertise to use to create their first commercially produced, moulded-plywood furniture.

Chinese Eames moulded plywood chairs
Plywood Group Chair
The moulded plywood group chair designed by Charles & Ray Eames was their first attempt to create a single shell that would be comfortable without padding and that could be quickly mass-produced. It was developed on the basis of the chairs that Eames and Saarinen entered in the Museum of Modern Art's 1940 "Organic Design" competition, in which they took first place. The chairs and moulded plywood tables and wall screens were unveiled to the public in 1946 and are still in production today - Vitra are the authorised manufacturers for Europe and the Middle East. The moulded plywood group chair was called "the chair of the century" by the influential architectural critic Esther McCoy.
La Chaise designed for the 1948 Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design   La Chaise
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. Vitra has produced this chair since 1990.
Table bases 1950, 1964 and 1968   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 and aluminium group chairs right up until 1968, when Charles and Ray Eames designed the segmented table base, which was used from 1968 right up until today. In the left hand picture, the contract base is shown on the far left side, the segmented base is the far right and the universal base is in the centre.
Eames fibreglass armchair circa 1950   Plastic Group Chair
The fibreglass chair designed by Charles & Ray Eames solved 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 one of the first one-piece plastic chairs with an exposed rather than an upholstered surface.
Eames plastic armchair with black fabric seat pad

In the two pictures below, the left hand picture shows the plastic group armchair with the early "contract" base and single wheeled castors so this chair can be dated between 1950 and 1968, whereas the chair in the right hand picture shows the later "universal" base, dating it after 1968.

All the early chairs were made from fibreglass, but as environmental pressures grew, the chairs became more acceptable in plastics, which is now the normal manufacturing method - even though this may seem strange.

Eames fibreglass armchair 1950-68   Eames fibreglass armchair 1968 to date
Charles Eames plastic chairs: DAW light blue
Charles Eames white plastic rocking chair
Wire chair   Wire Chair
Inspired by trays, dress forms, baskets and animal traps, Charles & 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 developed to mass-produce suitable upholstery, and special moulds were created as forms over which to weld the wire shells. The office adapted a resistance welding technique used for making drawers and developed an innovative method for reinforcing the shell's rim with a double band of wire.
Chinese bikini chairs

Lounge Chair and Ottoman
The first batch of 50 Lounge chair and Ottoman designed by Charles & Ray Eames were released in 1956 at a price of $404 and were made of 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.

  Beware of imitations - Herman Miller 1963 poster
The chair has been in continuous production since it's release in 1956 by Herman Miller in America (see 1963 poster), and by 1975 Herman Miller had sold over 100000 units and later became available under sole license from Vitra for the European and Middle East markets from the 1st January 1986.
Chinese Eames lounge chair and ottoman
History has been kind to the lounge chair and ottoman, but it could so easily have been different as shown in the two pictures below. The left hand picture shows the original prototype of 1954 and the right hand picture of the same chair demonstrated by Ray Eames.
Eames lounge chair prototype   Ray Eames demonstrating lounge chair prototype
In the early days, the lounge chair came fitted with a "contract" style base as can be seen in the 1964 picture from Herman Miller, shown below left, but Herman Miller subsequently changed the base to the current version as shown in picture below right.
Herman Miller 1964 lounge chair   Herman Miller lounge chair with current style of base
Aluminium Chair
The Aluminium Group chair was originally developed in 1958 by Charles & 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 of a continuous 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.
  Herman Miller advertisement in Fortune magazine, May 1960
Aluminium chair prototype   In the left hand picture is a prototype of the aluminium group chair, which shows the early use of the contract base. In the picture underneath are the desk chair versions of the aluminium group as used by Herman Miller in a photograph of that era, showing the chairs in use with Action Office I.
Action Office I
Even after the 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 did the chair become a thing of great beauty.
Early Aluminium group chair with contract base   Later aluminium group chair with universal base
1958 - Charles and Ray Eames and Don Albinson with various models from the Aluminium Group and 1959 catalogue Aluminium Group title page image
Original American easy chair   True original Aluminium Group chairs were manufactured using the "contract style" base from 1958, as can be seen here on this genuine original, which is still in use today by a Scott Howard customer in London, 50 years on.

The contract base was changed in 1968 to the universal base, which is the base used on all Aluminium Group chairs today.
Whereas all original Charles and Ray Eames designs were first manufactured by Herman Miller in America, four manufacturers were later granted a license to produce in Europe.   ICF label
The four companies that were granted licenses were Vitra in Switzerland, Hille in the UK, ICF in Italy, and Mobilier International in France, of which only Vitra still retains a license from Herman Miller inc. to manufacture for the European and Middle East market, after becoming the sole licensees for this market with effect from the 1st January 1986.
Herman Miller aluminium chair made by Vitra  
The chair shown on the left was made by Vitra under license for Herman Miller some time after 1968 and can be recognised by the cross head screws and the label attached to the tilt mechanism on the underside of the chair, as shown in the picture below.
Herman Miller made by Vitra chair label

For the historians amongst us, the picture on the right shows marketing material from Hille International who manufactured the Charles and Ray Eames ranges during the 1960s and 1970s.

Further information about Hille's involvement in manufacturing these iconic chairs is available on this web site.

Hille International went on to manufacture the Supporto chair, designed by Robin Day.

  Hille advertisement
Chinese Eames aluminium chair
Swiss Lobby chair in black   Lobby Chair
The first Lobby Chair was designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1960, for the lobby of the Time Life Building in New York City. It's generous size, high quality construction and sumptuous cushions mean that it has now become associated with the boardroom.

The Lobby Chair was to become famous during the 1972 World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, when the chess Grandmaster Bobby Fischer insisted on using one of these chairs during the competition.
Bobby Fischer, right, on his way to beating Boris Spassky in Iceland in 1972, both sitting in their Eames lobby chairs
Boris Spassky receiving his chair from Fred Appleton   Herman Miller despatched two chairs to the championship - one for Bobby Fischer and one for his opponent in the final, Boris Spassky.

Pictured here is Mr. Boris Spassky receiving his Lobby Chair from Mr. Fred Appleton, who was then Managing Director of Herman Miller Europe. Mr. Appleton went on to found Scott Howard Office Furniture a few years later.
Tandem Sling Seating
Throughout the 1960s, Charles and Ray Eames produced a range of sturdy, comfortable and elegant designs for office chairs and public seating for airports, stadiums, and schools. The aluminium chair's concept formed the basis of the 1962 Tandem Sling Seating, an institutional multiple-seating system designed for Dulles and O'Hare airports, that is still in use in airports around the world today.
Eames tandem seating as designed for O'Hare airport
American original Soft Pad chair

Chinese low backed softpad in red

Soft Pad Chair
In 1969, eleven years after the aluminium group chairs originally went into production, Charles and Ray Eames extended the original design by adding plush, individually upholstered cushions, to produce the Soft Pad chair.

On the left is an original 1960's Soft Pad chair produced by Herman Miller showing the Aluminium frame and single wheeled castors. This chair is still used by a Scott Howard customer 40 years on.

This design of chair has become synonymous with the highest standards of executive chair design and Vitra still produce this range under license for the European market today.

Sadly, in 1979 Charles Eames died and Ray Eames died 10 years later. Since their deaths, these chairs have become design icons, attracting interest from manufacturers the world over.

We are often asked when Vitra became sole manufacturing agents for Europe and the Middle East.

In 1984, five years after Charles Eames' death, Herman Miller, Vitra and Ray Eames met to decide that Vitra should have a sole manufacturing license, but it was not until the 1st January 1986 that this formally took place.

As time has moved on, patents, design rights and copyright protection have all fallen away, opening the way for a host of copies and reproductions. At the time of writing this history, we here at Scott Howard know of 53 manufacturers worldwide.

In closing this history review, we let Charles Eames have the last word, in a recorded discussion with Harvard professor Owen Gingerich, he gave his opinions on both patents and plagiarism.

On patents:
"Now what divides the patentable from the non-patentable is entirely different from what divides the good and the appropriate from the bad and the inappropriate. If one has bitten the apple and 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 to be 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."

On plagiarism:
"What you really worry about in the design of furniture or in architecture are the bad copies, when your idea is used in a kind of booby 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.


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