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The Eames Molded Plastic Chair Collection: Design Story

The Eames Molded Plastic Chairs are some of the most popular and instantly recognizable in the canon of modern design. They have been the centerpieces of homes and offices, and they’ve been deployed in schools, churches, and large gathering and meeting areas for decades and decades, ever since they were first debuted by Herman Miller and Charles and Ray Eames in the 40s and 50s. The chairs are popular for many reasons. They’re beautiful, they're technologically advanced and innovative, they’re vibrant and colorful and playful, and they're very comfortable. There’s not much more you can ask for when it comes to a chair. But how did the chair come to be? What was the impetus for it's creation, and what came to shape how it would look in it’s final incarnations? This is the design story of the Eames Molded Plastic Chairs.

Every creation story begins with the creators. In this case, that means Charles and Ray Eames, the husband and wife team who designed the chairs (as well as many other pieces of fine furniture for Herman Miller). Charles and Ray Eames are possibly the most accomplished and most far-ranging industrial designers in history. Certainly in America, their work is really without peer in the field. They didn't limit themselves to popular taste, safe choices, or even furniture; they made everything, and they made everything comfortable, fascinating, and attractive. They were filmmakers, painters and illustrators, furniture makers, designers, architects, toy makers, and business people. They ran the Office of Charles and Ray Eames in California for many decades, and it persists today under the aegis of their remaining family. The Office turned out innumerable contributions to the rich American history of design while it was operating, and even today spends time making films and exhibitions, and keeping the memory and physical presence of their creations at the forefront of the American design world.

Charles and Ray met when they were young, at Cranbrook Academy in Michigan (Herman Miller is also headquartered in Michigan). Charles was a teacher, and Ray was a student, and the glint in their eyes upon meeting had little to do with the Eames Molded Plastic Chair that was on the far horizon. They quickly realized they were right for each other, and marriage followed hard on their heels. After a fashion they moved to California to get their lives as designers and partners started. The first thing they wanted to do was build a chair out of molded plywood, which at the time seemed impossible as a mass-production effort. The molded plywood would become molded plastic only after a fashion; at the time the plastic material was not a commercial product. For a long time they worked on the problem in their little apartment while they worked day jobs. Ray became an illustrator and painted and drew magazine covers. Charles went to work at MGM, where he was a well respected set designer. The perk of working at the movie studio for Charles was that he often got his pick of cast off materials, like plywood, steel and other industrial products, that he could take home and go to work on with Ray.

 

Molded Plastic Chairs

 

They built a machine in the apartment they called Kazam! Kazam was a fitful and dangerous creature, prone to blowing out the power for the entire apartment building. The process of generating enough power to create the huge heat and pressure required for bending plywood in three dimensions proved a difficult problem for Charles and Ray. But making use of the industrious and creative energies at their disposal, they were never deterred. Charles could often be found climbing up the telephone poles of the neighborhood, siphoning power from the big transformers and boxes. They did whatever they had to do to get their little project off the ground; they knew it was big, that it was important, that it could be amazing. But something intervened; World War II.

During the war, Charles and Ray found a way to contribute to the war effort with their creations. It quickly became clear that their process for molding plywood, while it wasn’t ready for a chair (and therefore not ready to inspire them to the new heights of the Eames Molded Plastic Chair) it could be put to excellent use in the military. The military was in desperate need of a better kind of battlefield splint. One that was strong but not too rough, and that would protect the soldiers suffering from broken legs rather than make the damage worse as many of the current splints actually did. Charles used his own leg to make the mold, and the splints were very successful on the battlefields of WWII. They were also able to make glider shells for planes; soon the Navy was ordering thousands of products from Charles and Ray, and their little operation grew. Soon, the war was over, and they were ready to re-take the path which would eventually lead them to the Eames Molded Plastic Chair.

After a few more months of experimentation, they were finally able to get their chair where they wanted it to be. There was one major flaw that they could never get past, though; they couldn't make a single shell for the seat and the seat back. The material, molded plywood, just wasn’t strong enough, and would fracture and break at the junctures where pressure was applied by sitting down. This was a disappointment that motivated them to make the LCW the creative and inspired chair that it was. But it also never left them, that disappointment, and eventually they would correct the problem with the Molded Plastic Chairs, which some have said more accurately reflect their vision for what TIME Magazine would call the design of the century. In any case, the LCW was the first to be made in completed form, and Charles and Ray began to look for a distributor to make and sell them in bulk. The found a small one in California. Soon, they were in New York, at an exhibition for the chair looking for new clients and introducing it to a new audience. They found the audience receptive, especially one spectator - George Nelson, the Director of Design at Herman Miller in Zeeland, Michigan.

Molded Plastic Armchairs

Nelson offered the duo the institutional support of Herman Miller right there on the spot, and they took it and ran. George Nelson was a big hero of theirs, and of practically every other designer or architect in the country. He had been a notable architecture critic and a great designer in his own right, and many of his best pieces were actually ahead of him when he met Charles and Ray. One of his most impressive collections, the George Nelson Swag Leg Collection, would borrow heavily from the Eames Molded Plastic Chairs (with the full permission of Charles and Ray Eames) when it came to the Nelson Swag Leg Chair. Nelson had also created the Storagewall, the first downtown pedestrian mall, and dozens of other pieces of furniture, art and design that had all made their mark on the industrial design community. And offer like that, from a man like him, was something to be jumped all over. And jump all over it Charles and Ray did. They were soon on the path to making, in concert with Herman Miller, some of the great furniture created in the 20th century. One part of that legacy would be the Eames Molded Plastic Chairs.

Charles and Ray, under the umbrella of Herman Miller distribution and manufacturing, had been given the opportunity to make furniture for a mass market. Nowadays, many artists foolishly disdain popularity among the consuming public, but Charles and Ray had no such hang-ups. In fact, they were most interested in making furniture that was functional and beautiful for the middle class. They wanted American design, especially industrial design, to be available to the average American, and the average home. They wanted their products to be democratic; easy to mass produce so the cost could be kept down, and made of industrial materials and in industrial processes. Herman Miller was just the kind of furniture giant to help this dream to become a reality.

And the LCW ended up being a key part of the process for making the Eames Molded Plastic Chairs. While the chairs were very popular and critically praised, Charles and Ray knew they had had to compromise the design in certain ways because the materials had limited them. They were most disappointed that they hadn’t been able to make the full, single shell version of the chair that they had dreamed about. But the disappointment didn’t last long, because soon they heard of a knew material, a material that could be bent every which way while retaining all of its strength and consistency. It was called plastic. The next chapter in the story of the Eames Moled Plastic Chairs was about to begin with a new age material and an old idea. Charles and Ray decided they wanted to make a chair with a single shell, and they saw that the perfect material would be plastic. They got to work quickly after their debut with Herman Miller and the LCW.

The Eames Molded Plastic Chairs began to take shape. To begin with, the seat and seat backs were planned and executed as a single unit, just as Charles and Ray had always wanted to build in plywood. There stress and pressure but on the angles of the plastic didn't have the same effect that it did on the wood; the plastic wasn't brittle, and it stood up to rigorous testing. It just couldn’t be broken that way. That's one of the strengths, in terms of ownership, possessed by the chairs. They’re very durable. Eventually, after much testing and polishing, two versions of the top of the chair appeared. One was called (and is called) the simple shell. Somewhat eggshaped, and not expansive on the sides, the chair curves at the juncture of the back and the buttocks, and holds the user almost like a large swing. The back of the chair isn’t large, and it tapers a bit, giving your shoulders freedom of movement. The title of the version pretty much says it all; it's the simple shell.

Charles and Ray Eames

The other type of shell, the armchair version, is more interesting and more luxurious and comfortable. It's a larger shell, and it envelops the user to a greater degree than does the simple shell. It also folds out at the edge to provide the user with two armrests, with are surprisingly comfortable and great for reading or watching television and movies. This is a more impressive shell, but both are very attractive, and very complexly engineered. They’re also extremely colorful. While the LCW had always been available in several colors, the most attractive and the most popular was generally wood stain. With the Eames Molded Plastic Chairs, Charles and Ray could really punch up the color and pop of the chairs. They used infusion techniques to make sure the color would never dull or fade, and they picked truly vibrant, expressive colors for the chair. When you use the chair, or deploy it, you can’t help but deploy a great splash of color to wherever it happens to be. The home, the office, the school wherever. Charles and Ray always said they took their play very seriously, and this was certainly part of that. They were always playful in their designs, always energetic, and never more so than when they debuted the Eames Molded Plastic Chairs with Herman Miller. But they didn’t stop at color and shells. They also created three distinct types of base, each with a different look and subtly different purpose, to make the chairs even more personal and adaptable.

The first type, and possibly the most common, is the simple four legged chair. This is the most typical design. The chair comes with two U shapes that make four legs, which are made of polished metal and look great. They also come with special hooks that make them easy to stack and gang, and therefore easy to store and deploy however you wish. If you're running a school, or need to have larger meeting in your home or office without dominating your decor with chairs, the gang-able, stackable collection of Eames Molded Plastic Chairs is perfect for your needs. And the four legged base with the simple shell top is probably the easiest to do this with, as it’s the lightest and smallest in general. Although, it's easy to stack and gang with all the various iterations of the chairs. This is a base that’s meant more for general support than for showing off or aesthetic value (although it has that in droves).

The second type of base is the Eiffel base. It's called that for having something of a resemblance to a certain tower in Paris, France. The Eiffel base is a real achievement in a sculptural and engineering sense. It's beautiful and surprising, and intricate, but at the same time is totally supportive and functional. That's a key of everything Charles and Ray Eames made together; they wanted furniture that was beautiful and comfortable, advanced and supportive, critically lauded but popular and mass produced as well. The Eiffel base on the Eames Moled Plastic Chair looks great, and it’s definitely more appropriate as a show piece than the simple four legged base is. This is a great base for a chair you’ll use in public places within the home, the table and living room, etc. Anyplace where the chair can be appreciated not only when it’s sat in, but when it's looked at.

The third and most surprising base is the rocking chair base. Leave it to Charles and Ray Eames to take something as modern as plastic and as technological as molded plastic and combine it with something as old fashioned and simple as a rocking chair. When you pair the rocking chair legs with the more expansive and lounge chair-ish you get a truly unique piece of furniture that surprises and delights. The simple wooden slats of the rocker combine shockingly well with the bright polished wires and plastic that make up the rest of the chair. In your home, you’d want to employ this base wherever you can get the most rest and relaxation out of it. Think a covered porch, a reading area, the living room or the kitchen. Anywhere you’d like the comfort and rhythm of old-fashioned American rocking chairs combined with the modern sensibilities and materials extant in the Eames Molded Plastic Chairs. And yes, as well all the bases, stacking and ganging is still an option.

The design story of the Eames Molded Plastic Chairs is one of creative renaissance and partnership, of overcoming limitations and embracing the new and the familiar at the same time. It’s the story of Charles and Ray Eames.

The Eames Molded Plastic Chairs are only one of the dozens of amazing design Charles and Ray Eames developed for Herman Miller. They are a continuation, or an exploration, of the molded plywood chair that first debuted in 1946 for Charles and Ray, and which was also made and sold by Herman Miller. The company and the designers were associated for decades, and over the years Herman Miller and Charles and Ray formed a real partnership that would blossom into some of the finest furniture ever made, and certainly some of the finest in American history.

The relationship was not only professional, though it was certainly very beneficial for both parties in those terms. It was truly personal and emblematic of how both entities like to do business. For Herman Miller, their commitment to Charles and Ray was a commitment to breaking new frontiers and creating new realities within the sometimes hermetic world of industrial design. It was a symbol of their commitment to true vision and true excellence, not just to the flavor of the month. In the beginning, before Charles and Ray were world famous, it was also a commitment to quality over possible marketability. Herman Miller was interested in making great furniture that that buyers could be drawn too for it's functionality and beauty. They succeeded when they worked with Charles and Ray Eames, and they succeeded with the Eames Molded Plastic Chairs.

For Charles and Ray themselves, working with Herman Miller was an informed choice. Herman Miller had a great reputation, it didn't interfere with their creative freedom, and they never felt restricted by the company. For them, it was also a commitment to making their products on a mass market scale, able to be distributed easily to as many people as possible. They wanted their furniture to be democratic, available and not too expensive for middle class households to afford, and Herman Miller allowed them that opportunity. It was a valuable one to them. Soon products like the Eames Lounge Chair, the Aluminum Group Chairs, the Soft Pads, and the Sofa were all staples of American living rooms and offices. Not to mention, of course, the Eames Molded Plastic Chairs, where were visible from sea to shining sea in homes, office, and schools and auditoriums. The partnership was very fruitful and very true in the sense that both parties got something they needed and wanted without having to give anything up. It was a perfect arrangement for both. And it produced some of the best furniture ever seen on the American market. So how did it come to be?

Charles and Ray started out as independent creators of furniture. They had met at the Cranbrook Academy in Michigan, where Charles had been a teacher and Ray a studnet. They soon moved to California to begin their lives. Charles worked on movie sets doing set design (and stealing materials from the studio to be able to work on his own personal projects in his off hours) and Ray illustrated magazine covers. At nights and during their free time they worked on a very special project; the molded plywood chair. They built a machine capable of generating the heat and pressure necessary to bend the wood and they called it Kazam! It needed a lot of energy to work, and you could often find Charles scrambling up and down telephone poles in his neighborhood trying to siphon power to the little apartment he was sharing with his wife. They could both be seen apologizing to their neighbors over and over again as they continually blew out the power to their entire building trying to get their work done. But eventually get it done they did, and and finished product was a masterpiece. They started looking for someone who could build it and sell it.

At the same time, across the country, Herman Miller had a new creative director of design. His name was George Nelson, and he was himself a very great designer of homes, furniture and city plans. The developer of the first urban pedestrian mall, and a great critic and writer for a number of architecture magazines, Nelson was in the prime of his career. Soon he would develop the legendary Nelson Swag Leg series with the help of Charles and Ray and their remarkable Molded Plastic Chair designs. But before that began he was just a creative director looking for talent. He found it, and boy did he ever, when he met Charles and Ray Eames and surveyed their magnificent new creation.

Charles and Ray, still a few years away from the Eames Molded Plastic Chair, had found a small distributor for their chair. They were attending an exhibition of the chair in New York City, looking for buyers and trying to introduce their chair to a new audience. In that audience was George Nelson, and he liked what he saw from Charles and Ray. The chair was an astonishment, a bending of wood and metal that produced something attractive, comfortable, and beautiful. Later, TIME Magazine would call it the design of the century. Also, Charles and Ray would use it as inspiration for their next groundbreaking series, the Eames Molded Plastic Chairs.

Nelson found the pair, congratulated them on their success, and offered them the services of Herman Miller on the spot. The company would never make a better deal or a better contract with any one, let alone two, designers. That handshake would later enable the same two designers to give Herman Miller the keys to some of the most popular, handsome, and famous furniture ever made. It was a very successful partnership from the get go, as the LCW, as it was known, was a huge success with the public. Soon, so would be the Eames Molded Plastic Chair, as well as the dozens of other pieces that Charles and Ray would create in their long and colorful career.

The relationship with Herman Miller was always brokered through the channel of George Nelson, who became one of their very good friends. Nelson would even work with some of their prototypes and design when he was dreaming up his own designs. For instance, his celebrated Nelson Swag Leg Chair is a negotiated and update version of the Eames Molded Plastic Chair. The materials are the same, but the look has changed, and a large gap has been added to the seat of the chair to allow for the passage of air. The Eames gave him full and willing permission to do it, and he often shared ideas with them as well. The collection of designers at Herman Miller could often be a clubby place, with like minds thinking up new ways to help Americans live better in their homes and offices.

The Nelson Eames relationship was symbolic of the overall relationship. They two entities shared ideas and bounced things off each other, created environments and products that the other could work well in or with, and they both profited both literally and in terms of prestige and influence. Herman Miller became the premiere furniture company in America, and Charles and Ray became the premiere interior and industrial designers. They began to expand their repertoire, doing exhibitions, making toys and films, and even building houses. Herman Miller never made a move to limit them, and the design pair never stopped making gorgeous, innovative and popular furniture.

 

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