Iconic Designer Furniture: The Eames Aluminum Group
The Eames Aluminum Group Chairs are some of the most famous office and interior chairs in the modern era. Their graceful, hip style (which is now very retro) and their elegant use of materials made them beautiful then, and that still holds true now. Their creative use of technology and seating practices made them comfortable and supportive. Their creators made them products of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames, making it historic and a true collectors item. These are significant chairs in nearly every sense. They bring something to the table aesthetically, technically, and in terms of historicity and value. They come in several different styles, which brings variety and specialization into the mix. When you look at everything the chairs represent, and you take note of how each part of the chair responds to problems, anticipates needs, and works with every other part, you have to admit: when you make a list of the best designed chairs in the last 60, you absolutely have to include the Eames Aluminum Group Chairs at or near the very top of the rankings.
So what was the impetus for the design? What makes it great? And how did Charles and Ray Eames marshall their creative resources and make it the way it is? When you're looking for answers like these, it's always best to go back to the beginning, to the first kernels of the idea taking form. In this case, the story begins in Indiana, with four legendary designers, a millionaire benefactor, and an unfinished house.
The founder of Cummins Engines, the tycoon J. Irwin Miller, was a man who loved architecture and design. It makes sense; a man who built engines for a living would have to have an appreciation for structure, for utility and the guest-host relationship that Charles and Ray Eames lived by. (They wanted every stick of furniture they made to respond to the wishes of the "guest" before the guest could even think of them. Make them comfortable, give them support, surprise them, etc. — exactly the way a perfect host would treat their guests.) He also loved his hometown in Indiana, Columbus. He loved it so much that he decided to make it an international landmark. And the way he did it was by inviting most of the greatest designers in the era to build public buildings and homes there, including his own. Today for that very reason Columbus, Indiana is home to some of the most impressive buildings in America, and is designated as a cultural and architectural landmark the world over. Not bad for a little town in Indiana.
One of the most impressive architectural accomplishments in the town was, of course, Miller's personal home. For his own dwelling he had chosen as architects and designers Eero Saarinen and Alexander Girard, two of the most impressive and well-respected men in the profession. Saarinen in particular had own much praise and commendation for his work in the field. Coincidentally, one of those awards had been won in conjunction with another designer, a man from St. Louis with whom Saarinen was very close friends; he was none other than Charles Eames. It was Charles and his wife Ray who received a call when Saarinen and Girard ran into a bit of a problem.
The problem was both simple and complex. Simple because all they wanted to do was build a chair, which was something no one in the country could do better than Charles and Ray Eames. Complex, however, because it was a very specific and very out of the ordinary type of chair. They wanted a chair that could be placed outdoors, in the rain and the weather, and be fine. But they wanted to be able to take that very same chair and put it indoors as well. An indoor/outdoor chair — one that could withstand the weather yet still have the grace, beauty, and design value necessary to go inside a house as magnificent and well-designed as Miller's was going to be. Charles and Ray loved a challenge right off the bat, and they soon set to work relieving Saarinen and Girard of their burden. What came out of their process of building and experimentation was the very first prototype for what we know today as the Eames Aluminum Group Chair.
They built a chair with handsome aluminum ribs, rather than a single hard shell back. They built a chair with soft and supportive mesh that hung between and stretched between the ribs, creating comfort pockets and lending back support. They created a five point base to the chair which both looked great and kept it completely stable. They had created the mesh to be strong, durable, and weather proof, and that meant it could go both indoors and outdoors. It looked beautiful, it sat well, and it did the job it was intended to do with panache. Just another great chair design from Charles and Ray Eames.
The process for getting each part of the chair to do what they wanted wasn't easy, but it was vitally important; we'll discuss that more later on. Saarinen and Girard were thrilled with what Charles and Ray had come up with, and they immediately installed the chairs in the house they were building. Great for outdoors because they were comfortable and durable, great for indoors because they were comfortable and beautiful, the chairs were a resounding success. They gave the Cummins house one more dash of design brilliance and innovation that it needed to be complete. They were a full success, though on the admittedly small scale of a single buyer, a single home, and a single customer opinion. But all that was soon to change.
Herman Miller, which had built and distributed much of the Eames' furniture in the past, got wind of the new chair, and wanted to see it. What they saw they loved, but they had an idea; why not replace the mesh with leather, and create a chair twice as gorgeous and twice as perfect for indoor use, and with twice the functionality; a chair like that could go in both offices and homes, whereas before the Eames Aluminum Group Chair had been restricted to the home. It was a characteristically helpful insight from George Nelson of Herman Miller, and Charles and Ray ran with it when they decided to create and sell the whole series of Eames Aluminum Group Chairs on the American market.
Of course, the chair did lose the mesh which had been its original calling card. But the loss of the indoor/outdoor capability was more than made up for by the addition of office capability and truly luxurious, gorgeous materials. In terms of pure looks, the fine black leather and the polished aluminum of the Eames Aluminum Group Chairs are truly exceptional. They're two great materials that go great together, and Charles and Ray — as well as Herman Miller — could see that very quickly. This would be a modern chair, a hip chair, a chair for the growing and ever more youthful business climate in the country. It would be just as at home in the boardroom and the corner office as it was in the living room, bedroom, kitchen, or home office. While it could no longer be put outdoors, it was still a great host, and there were many hundreds of thousands who wanted nothing more than to be guests.
Now that the material in the chair would be changing, and whole new vistas of opportunity in the business world were opening up to the product, Charles and Ray saw even more room for innovation. They new that these chairs would be used in a bunch of different settings and for a bunch of different reasons, so they wanted to customize and specialize the chair for all the different kinds of users that might want it. Some users would be most interested in the comfort of the chair, and would want to use it as a kind of lounger. Some users would be more interested in the prestige of the chair, the powerful look it exuded, and they would want it behind their desks. Others would be most interested in the simple aesthetic beauty of the chair, and they would want it in their homes and public spaces in the office. Still others would love all of those things about the chair, and want a prototype that could do all of the above. Charles and Ray got to designing.
They came up with three different versions of the chair, each with the same materials, but also each with a different purpose and a different look to set it apart from the group. They had made a collection rather than a single chair, and they wanted it to be part of many different public and private spheres in modern America. They wanted something for the loungers, something for the workers, and something for everybody else. They came up with the Eames Aluminum Group Lounge Chair, the Eames Aluminum Group Executive Chair, and the Eames Aluminum Group Management Chair. Within those three major variations there was something for everyone, and something everyone wanted. Comfort, style, elegance, beauty, support, and solutions for the home, the office, and everywhere in between.
Each chair had its own special stylization, and its own unique features. In the following paragraphs we'll look at each chair from a close-up angle, examining what makes it brilliant, different, workable, or all three. We'll also see exactly why the Eameses chose to make the furniture they way they did, what they loved about it, and what it can teach us about their creative and design process. We'll also go back to those technical questions brought up earlier in the article; how did they make it comfortable? How did they make it supportive? And how did they get away with making an indoor chair with outdoor chair design principles?
Nowadays, to bring the Eames Aluminum Group to an even wider audience, Herman Miller has actually decided to bring back the mesh fabric that wold allow the chair to become indoor-outdoor. The fabric is a special high-tech fiber that's safe for the environment, weather resistant, and beautiful. When you're customizing your own chair, don't forget that mesh is an option (though the leather is a gorgeous choice for indoors).
The Eames Aluminum Group Chairs have a vaunted place in the history of 20th century design. Their popularity and their still-hip stylization have allowed them to make their mark in the 21st, as well. Whether you put one in your home, your office, or in an indoor/outdoor space, you'll always have a chair full of history, totally comfortable, supportive, and always lovely. Charles and Ray Eames designed for the future, trying to push furniture to new and greater styles; with this group, they succeeded. Get your chair from Smart Furniture today; whether it be the management chair, the executive chair, or the lounge chair, you won't be disappointed you invested in an Eames chair.