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Eames Molded Plywood Chair: Design Story

The design story of the Eames Molded Plywood Chairs is truly interesting. It’s the product of a long collaboration between Charles and Ray Eames, a relationship with Herman Miller and the United States Navy. It became the a harbinger of a new era in home and industrial design. The LCW, as it’s listed in catalogues, was one of the first really modern chairs produced in America, and it would go on to propel its designers, Charles and Ray Eames, into the stratosphere of American industrial designers. But even with all that, it’s possible that the average buyer has no idea what they’re called, who made them, or what they mean.

You may not know their name, but the chances are you’ve seen or sat in an Eames Molded Plywood Lounge Chair before. They occupy business offices and daycare centers, elementary school classrooms and the homes of friends. They seem to be everywhere, even though folks can rarely put a name to the familiar shape. The Eames Plywood Lounge Chair is a legendary design, even if the name of it isn’t nearly as famous, and the enormous amount of copying, sharing, and interest in them has assured their ubiquity. There are films that have been made about this remarkable chair, books and magazine articles have been written by the dozens and hundreds, and it’s critical appreciation has been exuberant for more than half a century. In fact, TIME magazine referred to the Eames Molded Plywood Lounge Chair as the Design of the Century. That’s high prize, and maybe this is even higher; it's all deserved.

Eames Molded Plywood Chair

They were first designed by Charles and Ray Eames, two titans of post-war American industrial design. They were also enthusiastic and proficient filmmakers (you might have seen their short films Tops and Powers of Ten in school), scientists and mathematicians (Their exhibit Mathematica is still shown today), and artists. A husband and wife team, they worked together in unusual harmony and creative sync throughout their careers (they met when Ray was a student, Charles a new teacher at a Michigan art school, Cranbrook Academy). They work they did has lasted, not only because of it’s popularity and undeniable beauty, but because of the brilliant design techniques and industrial processes they helped to birth in a relatively new century. In the history of American industrial and interior design, there has never been a team with the reputation, success, and production of Charles and Ray Eames. And even separated, each would hold a legitimate claim to being one of the great designers in the 20th (or any) century. A list of some of the things they made is an embarrassment of riches; the Hang-It-All, the Soft Pad Chairs, The Aluminum Group Chairs, The Eames Lounge Chair, The Eames Home (an architectural landmark in California), and a wealth of films and photography exhibits. That they have aligned their work with Herman Miller, and now with Smart Furniture, is truly an honor.

If great design is the collision of creativity, hard work and a bit of serendipity, then the Eames Molded Plywood Lounge Chairs can proudly bear the title. The process used to create the chairs, the process of bending and molding plywood, was something Charles and Ray worked on for years with varying degrees of success. While they had been able to perform the task to simply bending for years (and Charles had even won a design competition with the technique), it was still very difficult to make structurally sound chair. Chairs that were tough, that could be manufactured, and that could be bent in 3d while remaining strong and durable. They built a machine in their home, which they called the Kazam, which they used to try and build the chairs. Kazam was temperamental however, and caused a lot of problems in the early years of the design process.

Stories abound of how they often blew out the power in their building, how they almost burned down their rooms trying to generate the heat, or how Charles climbed a neighborhood telephone pole to divert some needed electricity. The furious energy and work ethic of the Eames’ was already on full display that early in their careers. But, near the end of this long phase of experimentation, they began to perfect their technique. They realized the best ways to use glue, the best ways to retain structural integrity; the best way to make an Eames Plywood Lounge Chair, in short. One of the most important discoveries (hard truths might be the best word) they made concerned the totality of the chair. At first they had always dreamed of making a chair with one piece of wood; a chair that had a back and seat that were all of a piece, bent to their will. Eventually, they realized this wasn’t really feasible. Not only was the strength of the chair compromised, the cost of making such a piece would have been exorbitant and would have pushed the price of the chair way past acceptable marks. In the end, the form of the coming chair came into focus’ several pieces, elegantly curved, and fitted together with as little fanfare as possible to create a mostly unified look.

Eames Molded Plywood Chair
Herman Miller introduced a new upholstered versions of the Eames Plywood Chairs in 2012.

Even with all that effort and a series of small successes in figuring out the manufacturing side of things, Charles and Ray didn’t have distribution. They worked on sets and films for MGM in the meantime. In the end, their work on the Eames Molded Plywood Chair may have never amounted to much but for the intervention of a large and powerful force; the United States Navy. When World War II broke out, there was a great need for new equipment; new lightweight equipment. Charles and Ray had heard horror stories of how soldiers and sailors with broken legs often worsened their injuries when they used metal splints, the common splint at the time. They needed a new kind of lightweight, giving, yet firm splint. And who was better equipped to handle that need than the duo who had devised a way to bend plywood to their will?

Charles and Ray were immediately employed in the process of creating splints, glider shells, and other molded plywood creations for the Navy. The splints they made were actually modeled on Charles’ own leg. The initial order was only 5,000 splints, but by the end of their relationship with the Navy Charles and Ray had created over 150,000 splints for use by the armed forces. It was the spark that led to the wildfire popularity of the Eames Molded Plywood Lounge Chair, and the long relationship they had with furniture giant Herman Miller.

By building 150,000 splints, creating the manufacturing process themselves and developing the best strategies for creating strength and integrity in the wood, Charles and Ray took great strides toward total understanding of the process. They felt they were ready to make the first of the Eames Plywood Lounge Chairs. They had the right techniques for bending wood in three dimensions yet retaining all of it’s strength and durability. The right techniques for attaching the pieces to one another in a unique, subtle, and somewhat invisible way. The right techniques for, perhaps most importantly, not blowing out the power and burning down their apartments.

The first Eames Molded Plywood Lounge Chairs were made by Evans, a California company with small distribution but a reputation for being able to work with wood. They were slow to catch on at first. That’s not really surprising when you take a look at the furniture, the contemporary furniture, that the Eames Plywood Lounge Chairs were dealing with. It was stately, never avant-garde or even a bit risky. It was traditional and solid. The LCW, as it was known, was none of those things. It was curvy, sensuous. It invited curiosity and made itself a focal point, even a conversation piece in almost any room. It didn’t owe anything to the furniture design of the past. But eventually, all that would go away, as the Eames Molded Plywood Chair caught the attention of collectors and homeowners, and became itself the gold standard of industrial design in chairs.

Eames Molded Plywood Chair
Upright dining version of the Plywood Chair with chome metal legs.

As a result of the somewhat slow sales process, Evans knew they needed to do something to jump start sales. They hit upon an interesting idea; put the chair in New York and give it an exhibition at a big hotel. The whole circus briefly moved up to the Big Apple, and the chair finally became a major success. People couldn’t get enough of it, and it began to sell in large volumes (or at least large by prior standards!). One of the people who attended the exhibit and really loved the chair was George Nelson, one of the great minds and great designers behind Herman Miller. After seeing the work of Charles and Ray Eames, he knew he wanted the Eames Molded Plywood Lounge Chair, and he knew he wanted them to be with Herman Miller. It wasn’t long before that happened, and one of the great partnerships between a company and a design team was born with resounding success.

Nelson was one of the chief voices at Herman Miller, a man responsible for much of what he company would become; the greatest and most well-respected furniture company in America. Were he around today, it’s almost certain he would be willing (though it would be uneccessary) to stake the entirety of his business reputation on this one decision; bringing in Charles and Ray Eames. For the next forty years, Charles and ray would be the creative and productive workhorses of the Herman Miller stable of designers.

Not for them the long fallow periods of inactivity punctuated by brief bursts of activity or a single produced project. They were always creating new things, building new dreams and forms, and, of course, constantly perfecting what they had already made. There is a quote from John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, that says people should always be “going on to perfection.” Working tirelessly to get to where they know they should be. For Charles and Ray Eames, this described their relationship with their furniture. This first major production of the Eames Molded Plywood Lounge Chair was by no means the last iteration of the chair that would appear; today, there are four versions of the chair available for purchase, each offering a unique slant and a unique look predicated on the basic idea of the molded plywood chair.

Eventually, Herman Miller would buy out the manufacturing wing of Evans furniture. This freed up the Eames Plywood Lounge Chair to be mass produced, mass marketed, and mass purchased. In 1946, when the chair debuted as a Herman Miller product, it began to explode. Everyone wanted a piece of the Eames chair; schools wanted it for the playful, brightly colored and low to the ground aesthetic it had. Children loved it, so it found a place in playrooms and bedrooms. Tasteful buyers and parents wanted them for their living rooms and dens, and office thought they were perfect for that modern lobby they were trying to create.

In 1946, a chair like this was at the very front rank of modernity, one of the first foot soldiers in the Herman Miller effort to make modern furniture, creative, daring and beautiful furniture, a high priority for the living rooms, offices and public spaces of America. Of course the Eames Molded Plywood Chair fit right into that. George Nelson’s decision to recruit Charles and Ray into the Herman Miller family of designers paid off in more ways than one. Financially the chairs were a huge boon to the Herman Miller sales wing. But perhaps more importantly, they (Charles and Ray) sealed Herman Miller’s place in the history books and critical appreciations of design in the 20th century. There was nobody who seriously competed with them, and for all of their products to issue from the offices of Herman Miller was a coup indeed.

New Materials, New Forms

As the century wore on, and new fashions and modes of working came into light, the chairs underwent minor changes as well. Many of the chairs stopped using only molded plywood for support and design. For instance, several of the new versions of the chair are constructed using metal legs rather than wooden one, and there have also been small changes (or more accurately, variations) to the seat pan. Different angles, different fluctuations and different recline. The curving, gentle slopes of the chair have been molded to fit new fashions. Of course, the old version is still intact and available for purchase from Smart Furniture and Herman Miller. But every new decade saw the Eames’ continue to try and push their design into a new era, a new “consciousness.” In time, they would even depart totally from molded plywood and attempt to make chair from fiberglass, a new material they helped to pioneer. These somewhat egg-shaped shells were highly successful as well, and their stackable, lightweight nature made them big hits for auditoriums and schools. Also, and this was major for Charles and Ray, they were able to be shaped in one large piece; a piece that could form both the back and the seat of the chair. The dream of the single, three dimensional, structurally sound shell was realized (albeit in a different material).

Charles and Ray Eames with Plywood Frames
Charles and Ray Eames pictured with the metal frames of their acclaimed plywood chairs

The height of the Eames Molded Plywood Lounge Chair was also subject to experimentation. The classic version is often referred to as the “low chair.” In fact, often people are confused and think that the traditional LCW designation refers to “low chair wood” instead of “lounge chair wood.” The newer versions have legs that can extend the chair to new heights, and keep people more comfortable, and less awkward and tables and other, taller structures that are sometimes juxtaposed with the Eames Plywood Lounge Chair.

No matter what the new material, or the new design, the original Eames Plywood Lounge Chair always kept it’s unique sense of style, it’s aesthetic, and it’s integrity. And, of course, it’s still available, and still hugely popular with collectors and regular buyers alike. It’s rare that a modern chair, a new chair, that was considered beautiful in 1946 is still considered fresh and lovely today, but this is one of those pieces; it passes the test. Still vibrant, still impressive, and still unique, this is a chair for the ages. Or, according to TIME, the design of the century.

But Is It Comfortable?

Yes, it is. Just because it’s made of wood and lots of schools use it for their classrooms, doesn’t mean it’s not comfy!

Well, maybe comfy isn’t the right word. But this is certainly not your traditional straight-backed, back straining wooden dining room chair. This is an elegantly curved, welcoming, and ultimately cradling chair. The curve of the seat matches the curve of a human at rest, and you’ll fit right into it when you sit down. The same goes for the back of the chair, which is both low and expansive; that keeps your lower back supported (your lumbar region) while at the same time keeping your neck and shoulders free to move. That helps your circulation.

While no one would make the claim this is a work chair, it’s comfortable for hours of sitting. It is an elegant and inviting home chair, one with a place in any well appointed room, and equally attractive to adults and children (and sturdy enough for both).

Is there more to the design than just molded plywood?

The Eames Molded Plywood Lounge Chair didn’t get the design of the century designation merely for bending plywood, which by the time TIME wrote that story, was somewhat passe. No, it got that for much more than that (though that would have been close to enough). One of the major innovations and design elements extant in the chair is the shock-absorbent connectors between the seat, the back, and the strip that connects them to each other. These dual shock absorbing creations go a long way toward making the Eames Plywood Lounge Chair as comfortable, durable, and structurally sound as it is.

Another element of the design that is sometimes overlooked is how carefully calibrated it is to the human form. The chair is comfortable, not just beautiful, and it’s natural curves draw the user in and keep them sitting in comfort for hours. The back and the seat of the chair are both finely drawn to accommodate the human form in several different shapes and sizes. The chair is low to the ground, to be sure, but that has little effect on comfort and more impact on spatial awkwardness if it exists; to remedy that problem there are now version higher up off the ground for users to choose from.

But it’s the dual shock absorbent connectors that really set this design apart from pure aethetic and comfort to the realm of excellent engineering. The design that came in second for that TIME article was the locomotive engine, so this was no aesthetic beauty contest. The shock absorbers not only made the chair more giving and more comfortable, it made the chair stronger and more resistant to breakage or a seam in it’s structural integrity. They also ensured a generation of innovative chair ideas would be realized; without them, a lot of ideas would have been tossed into the wastebasket and forgotten rather than put into use in designs that left a positive mark on the world.

Herman Miler owes much of it’s reputation to the work of Charles and Ray Eames. Without them they would have always been known as a thriving and excellent furniture company; with them, they became creative and academic giants in the field. Smart Furniture is very proud to offer our customers the Eames Molded Plywood Lounge Chair, the original, and still the best when it comes to great design, great chairs, and great, iconic form. Buy your chair now at Smart Furniture.


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