Herman Miller and Charles and Ray Eames
Herman Miller furniture has always been built and designed by some of the greatest industrial designers in this country and abroad. But for an incredibly fruitful period in the late 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s, the company had the privilege of working with and distributing the furniture made by Charles and Ray Eames, possibly the greatest industrial designers of all time. The partnership was a long one, and it began with one of the most significant industrial designs of all time; the LCW, the Eames Plywood Lounge Chair, which was called by TIME magazine the greatest design of the 20th century. Over the many decades that Charles and Ray made Herman Miller furniture, a lot of things changed. The country changed, the tastes and styles of the day changed. But one constant was always the timeless elegance and class of Eames furniture. They made films, they built houses and toys, the put on exhibitions, but they always came back to furniture; it was a true gift of theirs, and the Herman Miller furniture catalogue is a dozen times richer for their one of a kind contributions. This article focuses on the long, special, and mutually beneficial relationship between the Office of Charles and Ray Eames and Herman Miller, and how that relationship continues to blossom and bear fruit to this day.
It all began in 1946, with a wonderful little chair, an exhibition in New York, and a legendary designer named George Nelson who, for at least one day, found himself playing the role of talent scout.
Some background: George Nelson was himself one of the great industrial designers. He built the first Storagewall, he planned the first urban pedestrian mall. He designed the Nelson Swag Leg Series, the Coconut Chair, and the Marshmallow Sofa. His contributions to 20th century modern design are original and lasting. He was first noticed by Herman Miller earlier in his career, and he soon became the company’s Director of Design. It was in this capacity that he had come to see the LCW, and it was in this capacity that he began to try and recruit Charles and Ray into the fold at Herman Miller furniture. That he was successful is one of the most important turning points in the history of the storied company.
The LCW quickly became a big hit when Herman Miller furniture began to produce and distribute it for the masses. A fixture of school buildings and living rooms, as well as hipper offices and younger-skewing businesses, it became a cultural touchstone of design. It was brilliantly designed, with a comfortable and unique look, and the intense process of literally molding wood was fascinating to a country fully awoken to its capacity as an industrial powerhouse and a cradle of innovation and invention. It was a truly modern chair, in every sense of the word, but it was also truly timeless. Continually in production since 1946, it’s still popular today, and one of a very few instantly recognizable chairs. The stylization of the chair was in the time period, but not of it; it’s not dated in the least. It was a huge victory for Charles and Ray, and a coup for Herman Miller, and it was only the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
The next projects the Eameses got started on dealt with a new kind of material, more easily bent than the plywood and with a strength and integrity that could withstand the pressure of being a single shell chair. Fiberglass. The molded fiberglass (now the Molded Plastic collection) chairs that Charles and Ray built were similar to their molded Plywood brothers and sisters, but they were different as well. For one, you could use just a single piece of material to form the whole of a chair; the back, the seat, and the arms. With plywood you couldn’t do this, because the wood couldn’t handle the multi-angle pressure, and it would break under too much strain. But with fiberglass, pretty much anything was possible. They built rocking chairs, lounge chairs, side chairs, chairs that used wire in their construction; with a material so easy to manipulate, it became very easy for them to use their creativity in ever more daring and diverse ways. With the molded plywood chair, they had discovered a new kind of technology, and a new way to make furniture; with the fiberglass models, they could be pure aesthetes, kids with a big pile of PlayDo. With both chairs, they made Herman Miller a more respected and well known company, not to mention a lot of money. Herman Miller updated the material used to plastic when it became evident that such a change would be beneficial to both the consumer and the environment.
Next they shifted their attention to working life, with the Eames Desk and the Eames Storage Unit (or units; there were actually several different models in different sizes). The Eames Desk was unlike all the other desks on the market. What you saw when you looked at it was not business, but play and fun. The brightly colored panels mixed with the wood accents and metal supports and wires created a unique blend of technological and modern, functional and playful, aesthetically beautiful and practically useful. The storage units were basically the same story, but with added functionality and even more of a palette for color, texture, and materials. They would have looked somewhat out of place in the traditional offices of the time, but that staid tradition was something they were trying to get rid of and exceed, not emulate or try to work with. Charles and Ray wanted a little more fun in the world, a little more color and joy. And even in a work desk and a storage cabinet, they made that whimsical wish come true through their furniture. Put the Eames Desk and the Storage Unit together and you not only had a total system for you office, a place to work and a place to store and display your work, you also had a total aesthetic system that was packed to the gills with vibrancy and and wonder. Not bad for a desk.
The storage unit was flexible too. It came in several different sizes, all with different ideal uses and spatial strategies. You could get the 1x1 if you only had a little bit of space. There was the 1x2, about the size of a bench, the 2x2, junior edition, and the 4x4, the big daddy that could handle nearly any storage challenge with aplomb. Each size has its own charms and limitations, and they become increasingly more diverse and "designed" the larger they get. The biggest has every kind of color available (if you want it that way) and several types of wood finish and texture to boot. The Eameses were beginning to stretch their legs.
The next big thing they designed for Herman Miller was the world famous Eames Lounge Chair, which is probably the greatest true lounge chair — complete with ottoman — ever made. The Lounge is as gorgeous as it is comfortable, and as American and traditional as it is unique and aesthetically triumphant. It combines the technological advances and the new-world look of molded plywood with old world leather upholstery. The combination looks natural and comfortable, richly so. Sitting in the chair is as close to total comfort as you’re likely to get with a lounge chair, and when you throw in the ottoman it’s almost hard to stay awake.
Charles Eames always said he had wanted the Lounge to be reminiscent of an old catcher’s mitt. By that he meant comfortable, leather, broken in, Americana, casual. Everything an old mitt represents, wrapped up in a thoroughly modern chair. Charles and Ray Eames believed in what they called the "guest/host relationship." That meant that every piece of furniture they designed had to be looked at as a host, with the user being the guest. A gracious host anticipates the needs of the guest, makes them as comfortable as possible, and shows them a good time. With the lounge, all of those criteria are met. The user is definitely comfortable, and with the ottoman his first thought (where should I put my feet?) is answered. The stylish look of the chair and the classic quality it represents are the good time. When you sit in the chair you just know: this is the quintessential piece of Herman Miller furniture, a great host, and a great chair.
Next up were the Aluminum Group Chairs. These chairs were originally conceived as both indoor and outdoor chairs, with mesh fabric and aluminum ribs to hold it up. But the eventual form of the chair would be leather and aluminum, and this was mostly owing to the stunning beauty and retro cool of the design. Quickly the chair was re-purposed and re-upholstered to become one of the better office and interior chairs in the Herman Miller furniture stable. The chairs were unique in a lot of different ways, and that’s no surprise — they were designed by Charles and Ray Eames.
One of the most important design aspects of the chair was the difference between the seat and the back of the chair. The seat of the chair was actually longer and larger than the back, and that was somewhat unusual at the time. Furthermore, the modern materials of black leather and polished aluminum gave the chair a very cool look that fit into most environments with ease. It became a favorite of the time, and it continues to be a big seller in hip young offices and well-designed homes and buildings.
These are only some of the biggest names in the Eames collection that Herman Miller still produces today. The volume of work they did with the company over the four decades they were affiliated with it is staggering in terms of quality, and impressive in terms of quantity. Hardly a year would pass without either a new Eames piece of furniture or a new twist on an old model, and hardly a year would pass that the folks at Herman Miller furniture didn’t thank their lucky stars that George Nelson recruited Charles and Ray all those years ago. Over the years, their names and the name of Herman Miller would become entwined and take on the same meanings; quality, historic proportions, and a sense of sophisticated fun.