The Eames Lounge Chair's Design Story
History and Critical Reception
The long, fascinating history of the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman actually begins many years before the chair was ever built, and many years before it was even thought of. Like all great products it was a mixture of inspiration, luck, good design, intelligent oversight, and a particular moment in history. The chair didn't spring from whole cloth, nor was it born fully formed in the minds of its creators, leaping out of their heads like Athena. It was the product of long brainstorming sessions, testing, piloting, prototyping, and a generous love of design for design's sake.
The Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman came out of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames, a legendary design institution that would incubate thousands of brilliant ideas, brainstorming sessions, toys, exhibits, and playful, beautiful, enduring design. The Office of Charles and Ray Eames was a safe haven, a playground for design oriented personalities, where they could explore their interests and ideas with a free rein. From this Eden-like studio, the very first molded plywood chairs were built, and the first step in a long series was taken into making the Eames Lounge Chair what it is today.
The molded plywood chair, nowadays most often referred to as simply the Eames Chair, was groundbreaking is several different ways, all of which are applicable to the Eames Lounge Chair. The molded plywood material that was used had never been seen before, and was the product of a brand new process of super-heating the wood and then bending it into impossibly perfect and smooth curves. This had never been done before, and while the first molded plywood chairs were quite simple (and are today mostly seen in children's classrooms), they were nevertheless quite bold and unique. The undulating seat and the curved back both contributed to the paradox the Eameses strove for with nearly all of their furniture; the balance between modern processes and natural forms and inspiration. The molded plywood chair was one of the fathers of the Eames Lounge Chair, without a doubt, and the materials (molded plywood), prestige, and inspiration were very similar, though the final looks were not.
A Unique Origin
Every great piece of art has a story, often one as interesting and instructive as the piece itself. The Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman is no exception to this rule. Composed of molded plywood and leather, made to accommodate the spirit of the time, designed to stand the test of time, and built to be the most comfortable, durable, elegant and well-used chair possible. The Eames Lounge Chair is a pillar of modern design that stands up to the inquiries of any critic with flying colors, existing comfortably in every era of design that has passed since its initial construction. How did this chair come to be what it is today? What was the inspiration? What was the purpose? And who was behind it? The design story of the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman begins in Hollywood, takes a detour through the great outdoors, borrows a little from the great American pastime, and ends in the living room, simply comfortable and simply lovely. It includes a director, two designers, and the unseen hand of nature, and it tells you everything you need to know about the Eameses, the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, and about just how to build that perfect chair.
Billy Wilder was one of the great directors of Hollywood's heyday, back in the 30s, 40s and 50s. An icon, a stylist, a writer, he was justly famous and had a lot of friends in the art, film, and entertainment world. Two of these friends were Charles and Ray Eames, two of the greatest designers to work in this century. They built buildings, designed toys, chairs, tables, tops; they made films and wrote articles, they built whole dreamworlds and played out elaborate thought experiments in the playground of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames, ground zero for much of the best design work ever to appear on the American scene.
One day, Charles and Ray were on the set of one of Wilder's films. Directing is a difficult and exhausting process, and they noticed that Wilder was rigging up makeshift lounge chairs for himself in between takes, so he could take short naps and retreat for a few moments from the unending bustle of the film set. The slap dash rigs he put together struck a chord with the Eames, and the setting (the noise and trauma of a modern world reflected in a harried film set) in combination with the object (a handmade retreat from said madhouse, built for comfort and relaxation) inspired them to begin thinking about a product of their own. A lounge chair that would embrace the ideals of comfort and simplicity (even elegance) and show in its construction and appearance the curves and forms of a the natural world, as means of escape from the modern one. After years of experimentation, cultivation, and inspiration, this idea would become the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, one of the greatest pieces of furniture ever made, and certainly tops in its decade and century.
Of course, it wasn't as easy as simply drawing up and producing a chair that reminded them of the constructions Wilder was making on his sets. Each piece of furniture the legendary husband and wife duo made invariably bore their unique, thoughtful, playful stamp. The real work of designing the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman began in the Office of Ray and Charles Eames, the little studio that could, the intellectual playground of the best designers in the country. The Office was the cradle of nearly every great idea the Eameses would have in their long careers, and it was the incubator that spawned the careers of several excellent designers and artists. The list includes Harry Bertoia, Gregory Ain, Henry Beer, and Richard Foy, all of whom went on to do outstanding work on their own (Bertoia's wire furniture set a new standard in an ever-expanding field).
Charles and Ray loved off-the-wall ideas, and encouraged their peers and office mates to come up with seemingly absurd possibilities and theorems, and believed that the playful struggle to deal with them led to great creativity and innovative solutions to problems. The idea for the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, the spark from which the design flowed, was seemingly simple but richly evocative and complex when translated to furniture; the idea was to make a lounge chair that resembled, in feel, emotion, and aesthetic, a well-used baseball mitt.
One look at the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman and it's obvious Charles and Ray succeeded in their quixotic-at-first-glance mandate. The chair really does resemble that well-loved, broken-in, leather baseball mitt we're familiar with from youth. It is therefore evocative of several competing ideas and feelings, including American tradition, comfort, reliability, familiarity and familiar materials, the advancement of age and the recession of childhood, and the juxtaposition of the modern world with the oft-dreamed-of old one. A worn baseball mitt is as American as apple pie, and so is the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman. It's also impossibly elegant, and in some ways a well-constructed contradiction. It embraces the curvature and gentleness of slope suggested in nature, in addition to natural wood elements, but it somewhat incongruously incorporates definitively modern practices like molded plywood and a swivel base.
The beauty of the work done by Charles and Ray Eames, and the work done in the Office of Ray and Charles Eames, is the combination of the sublime and emotional with the shape and texture of the natural world. The spirit of playfulness that imbues every piece of furniture they built is in full evidence with the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, and their inspiration (the need for one of their friends to escape for a few precious moments the harassing demands of the modern world) survives the translation to reality as well as their template (a well used baseball glove) did. The Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman is a success from a design standpoint, but also from a human one; it is evidence that a design can be guided not just by practical concerns and science, but by a sincere desire to play, to experiment, and to attempt perfection in the seemingly imperfectable.
The first lounge chair and ottoman, produced in 1956, made its public debut on Arlene Francis' Home show, which later became the Today show. Charles Eames appeared on the Arlene Francis' Home show with the Eames Lounge Chair the week it was introduced (See Video). Stardom ensued. Yet, as popular as it's become, the Eames Lounge Chair remains grounded in the details that continue to distinguish it.