An Icon of Modern Design: The Eames Lounge Chair
In 2006, Merrell published "The Eames Lounge Chair: An Icon of Modern Design" on the occasion of the chair's 50th anniversary. It had been introduced to the world in 1956, offering a new sense of post-war comfort and ease, and immediately taking its place alongside the greatest pieces of furniture ever made in America. Charles and Ray Eames, who had built the chair, would go on to become two of the most famous industrial designers on earth, and would move into film, text, toys, architecture, and of course more furniture. It was the beginning of a very long love affair between the Eameses and the American public, between designers and tasteful consumers, and also a fault line that demarcated a new kind of furniture, in a new kind of half century.
Before everything was said and done, the Eames Lounge Chair and Charles and Ray Eames themselves would take their places in the pantheon of modern American design. However, it was not until the publication of "The Eames Lounge Chair: An Icon of Modern Design" that a full length, fully explicated, and fully illustrated scholarly work had been written exclusively about the Eames Lounge Chair. 50 years was long enough to wait, and the book that was brought forth (in conjunction with an exhibition of the Eameses work in Grand Rapids, Michigan) was a great success in its own right. In it the whole history of the chair, its cultural impact, and its profound influence on modernity are explored in full and exacting detail, complete with writing and essays from some of the foremost industrial design experts in the world. The book was a true success and a worthy companion piece not only to the exhibition it accompanied, but also to the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman. What follows is a detailed summation of the contents and arguments contained within the book, which can be purchased both online and in bookstores.
Martin Eidelberg: Charting the Iconic Chair
Martin Eidelberg is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Rutgers University. He has taught and written extensively on design and design movements, and his contribution to this book is significant. He begins with an appreciation of the chair itself as an art object, and a particularly modern one at that. The chair (plainly the chair, not the Eames Lounge Chair) has been somewhat freely characterized in the last few decades as a quintessentially 20th century icon. Its values are similar to those of modern man, and its increasing importance has mirrored the rise of technology and the sedentary work habits of a vast and growing segment of the population. However, we must decide if the chair is itself worthy of such a prized and lofty position; is it really that important to modernity?
Eidelberg answers in the affirmative. He goes further as well, finding some not insignificant meaning in the "veneration" of the Eames Lounge Chair as it relates to other chairs in general. For a thing in the macro sense (the chair) to have such a lofty presence and authority all on its own, to have within it a piece of art or product that immodestly exceeds even its own raised profile, that's noteworthy. The Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman is such a piece of art and history. Among collectors, art appreciators, designers, and industry peers it exceeds the bounds of plain furniture to a significant extent. It has become more than a chair, and being just a chair is quite enough in this day and age to call for attention, appreciation, and serious study. That the chair was so immediately and is now so enduringly popular is a testament to the Eameses, to its excellence and reputation, and to the perfect moment in history for it to appear — 1956.
1956 was the perfect time for the chair to appear and be appreciated for what it was. Post-war America had been planted and cultivated; it was ready to receive something like this chair. Why? Before the war, as Eidelberg illustrates, much of the focus of the design community was on broad work. Literally. Pieces of furniture were prized for the craftsmanship that could be put on display by skilled woodworkers and artisans. For this reason sideboards, beds, cabinets, etc., were the order of the day when it came to art appreciation.
One can certainly understand why; in an age before advanced science had turned its attention to posture, work habits, and ergonomics, there was no reason to prize utility, recreational use, foresight and engineering over plain, unvarnished design brilliance. Because values had not yet shifted so totally to the utilitarian-utopian mood of post-war American, craftsmanship was prized above all else. The culture of majestic sideboards and dazzling inlays of the early part of the 20th century, indeed stretching back through generations and centuries, had to be turned somewhat on its head before the world would be ready to so totally and reasonably adopt, adore, and commemorate the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman. As Eidelberg writes: "If studies on design from the early part of the twentieth century focused on design reform and creative brilliance, by mid-century attention shifted to issues of rational planning, new technology, and industrial production. Chairs, much more than other forms of furniture, fit these new parameters."
And so did, not coincidentally, the Eames Lounge Chair. More than resemble and answer those concerns, the Lounger was the epitome of them. The Eames Lounge Chair was the natural end to a long line of designers, designs, and innovations, all of which birthed and fostered the modernist movement of which the Eames Lounge Chair is the finest and most well-known example. The furniture of architects, like Frank Lloyd Wright and Jose Hoffmann, was the basis. It was unadorned, without real ornamentation whatsoever, and most interesting at a structural level. These men believed in clean lines, smooth surfaces, simple rather than radical sizing, and basic colors. The chairs they made, for homes they'd designed or spaces they lived in, became the example followed by a great part of the design world. In fact, those who choose not to follow along the path of the modernists, and stick instead with the decaying French styles, were quickly and rightfully swept under the rug and forgotten as relics (or, rather, worshippers) of a bygone age.
Eidelberg describes a clear line of modern design; from Frank Lloyd Wright and Josef Hoffmann, to Mackintosh, to the Bauhuas, Breuer, and on to Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, and their peers. There is a clear progression in a single, unified and progressive direction: modernity. These designers (most of whom were architects, possibly their secret weapon against the cloying and clinging atmosphere of pedagogical worship attributed to the fine old styles of ornate furniture) stepped out toward the simple, the effective, the efficient, the pure, the comfortable, and, though they didn't yet know it, the ergonomic. The Eames Lounge Chair is the period, or perhaps the exclamation point, of a long journey taken by dozens of the greatest industrial designers toward a workable, comfortable, simple (in the hearty, Quaker-ish terms in which they reveled) new kind of modernity.
One of the chief attributes the Eames Lounge Chair possesses is its technical virtuosity. The materials used to make the chair, descended from the tubular steel experiments of the early century, were the inventions of the Eameses. Here we are discussing the molded plywood that forms the shell of the chair. Molded plywood was the perfected medium of the Eameses, and is itself a marker of modernity; it was also birthed by modernity. The first purposeful uses of the material were as splints and casts; the Eames sold their infant technology to the American government during WWII, making lightweight, durable splints and stretchers for soldiers and medics in the field. Beyond medical uses, the plywood shells were used in flight technology, providing again a lightweight, smooth, very strong material. The wild success of the material during the war legitimized it among the masses, though its possibilities were already lauded by design folks, and as yet not fully unlocked by Charles and Ray Eames.
The full, perfected use of molded plywood would of course come in the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, as well as in the LCW. Smaller totally plywood constructions are still seen in schoolhouses and meeting places today (though not all in attendance will realize their progenitors, nor their design excellence and worth). The lounger uses the molded plywood not only for material and structural needs, though those concerns fit hand in glove with the concerns of the modernist movement, but also for purely aesthetic and "principled" reasons. The principled reasons being the ethos of the movement; smooth, sanitary surface, clean lines, economy and eloquence. The material is perfect for the perfect chair; they were made for each other, and together form the basis of the greatest lounge chair ever drawn, built, engineered, produced and sold.
After establishing the clear path of designers from the pre-modern to the mid-century modern style of the Eames Lounge Chair, Eidelberg turns his attention to the specifics of how the lounge was itself born. Where did it come from? What gave the Eameses the idea? And what took them so long to actually build and produce the thing?
The idea for the chair was first born at the Cranbrook Academy in Michigan. This small design school had the tremendous good fortune in the late 1930s to have three of the titans of twentieth century design all studying and working under their roof. Eero Saarinen, Charles Eames, and the soon to be Ray Eames all found themselves at Cranbrook, and while their friendships and relationships would last the rest of their lives, it was at the academy that they actually formed a working design team, coming up with wild and wonderful furniture. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City was holding a nationwide contest; the Organic Design competition. The aim of the contest was pretty straightforward, as you may guess by the name; they wanted the best and the brightest to enter an enormous competition, and extract from that impressive sum of designs and plans the very best in the new wave of organic, modern furniture. Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen took it upon themselves to enter the contest. The designs they came up with, breathtaking in their elegance and newness of technology and material, would form the basis of much of Charles' work in molded plywood in the future.
While they didn't produce full size furniture during the competition, they did many detailed drawings and plans, and carefully built small scale models of what they were trying to achieve. The tastemakers at MOMA didn't hesitate to name them the winners of the competition, and likely it wasn't particularly close. In this partnership and in this successful, lauded design, Eidelberg sees the seeds of the Eames Lounge Chair beginning to take root and form in the mind of Charles Eames. Of course, much later, when the chair was actually produced, Ray would have an equal and equally artistic contribution to making the chair what it was.
Eero and Charles would eventually separate in a geographic sense; when Charles and Ray married each other they moved to California, while Saarinen remained behind at Cranbrook. Within a few years he would be in Washington, D.C., and the three designers would go on to shape much of the great work in twentieth century design on the two American coasts. They always remained friends, but the Cranbrook studies and the Organic Design competition would the be the last time they worked together as a team on a single piece of furniture. The Eameses would go on to make their molded plywood designs more expressive, easier to produce, and altogether more impressive.
Armed with success and the military contracts that sustained them through World War II, the Eames set up shop in California and began to work, with the remarkable vigor and playfulness that would mark their marriage and their art, on new molded plywood designs. They tried dozens of variations on a single theme; molded plywood, simplicity, elegance, good design, all rolled into the heading: Eloquent Design. The chairs they came up with were original and inspired, but they often found they couldn't perfect the process for bending a piece of plywood in two directions.
They had to make many of their chairs, far too many for their liking, in separate parts. The molded plywood arms were made separately from the molded plywood back, the molded plywood seat, etc. It was precisely the ability to fully and efficiently control their chosen material that led to the complete shells of the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman. The early chairs, constrained though they were by the realities of the unfinished, unperfected process, were nonetheless hugely successful and attractive in their own right. The most popular variation was called the LCW, the Lounge Chair Wood, and it became a fixture of living rooms and all manner of private spaces in the late forties and early fifties. It is of course still seen today almost everywhere, and has been mentioned above. Eventually, after years of rigorous, relentless, tireless perfectionism and experimentation, they Eames Lounge Chair could finally be built with the materials and processes at hand.
The long run from Wright and Hoffmann to Saarinen and Eames was about to reach its pinnacle, or perhaps the natural and celebrated end of it road. In 1956, Charles and Ray, finally able to bend their materials to their will, released the chair to an adoring critical body and a voracious public.
However, here the plot thickens for Eidelberg. According to his article, the Eames Lounge Chair, while at the end of the long road to modernism, actually has much in common with older, less modern furniture than many give it credit for. In fact, many are quick to forget that nearly two decades passed between the introduction of molded plywood as a material and the introduction of the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman. So why is it so celebrated? For Eidelberg, it's a question of comfort. The most important aspect of the Eames Lounge Chair is undoubtedly how comfortable it is. Eidelberg reminds us, however, that the chair is also comfortable looking. This look of comfort, quite different from the more spartan furniture of the modern furniture movement's founders, sets the chair apart even from its progenitors and peers.
The chair is the greatest of the moderns, not only because it epitomizes the form, but because it also makes room in its construction for the familiar, and for a different set of furniture and design values that are agreed upon by all others. It's not a robotic extension; rather it is a spiritual and aesthetic leap forward that incorporates enough of the modernists' DNA to sustain it as the apex of their necessary and admirable movement. In other words, just like the molded plywood that forms its spine, while the Eames Lounge Chair is emblematic of the new and the modern, it is also a product of the tested, the tried, the true values of comfort and support characteristic of American homes and the terms of conduct mutually agreed upon in the name of physical and spiritual comfort in your home and in the home of others. the chair is a host, a gracious one, a tasteful one, and a multi-faceted one.
In the end, Eidelberg has raised and answered many questions about the history and the historical/cultural place the Eames Lounge Chair holds in the annals of design and American art. Is it a modern chair? Yes, but. It has several features, major features, of older and more plainspoken furniture. Not plainspoken in the sense of the simplicity and elegance sought by the modernists, but in the simplicity of intention; the chair, first and foremost, wants to be comfortable. It wants its users to be comforted and supported, and even asleep, in its arms.
This is not a feature of the truly and purely modern furniture. Like the Chesterfield sofa or a well appointed pre-war chaise lounge, this lounge is gracious, not mainly for how it looks, at least in the eyes of the average consumer. The materials used to build the chair and the sculptural quality it possesses are due to the craftsmanship and artistry of Charles and Ray Eames, and of course they are vitally important to understanding and appreciating the chair. The chair's comfort and its structure are inseparable sides of a single, unique coin. Unique enough to serve not only as the endpoint of one movement, modernism in furniture, but also as the starting point for another, newer, more tolerant and far reaching movement (ergonomically inclined).
There are few events in the world of design with the far reaching impact of the debut of the Eames Lounge Chair. Even more rare is the moment in which the seismic changes are felt gently; this is a chair for the velvet revolution, for the quiet revolution. It changed things forever, but in a universally positive and tolerant way. The chairs which would come after the Eames Lounge Chair may have the style, or they may have the comfort. And they may have the trappings of one generation of furniture combined with the best parts and ideas from another. But you can be sure that none will package all these things together in a combination as beguiling as the Eames Lounge. And you can be sure that no future chair, at least in the foreseeable future, will have such an impact on the way people sit in their homes, in the way they define comfort and luxury, and in the way they organize the aesthetics and prerogatives of chairs. The Eames Lounge Chair isn't one of a kind; it's two of a kind. The last true original in the modern line, and the first in the new and burgeoning furniture movement in the 50s and 60s.
Half a Century of Lounging: Sightings & Reflections
Another important essay contained in the book is Half a Century of Lounging: Sightings and Reflections, by Thomas Hine. Mr. Hine is a design critic, as well as an essayist on topics historical, cultural, and artistic. His article in The Eames Lounge Chair: An Icon of Modern Design has in it the making of cultural biography, but also contains insightful and searching ideas and questions relating to the enduring popularity of the Eames Lounge Chair among members of the buying public. Why is a chair so relatively expensive, aged and of its time still selling in huge numbers? What draws the consumer to the Eames Lounge Chair? While the design is sure to bear some of the credit, the passionate love and defense of other fine furniture by the best minds in the design world have not saved them from relative popular obscurity, or a corner in a dusty museum.
No indeed, critical raves only rarely have the seismic effect on artistic product that they would like to exercise with regularity. The secret to mass appeal is much more often aided by artistic worthiness rather than driven by it, and the question at the heart of the article is this: what is the consumer who cares little or nothing at all about Eero Saarinen, Frank Lloyd Wright, or Marcel Breuer doing spending their money on the Eames Lounge Chair? Well, it all has to do with presentation.
The lounge was debuted in front of the mass and buying public for the first time on NBC's decor program "Home," in 1956. "Home" was a showcase, window shopping for television, and the Eames were not only in attendance for the debut, but they contributed a film and an interview. Hine elaborates on the presentation:
"A darkened stage. The swelling of violins. The chair becomes visible, dimly, behind a scrim, which then rises to show the chair in sharp profile. Then it has its close-up, with the bright television lights beating down on the chair's leather cushions, making them look soft and supple even in the crude imagery of a black and white television broadcast."
The presentation of the chair was dramatic, to say the least. The appeal to consumers advanced on a single front: glamour.
Although the Eameses would later try to soften the image of the chair that was shown on the program, contrasting it with their own film of the chair being meticulously and ingeniously put together, the "damage" was done. The chair, impossibly comfortable and rich looking, had made the right first impression for a marketing firm; it not only implied luxury and comfort, but it also implied status. The combination of fine leather, the new material molded around it, and the fame of the designer presenting it on a very well-watched show was too much for many households to take. The selling of the Eames Lounge Chair became definitively about its glamor, its luxury, its rich, supple desirability. The desire was contagious, and soon even Dennis the Menace's father was sitting in an Eames Lounge Chair. For the well-appointed home in the 50s, the chair became the epitome of hollywood back-room glamor.
Through the years, that image hasn't changed too much. The chair is still a fixture of the high powered executive office, or the eccentric millionaire, or merely the savvy buyer. There is an iconic photograph of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates sitting on a lounge together, Gates on the ottoman and Jobs on the chair itself (the photograph is included in The Eames Lounge Chair an Icon of Modern Design). As a status symbol, and not just a gorgeous and brilliant design, the Eames chair found a way to thrive not only in the museum, where it was never meant to go in a utilitarian sense, but also to thrive in the home, just exactly where it belongs.
Way-It-Should-Be-Ness: The Chair and the Eames Foundation
Eames Demetrios is the grandson of Charles and Ray Eames, and a good deal of his career as a filmmaker and writer has been given over to preserving, protecting, and sharing the Eames legacy with others. Partly responsible for the Grand Rapids exhibition and therefore for the contents of the book, he wrote a fitting epilogue, titled in the same way Charles and Ray liked to characterize their design sensibility and how they liked something to look: "Way-It-Should-Be-Ness."
WISBN describes a particular part of the Eames legacy that isn't always given the due it deserves; their meticulous attention to process, to mass production, and to the invisibility of a truly great design. In their minds, a chair, or a sofa, or a toy, would never scream its unique qualities or beg for attention on its own artistic merits. First and foremost it should be committed to being the best it can be at its particular occupation. For the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman that meant comfort, support, and style; for other projects it meant other things; but the central tenet of the their work never changed. Every product they created wasn't released until it had that WISBN quality.
Demetrios goes on to elaborate on the concept of the foundation; not only to protect and serve the Eameses, but to help others find that same quality of WISBN in their own lives. How do you do it? By getting a very clear picture of your goals and your constraints. The Eameses loved working under constraints; they believed it to be a very essential quality of creativity and of good design in general. By testing, thoroughly, rigorously, playfully, you can hope to find your own right place in the same way the Eameses found theirs, and not only theirs, but their furniture's as well.
In the end, this is an engrossing and marvelous book. The essays and photography do an outstanding job of distilling the essence of the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman.