Behind Scenes About The Iconic Eames Lounge Chair

The Eames Lounge Chair and ottoman are furnishings made of molded plywood and leather, designed by Charles and Ray Eames for the Herman Miller furniture company. They are officially titled Eames Lounge (670) and Ottoman (671) and were released in 1956 after years of development by designers. It was the first chair that the Eameses designed for a high-end market. Examples of these furnishings are part of the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Written by AphroChic

Significantly closer to us in both space and time are the greatest innovators of twentieth century American design, the musically named Ray and Charles Eames. The guiding force behind the storied Eames Office, Charles and Ray certainly understood the deep connections between culture and design. The idea is embodied in two of Charles’ most repeated mottos: “We don’t make art, we solve problems (1).” and “Eventually, everything connects (2).” For more than forty years the Eames’ used design as a way to connect nearly every aspect of American life. Along the way they became everything from artists to architects, filmmakers, lecturers and more, leaving a legacy of innovation and creativity that is as inspiring in the 21st century as it was defining of the twentieth. And yet, the couple responsible for producing a myriad of furniture designs along with toys, a staggering number of exhibitions, lectures and over 88 films, is still most famously known for the sculptural chairs that continue to bear their name.

The Eames Era

The Eames era was a pivotal time, not only in American design but for the country as a whole. In 1940, when Ray, a student and Charles, a teacher, met at the Cranbrook Academy of Art near Detroit, the nation was just coming out of the Great Depression and only a few years away from entering World War II (3). Interestingly the project which would come to epitomize the couple’s contribution to furniture design began before they had begun to work together. 

Eames Lounge Chair

Cranbrook Academy’s 1940 Organic Design in Home Furnishings Competition

Cranbrook Academy’s 1940 Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition inspired design team Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen to embark on a bold new idea. Inspired to combine a modernist aesthetic with the Industrial Age boon of mass production, the duo aspired to create a chair from a single piece of plywood that could be mass produced for the modern home. Even more importantly their chair wouldn’t require cushions or upholstery, longstanding mainstays of upscale seating that were seen as both expensive and old (4). The experiment was ultimately a failure. While Charles and Eero succeeded in winning the contest, their entry, a splintering, cracked frame covered by upholstery was not the piece they had dreamed of and could not be mass produced. The fatal flaw was in the manufacturing, not the design. There was simply no process at that time for bending plywood into the shape needed for the chair to work. And, after a few more tries, Eero Saarinen scrapped the idea entirely. Charles and Ray, on the other hand, set out to create the process that they needed. 

By 1941 the couple was married, living in California and continuing their efforts to mold plywood. Initially Ray worked as a graphic designer drawing cover art for California Art and Architecture Magazine while Charles worked in Hollywood (5). Though the Kazaam, a machine built by the Eames’ to bend plywood was unsuccessful in creating the curves needed to build the chair, the US Navy believed that their achievements in bending plywood could be of value to the war effort (ibid.). The contract that they were awarded called for the manufacturing of splints and stretchers as well as plywood props for airplanes (6). The splints must have held a special meaning for Charles who, using himself as a model, lost most of the hair on his legs to the process (7). Nevertheless, by conflict’s end the Eames’ had created some 150,000 splints for injured sailors (8). And, seizing the opportunity for full time experimentation they finally perfected the science of bending plywood to the point that they could apply it to the art of making furniture.

Eames Lounge Chair

The Final Product

The first generation of Eames chairs began rolling off the production lines in 1946 (9). Creating the final product meant abandoning the original ideal of forming the entire chair from a single piece of plywood. Structurally unsound and exorbitantly expensive, the one-piece idea gave way to a subtle fastening of multiple pieces that nevertheless evoked the feeling of a chair perfectly molded from a single piece of wood (10). In the same year they formed a partnership with Herman Miller, applying their molded plywood technique to folding screens and other household accessories (11).