What is an Eames Chair? - History & Design

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Art is about much more than painting and sculpture. In this lesson, we are going to look at a very special chair and see what role it played in the history of American furniture art.

The Art of the Chair

We spend a lot of time praising the great paintings and sculptures of world history, but how many copies of the Mona Lisa do you have on your walls? How many rooms do you have accented by life-size replicas of the David? When's the last time you took a nap while lounging in the arms of the Venus de Milo? (That last one will sink in later).

We build furniture to be used, but the aesthetics of furniture design is actually a unique art form all its own. Furniture has been one of the most important forms of functional art in human history. Every generation seems to develop a new take on the timeless concept of objects-you-can-sit-on, but one of the most influential in American society was the Eames Lounge Chair. It's a masterpiece of fine art, and comfortable enough to nap in!

Charles and Ray Eames

To appreciate the Eames Chair, we first need to meet its makers. Charles and Ray Eames were an American husband/wife design team in the mid-20th century. They worked to create stylish designs that could be mass-produced cheaply, with the goal of making fine interior design accessible to the average American.

When art historians look at furniture and home décor as art, they often look at the designs of the rich and powerful. The Eames challenged this notion, creating designs that were no less artistic despite being marketed to everyday folks.

The Eames Chair

In the 1950s, Charles and Ray took on a project to design a high-end, luxury chair. It was to be modern, chic, and stylish. It also had to be comfortable. For their design, the pair pictured a worn and broken-in leather baseball glove. They wanted a person to feel as snug as a hand (or baseball) nestled in the warm and relaxed leather. Thus the idea for the Eames Lounge Chair was born. English club chairs were used as the basic model for the applied design.

While not the only chair Charles and Ray would design, the Eames Lounge Chair was the most famous and had the biggest impact
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To build their chair, Charles and Ray looked to their experience in dealing with mass-production. It's easy for us to forget that synthetic materials like plastics were not common until after the end of World War II, when post-war production skyrocketed. Charles and Ray were some of the first major designers in American history to bring plastic and plywood objects into the average American home. Now, they'd do it again with luxury items.

The Eames Lounge Chair was made from three pieces of molded plywood: a base, a backrest, and a separate headrest. Each of these pieces was covered in a rosewood veneer (later iterations would use cherry, walnut and other finishes as well). Finally, the three plywood shells were set with black or brown leather cushions. To complete the design, Charles and Ray developed a matching ottoman to be sold with the chair as a footrest.

The Eames Lounge Chair was sold by the Herman Miller company, and entered the market in 1956. It was a revolutionary design for the time. Not only was it modern and stylish, with smooth curves reflecting the futuristic post-war aesthetic, but plywood had never been used like this before. This was a high-end, luxury furniture item and masterpiece of furniture art that could actually be mass-produced.

The Eames Lounge Chair
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