What Is an Eames Chair?
Quite simply, an Eames chair is any chair, designed by the now legendary American mid-century designer, Charles Eames.
There would be lots to choose from let’s face it, the original Eames Office was turning out furniture designs for forty years after all. Of course, it goes without saying that what makes a chair an ‘Eames Chair’ goes a lot deeper than that. Here, we take a retrospective look at what made original ‘Eames Chairs’ quite so special and which ones stood head and shoulders over the rest in creating that reputation.
If we consider that we can see the history of everything backwards, it is so much easier to imagine that everything was created equally or that everything was received equally. Those involved in the creative process will be the first to tell you that it takes ‘breakthrough moments’ to make the building blocks of success and that one thing can easily lead to another. We must consider that, whilst there is no doubting the marketability of the Eames portfolio did wonders for many years, we could and should narrow the field of vision to a handful of designs that truly forged the reputation that became known as the ‘Eames Chair’.
Let us delve a little deeper and hand pick the three most defining Eames chair designs, the ones that planted the very idea in one’s mind that something is not merely a ‘chair’ nor a ‘designer chair’ or even a ‘modern chair’ but an ‘Eames Chair’.
The Eames DCM – The first ‘Eames Chair’ ?
What a difference a decade makes! Charles Eames’ early struggles with the molded plywood technology were all but consigned to history following years of great effort and research, not to mention collaborative expertise from colleagues and peers. The war years had re-enforced Charles’ long held belief that the strengthened plywood could be something, and so it would be proven.
The 1946 release of the plywood furniture group would see a collection of very well thought out pieces that appealed across the board. It would also see the first indication of an Eames trait whereby various chair bases utilizing the same tops could create what was essentially variants of the same thing. The plywood group had a bit of everything, tables for dining (DTW) tables for occasional use (CTM, CTW, OTW) and chairs for lounge (LCW, LCM) alongside the chairs for dining, the DCW and DCM.
So just how did the DCM elevate itself above the other designs of the plywood group? What was so special about it? How or why would it become known as the first ‘Eames Chair’? Of course, it is safe to say none of it happened merely by accident! Let’s look at a few of the most important reasons for the rise of the Eames DCM.
Look at this 1955 snippet from a full page Herman Miller advert – the first indication of the notoriety of the DCM
We can consider the hard work, determination and endeavor of those involved in the project as a factor, can’t we? Yes of course, given the success, not only with this but for the entire duration of the Eames Office, I think it is safe to say it is a given! But commitment by an inventor or a designer is a must in any project and let’s be honest, this can also be present even in ones that ultimately fail. It takes more than that and we believe the stardust of the DCM comes down to a few things namely MOMA, Herman Miller, Timing and Styling. Let’s find out more.
MOMA is the abbreviated name for the Museum of Modern Art, located on 53rd street in New York, where it is still located today. Charles had previous history with the Museum after winning prizes at an earlier design contest for ‘organic design’ back in 1940, alongside colleague Eero Saarinen. The museum bent its rules by allowing an exhibition of the brand-new plywood group, even though it could be considered commercial in nature rather than merely educational. We can thank the heavens for this relaxation of protocol as it was the kick start for the DCM and other plywood designs. It is very likely that the real need for post-war stimulation was at the heart of the decision and let’s face it, the designs were ultra-modern for the time. The three-week exhibition (13th to 31st March 1946) brought with it a huge recognition and showcased the new products to the watching world, including a rather large furniture brand.
Make no mistake, Herman Miller turned around the fortunes of this furniture ‘start-up’. The war time collaboration between Charles Eames and the Evans Molded Plywood Division was moving into uncharted territory post war and Evans had zero experience in the furniture industry. Their reluctance to ‘go all in’ was somewhat hampering the ambitions of the fledgling Eames Office and help was sorely needed. Up steps George Nelson and the Herman Miller Furniture Company.
As director of design at a changing Herman Miller, George Nelson held a great deal of sway and an enormous respect throughout the industry. He introduced the Miller bosses to the works of Charles Eames at the MOMA exhibition of the new plywood furniture. As if written in the stars, the marrying together of the endeavour of the product and design, the reluctance of the Evans Company and the interest by Herman Miller was near on perfect. Miller negotiated and agreed to be the sole and exclusive distributor for the range. This is likely the single most important factor in the success of the DCM, the range and the Eames Office as a whole. Herman Miller was an established furniture giant with showrooms in many major US cities and a marketing experience at the top end of the industry, happy days!
Herman Miller would use their expertise, and indeed their faith in new design, to push the product to new boundaries. They would both create and sustain the legend of the ‘Eames Chair’ through clever and eye-catching marketing campaigns that elevated the piece as ‘world famous’ as ‘cutting edge’ as ‘the Eames Chair’. Adverts appeared in major periodicals of the time and sales were climbing and climbing, breakthrough had been made and the lift off to the proverbial moon was underway.
Herman Miller recognized that the DCM would ‘tick the boxes’ of customers in a changing time, a time when 18th and 19th century was still the norm. This is what prompted the marketing that portrayed it as the center-piece, the prime design. Herman Miller’s own historical records confirm this, with 1952’s sales records showing that out of 21,526 plywood group chairs sold, some 18,000 of them were the DCM.
As this 1961 Herman Miller newspaper advert shows, the Eames DCM was held in such high regard they believed it would be the one design still famous a hundred years later! Its getting there!
Timing & Styling
Post second world war USA was quite different to how things were in Europe. Whilst one continent was concentrating on rebuilding, the US was striving forward with innovation and creativity in everything from furniture to the auto-car, from fashion to architecture. The timing therefore of the DCM was literally ‘perfect’. The chair was made from materials sourced within the US and without the need for neither import nor export. It was conceptual, it was new, it was exciting, and it offered value for money, all of which are the building blocks of a successful product. Post war USA had a big vacuum of need, need for housing, for furnishing, for value and the plywood group and DCM flat out offered this.
You could argue that there were other designs in the plywood group that were more stylish, more unique and perhaps more unusual than the DCM, but that is exactly the reason for the success of the chair. As we look back on anything fashion-wise in history, things tend to get Pigeon holed into decades. But the reality is that fashion rather crawls into changes, like a rolling stone, gaining popularity as it goes. So, imagine the introduction of this range of amazing conceptual furniture designs but then consider the audience. The DCM was a bridge between the new and the old. It wasn’t made entirely of ply but combined with bright chrome, it still had simplicity and it still consisted of a more traditional four-legged approach. But it was new, and it was interesting, and it was conceptual too. The audience could see a chair design that they could relate too and was not entirely ‘out there’ yet still new and exciting the Eames DCM.
The Fiberglass Chairs – The ‘next’ Eames Chair
John, Paul, George and Ringo would go on to ‘conquer’ America with their music as part of ‘The Beatles’ during the 1960’s. Conquer in the sense that every single person, unless living a hermits life, would have heard their music or seen the mass hysteria on the television and would not go untouched by it. This is how we see the Fiberglass Chairs of Charles Eames! They were literally everywhere, in our schools, our offices, homes and hospitals. You may sit on one at the laundromat or pull one up during a lecture or conference. Rock star furniture design indeed, with us and around us through the decades, never changing but ever present. We know them because we use them, have always used them and recognize them, even if we don’t know what they are.
The fiberglass chairs were released in 1950 with the arm chair version, followed a year later with the side chair. It would prove to be a design that would keep on giving, growing and growing as each year past with seemingly no end to their practical uses and potential. By 1955 and scholastic ‘stacking’ versions had been added providing commercial, educational or governmental organisations the chance to bulk install at a fraction of the room required. The beautiful colors were quickly expanded from six to twenty size and over a dozen more commercial only choices. It would be mass production at its finest, a solid and practical product, easily made, easily distributed and eagerly embraced.
So, what was it that thrust the Eames fiberglass chairs into every room across America? Why would this chair, above any others, be just so successful? And why would it be so successful, for so long, literally decades? One may ponder this for some time, the answers of which would unlock the reasons for rise of the next ‘Eames Chair’ in the minds of all who know and see it. If we had to hazard our ‘reasonably educated’ guess, we would say it was about Versatility, Value and of course Herman Miller.
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