Eames stands for 'ease'

Comfortable design of 1950s lounge chair still desirable today

June 18, 2006|By STEVENSON SWANSON | STEVENSON SWANSON,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

On the flickering black-and-white screen, the lights dimmed to a grainy gray, and the camera focused unsteadily on a small stage. The curtain rose. There, revealed to the nation for the first time, stood ... a lounge chair.

It's impossible to say what the viewers of NBC's Home show thought on that morning in March 1956, when host Arlene Francis unveiled the rosewood-and-leather lounger and matching ottoman, but if any piece of furniture has proved worthy of a network debut, it was the Eames lounge chair.

Created by the husband-and-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames, the chair has achieved classic status as a landmark of Mid-century Modern design in the 50 years since it was introduced, an accomplishment that is being celebrated with an exhibit at New York's Museum of Arts and Design.

A combination of elegance and function, the Eames chair has found its way into executive offices and family rooms for 50 years, living beyond its mid-century label. A comfortable chair with a timeless sensibility, it is one of those icons of design that seems as if it's always been with us.

As Ray Eames said in a 1955 letter to Charles while the design was being perfected, the chair looks "trim, neat, un-designy, but cared for, rather than hunks or straps."

In other words, it may be an icon, but it's as cozy as an old chair.

That combination of style and practicality may be one of the most important reasons why Herman Miller Inc., the Grand Rapids, Mich., furniture manufacturer, has never dropped the lounge chair from its catalog. In fact, lately, it's been enjoying a resurgence, despite a hefty $3,125 price tag for the lounger and ottoman in natural cherry, cherry or walnut veneers. The pair is also available in a new finish called santos palisander, that closely resembles the Eameses' original rosewood veneer. The new finish raises the cost to $3,995.

At those prices, it's no surprise that cheaper imitations have abounded over the years, but the manufacturer says that a genuine Eames chair is worth the added dollars because of its durability. The lounge chairs and ottomans are assembled by hand using high-quality materials, with practical touches such as replaceable cushions and interchangeable back cushions.

If a balance between sophisticated design and attention to creature comforts accounts for the chair's longevity, it is also an embodiment in plywood and leather of the working philosophy of the Eameses, according to Eames Demetrios, one of the couple's five grandchildren and the director of the Eames Foundation in Pacific Palisades, Calif.

"They did deeply believe in Modernism, and the lines of the lounge chair are extremely elegant and restrained," he said, running his hand along the gently curving plywood base of an Eames chair at the museum. "But they never used that kind of visual intent as an out for a lack of comfort."

By 1956, the couple already had been working together for 15 years, producing molded-plywood leg splints for the military during World War II and several famous chair designs in both plywood and plastic.

"They were always interested in new uses for old materials, such as plywood, or in new materials, such as plastic," said David Hanks, one of the curators of the exhibit, which was organized by the Grand Rapids Museum of Art.

Demetrios recalls that when his grandmother, who died in 1988, talked about the evolution of the chair, she would cup her hands together.

"One hand fits in the other, the way the leather fits in the wood, and the way you fit in the chair," said Demetrios, 44, a filmmaker and writer. "They were very focused on the relationship between a host and guest. They felt this relationship existed in every culture, and they felt that the role of the designer is to be a good host. So right now, sitting in their lounge chair, you are Charles' and Ray's guest."

Stevenson Swanson writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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