Review by Kevin W. Tucker
The Eames Lounge Chair: An Icon of Modern Design

Martin Eidelberg, Thomas Hine, Pat Kirkham, David A. Hanks, and C. Ford Peatross. The Eames Lounge Chair: An Icon of Modern Design. London and New York: Merrell Publishers; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Grand Rapids Art Museum, 2006. 192 pp.; 200 bw and color illus., index. $45.00.

The careers of Charles (1907–1978) and Ray Kaiser Eames (1912–1988) and their contributions to design have been explored in publications and popular forums to such a degree that their names are nearly synonymous with mid-twentieth-century modernism, but it is nonetheless surprising to find a book dedicated to single work of theirs, notably a manufactured lounge chair that remains in production to the present day. Certainly, within the realm of design objects of the last century, few works have been accorded such an honor. As willing participants, design museums have embraced and furthered the lofty role chairs have been assigned in recent years, subjecting the form to an untold number of scholarly analyses. That the Grand Rapids Art Museum would undertake a touring exhibition and publication with this focus appears to affirm the iconic status to which the Eames lounge chair has ascended in the five decades since its creation. If because of their functional challenges and personal immediacy chairs have become the touchstone by which many aspirants as well as accomplished designers are often evaluated by and identified with, then the Eames lounge chair may stand, within the realms of those casting judgment upon design, as the consummate realization of casual luxury in a modernist work. The essays within The Eames Lounge Chair: An Icon of Modern Design not only frame the development of this object’s design, production, and consumption but further the notion of select chairs serving as standard-bearers representative of their respective eras and, ultimately, fetishistic objects of status for the design-savvy consumer. This book seeks to fix this one design as the Eameses’ supreme domestic achievement and a modern icon, but it also intriguingly raises questions, not necessarily answered, as to how and why a design may be considered iconic.

The first essay, written by Martin Eidelberg and suitably titled “Charting the Iconic Chair,” establishes the rationale for the focus of the effort by noting the chair’s representation of “engineering and manufacturing prowess” relative to modernism and, indicative of the issue of status and popular recognition, noting that “it celebrates important personalities” (p.10). The point of chairs being offered iconic status is presented as a more recent, mid-twentieth-century phenomenon with the ensuing discussion, framed through a survey of early twentieth-century chairs, perceptively pointing out the particular command architect-designed works have assumed in serving as a microcosm of style and culture and—through technology, materials, and form—proclaiming modernist ideals. The following sections, detailing innovations in furniture construction in tubular steel, plywood, and plastics, prove interesting as surveys of primary modernist materials and resultant chair forms dating from the 1920s through the 1960s. However, the inclusion of the first material—tubular steel—seems less applicable specifically to the Eameses given their predilection for working with the latter two materials. Bent plywood, which forms the primary shells of the lounge chair, is presented as descending directly from the early 1930s work of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, reinforced by the comparison with the sled-footed chair from the Cranbrook Academy of Art Library of Eliel and Eero Saarinen (a colleague of and later collaborator of Eames) to Aalto’s earlier design for the Springleaf armchair. Both provided cantilevered seats supported by two runners of laminated wood, and both the elder and younger Saarinen were quite familiar with Aalto’s work. However, the argument that Eames was, at the time, equally “aping” (p. 21) this earlier work would be more convincing if additional evidence were introduced. Eidelberg finally promptly dismisses any significant technological achievements in the chair in questioning its iconic status, suggesting instead that its familiarity and “unabashed combination of modernity and traditionalism” served to “announce the shift in the direction that Modernism would take” (p. 26). This statement, challenging the notion of a purely progressive modernity, is central to the understanding of the chair and the plurality of modernism after World War II.

Thomas Hine’s essay on the development of the image of the Eames lounge chair speaks both to its popularization as a fashionable marker of high-style domesticity and the duality of the design’s image as both materially glamorous and comfortingly casual. As sales results indicate, the lounge chair was neither the most popular chair designed by the Eameses nor as ubiquitous within the American home as its appearance in later advertising and other media might suggest to contemporary audiences. It is especially interesting to note that the chair’s highly theatrical premiere in 1956 on NBC’s Home show, supported by the presence of Charles and Ray Eames, as well as its subsequent critical awards failed to propel sales of the $404 lounge chair above 500 units in its first year of production (p. 33). Given the apprehension of the Eameses about the chair’s sales failing to meet tooling costs (as noted in Pat Kirkham’s following essay [p. 59]) and the transcription of a 2004 interview with Max Depree (p. 154), who remarked, “From Herman Miller’s [the manufacturer] point of view, the Lounge Chair was not necessarily an expensive product,” one cannot help but desire to know the firm’s sales expectations (especially as the question of the chair’s relative expense and market is raised repeatedly throughout the book). Only in the 1970s, following Herman Miller’s reorientation away from the domestic and toward the oYce furnishing market, would the chair, “sold mainly as executive seating,” reach its peak of units sold. Hine rightly, if ironically within the context of this book, asserts, “in our global consumer culture, the Eames Lounge Chair, like most other pieces of Modernist furniture, has played only a marginal role” (p. 33). However, his adjoining comparison of the chair’s sales to the legacy of Ford’s notoriously ill-conceived Edsel automobile seems forced, as does the unequivocal statement that the chair “looks like a classic.” More telling is the mention of the mood of American consumers during the 1950s as being receptive to the promise of domestic security and higher standards of luxury that the chair seemed to evoke. The popular “sightings” of the lounge chair of the past half century—including in movies, television shows, and comic strips—is presented through anecdotes and images, reinforcing its status as a widespread signifier of modern taste and how the lounge chair, alongside the Eameses’ other plywood chairs, has become synonymous with the Eames “brand.” The misuse of a designer’s or maker’s name as a descriptive stylistic moniker for a host of unrelated contemporaneous objects is hardly unusual in the history of decorative arts, but Eames is one of the few names of the last half century that have become truly ubiquitous as a design reference. Although this particular chair retains a slightly rarified status within the context of their work, the name “Eames” does not, thanks both to their prolific careers and renewed interest in mid-twentieth-century design. The concluding focus on the specific and authentic is also particularly welcome. Concerning technical changes in the construction of the chair over the decades and providing points of connoisseurship for a manufactured work that has been subject to material improvements as well as competition from here-unmentioned imitators, ultimately Hine’s popular culture approach implies the brand—and by relation the perception of the chair—is equally as significant as the veneers, leather, and metal that constitute the chair’s physical framework.

“The Evolution of the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman” by Pat Kirkham provides a biographical sketch of the Eameses, affirming Ray’s training in the fine arts and dance as a foundation for the later collaborative efforts of husband and wife. As recent scholarly efforts have attempted to increase the understanding and appreciation of Ray’s collaborative role in their creations, Kirkham too weaves Ray into the picture as a figure integral to the Eames office and thus sharing in the development of the Plywood Group of furnishings and the lounge chair. Further emphasis is placed on Charles Eames’s association with Eero Saarinen through Cranbrook Academy and their chair designs for the 1940 Museum of Modern Art “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition. This event marked the shift toward greater experimentation with plywood formed into compound curves and the importance of decidedly biomorphic shapes, which would dominate progressive furniture design in the decade to come. That in 1953–1954 the Eames may have been inspired by Saarinen’s Womb chair design of 1948 to create their own version of a biomorphic lounge chair is asserted in terms of their ownership and subsequent replacement of an example of the former with the latter (p. 54). This can be accepted as Saarinen’s design being one “point of reference” in the basic idea of a modern and protective lounge chair and ottoman, but the construction, upholstery, and lavish expression of veneer diVerentiate it from Saarinen’s approach and provides the Eameses’s design with a richness befitting its original intent as a gift to their close friend, acclaimed filmmaker Billy Wilder.

The author refutes her declaration “in the mid-twentieth century United States, there was a popular belief that modernist designers preferred to focus on minimal comfort” by asserting, “belief is one-dimensional” (p. 57). Even so, before the 1960s remarkably few modern works embraced the image of highly refined casual comfort as completely as does the lounge chair, prompting Charles Eames to reference 1930s club chairs as one inspiration (p. 150). The citation of another oft-proclaimed icon of twentieth-century furniture design, Mies van der Rohe’s chair for the Barcelona Exhibition of 1929 as one of the sources “conscious or otherwise, for the Eames Lounge Chair” (p. 57), reinforces the diYculty of identifying references to European modernist works, largely eschewing anything that might intrude on their formalist qualities and suggest a bourgeois appearance. Even though it is button-tufted, the Barcelona chair retains its geometry through a taut grid of pleated leather in two slablike pads balanced on a chromed steel frame. The upholstery of the Eames chair not only provides actual cushioning but also exudes the appearance of comfort through the quality and quantity of ample, plush cushions nested within the shells of the chair.

Kirkham provides a brief discussion of the chair, styled as a relaxing refuge, as a masculine object—a concept furthered by Herman Miller advertising with images typically showing a male sitter reading or napping. As an informal domestic “throne” and in its particular emphasis on natural materials, one might expect the discussion to suggest it is more of a descendant of the richly grained oak and leather Morris chair of the arts and crafts movement than of the European modernist constructs of the 1920s. In any regard, Kirkham’s essay provides a well-focused and useful addition to the understanding of the development of the chair within the Eameses’s oeuvre.

The extended series of images of the chair, advertising, and related works that follows occupies the core of the book and, however interesting to peruse, is diminished in usefulness by its lack of accompanying page numbers or any identifying captions; awkwardly, the latter are provided in a key to the pictures by means of repeated thumbnail images.

The concluding texts feature brief interviews by David Hanks with Don Albinson, responsible for the fabrication of numerous Eames prototypes including the lounge chair; Max Depree of Herman Miller; textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen; former design curator Mildred Friedman; author and architect Stanley Abercrombie; and Lucia Eames, daughter of Charles Eames; as well as an essay by C. Ford Peatross discussing the connection, through archives and exhibitions, of the Eameses to the Library of Congress. In these two sections one finds some of the most interesting new information about the creation of the chair and perspectives on its legacy and the repeated issues of cost, comfort, and Ray’s involvement in its design. Although prepared primarily as a means to promote further research and sketch the breadth of the voluminous Eames archives at the Library of Congress, Peatross’s essay reveals a significant discovery within the files of an illustrated 1955 letter by Ray to Charles describing the further refinement of the chair’s arm positions as well as the section of the metal back connectors. This single document vividly captures the idea of the Eames oYce as working under Charles’s orchestration rather than his specific aesthetic or mechanical dictates, echoing Albinson’s comment about Charles’s apparently vague descriptive approach to developing a preliminary design, noting “he would tell me what he wanted, and he expected me to figure out how to do it” (p. 150).

The work of Charles and Ray Eames will undoubtedly continue to be a source of interest for scholars interested in twentieth-century design. This celebratory effort, published on the fiftieth anniversary of the Eames lounge chair, provides intriguing perspectives on a design not necessarily acclaimed for any technical or aesthetic revelations, yet that nonetheless stands as an enduring object of desire. It has securely captured the imaginations of both design-conscious consumers and critics who revel in the degree of comfort, familiarity, and balance offered in a singular modernist work. Perhaps this is why it is both of its time and of our own, and through its continued fame and recognition, indeed, an icon.

Kevin W. Tucker
Dallas Museum of Art

American Furniture 2007