Cultural Fetish Objects Observed: Eames Lounge Chair


Oh, the EAMES LOUNGE CHAIR, that segmented crux of design, comfort, utility and luxury, coveted by artists, psychiatrists and stylish urbanites alike.

From its fawning television introduction some fifty years ago, to the unflagging half decade of continuous production that followed, the ELC’s fate has been as plush as its zippered leather cushions. But why this architect’s La-Z-Boy? Why then, why now and why in-between?

Converts claim that the answer lies in the chair’s design properties, touted during a 1956 episode of Arlene Francis’ Home Show, its inception to the public. CHARLES EAMES, hedged by his supportive painter wife RAY, explains his philosophy: “I’m an architect,” he proclaims regally, “and architects think that everything comes under the heading of architecture, chairs or space platforms…”

“Even dresses?” inquires the hostess, simpering and corseted.

Later in the special, the TV audience learns the nuts and bolts of the chair’s construction, or rather, its total lack of nuts and bolts. The Eamses’ secret is glued rubber washers (dubbed shock mounts) that hold the chair together. Their benefits are twofold, since they leave the sleek molded plywood exterior unpierced, while allowing its backrest to flex slightly. The molded plywood was field-tested by the Eamses, not only in earlier chair designs, but in splints they made for injured soldiers during the world war.

The chair’s cushions too are out of the ordinary, favoring a neat system of clips and rings as attachment to the frame, to the time-tested practice of nailing or gluing upholstery. Seated atop a stable five-legged base and paired with its matching ottoman (by elevating the feet one increases circulation to the torso), the chair provided a glimpse into the future science of ergonomics.

That year HERMAN MILLER sold the chair in great numbers, at the lofty price of $578. But price aside, the chair was advertised as versatile and utilitarian, to avoid categorization as a trend item. One ad campaign featured a granny, knitting away an afternoon in her lounge chair. Other ads warned against imposters, especially the ubiquitous imitation made by the Plycraft company.

Today, the chair, which Eames claims he designed to look like an worn leather baseman’s mit, retails for $3,900 to $4,900, depending on finish, with vintage exemplars in great demand on eBay. Imitation chairs, especially Chinese ones, can still be procured, despite a victorious 2003 lawsuit for rights to the chair’s design by Miller.

In 2006, the chair’s 50th birthday, an exhibit entitled THE EAMES LOUNGE CHAIR: AN ICON OF MODERN DESIGN, was put on at the MUSEUM OF ARTS AND DESIGN and an accompanying book was published. An Eames Lounge Chair sits in MOMA’s permanent collection.

The chair’s charms are many, and its fanatics fixated. For proof, just look to fan sites like this one, this crazy individual or the crowds oohing and ahhing around the item at your local design store. But, until we get the chance to hunker down in one, we’ll stand in the ranks of the skeptical.

For us, sitting is believing.

– Sabrina Jaszi