When the Eames lounge chair and ottoman were launched in 1956, they signalled a new direction in American consumerism. The luxurious leather recliner appealed directly to an American public ready to leave behind the austerities of the post-war years, and treat itself to a very comfortable symbol of affluence.
The chair is “a perfect balance of tradition and modernity”, says Catherine Ince, curator of an exhibition about designers Charles and Ray Eames at the Barbican in London.
“It’s an incredibly well-made, high-quality, comfortable, beautifully elegant piece of furniture.”
The lounger has an unmistakably modern shape, but its leather upholstery roots it firmly in the tradition of English armchairs that can be traced back to William Morris’s late 19th Century designs.
Still in production today, 60 years later, it comes at a price – currently about $5,000 (£3,435) or more in the US.
Charles and Ray wanted the chair “to have the feeling of a well-used baseball mitt”, according to their grandson, Eames Demetrios, director of the Eames Office.
“I always feel with the lounge chair it’s not really its full self until a year after you’ve owned it because you’ve kind of pressed in the leather and punched down a bit,” he says.
“My grandparents had an idea that the role of a designer is basically that of a good host anticipating the needs of the guest. And sitting in that chair you’re really feeling that guest-host experience quite clearly. It’s very easy to fall asleep in.”
The moulded plywood shell, meanwhile, is the result of experiments with new materials and manufacturing processes that the Eameses began in the 1940s.
In fact, the Eameses’ first manufactured object was made of moulded plywood – but it wasn’t a piece of furniture.
When the US entered World War Two in 1941, the designers heard about a specific problem with military medical equipment – it seemed that metal splints used to stabilise leg wounds were making injuries worse.
When patients were carried, the metal moved and vibrated causing even more damage.
Realising a wooden splint might solve the problem, the Eameses designed a moulded plywood alternative – modelled on Charles’s leg – that was lighter, and better at securing leg wounds. An estimated 150,000 Eames splints were made during the war.
The couple also produced moulded plywood nose cones for military gliders, but as the fighting drew to a close, Charles and Ray turned their attention back to furniture.
They spent “many years throughout the 40s and into the early 50s in pursuit of low-cost furniture – inexpensive things that people in the immediate post-war period might choose to furnish their homes with,” says Ince.
They produced a plywood lounge chair in 1946, and introduced a similarly bare fibreglass chair a few years later.
The stripped-down aesthetic of these unupholstered chairs was in step with the more austere mood of the post-war years. But by the mid-50s the American economy was buoyant and consumers were regaining their appetite for luxuries.
With the introduction of the unashamedly expensive lounge chair and ottoman the Eameses recognised “a shift in the domestic attitudes and economic means”, says Ince.
When it was first produced in 1956 the average annual wage for men in the US was about $3,600 (£2,500) – women earned considerably less. But the chair and ottoman would have cost $600 before the price of the leather covering was added.
It’s not clear whether the chair was made in response to consumer demand, or if the Eameses created a market for it, says Ince.
An opportunity to furnish the corporate headquarters of the country’s leading companies also opened up. “The lounge chair is not just a domestic piece of furniture,” says Ince. “It’s the chair of choice if you’re a corporate executive on the front cover of Time magazine.”
It had taken the Eameses a long time to perfect their design – they modelled version after version to test and improve it. Over a two-year period, they burned through about a dozen versions of the arm, and several of the lower back piece.
At one point the manufacturer became concerned that the chair might not make it into production at all – a worry hardly allayed when a representative despatched to the Eames studio came back reporting they had done little more than play with toys during his visit.
“When Charles and Ray designed something they did it until they got it right,” says Demetrios.
And when the chair did finally reach production, instead of simply providing the manufacturer with the designs for their creation and leaving them to get on with it, the Eameses provided instructions on exactly how to build the lounger, and designs for the tools needed to do so.
The first 250 lounge chairs off the production line were upholstered in glove leather, prized for its softness. But it quickly became clear that it would not last very long on the chair.
“Even after it went into production they were trying to make it better and better,” Demetrios says. The design was revised to include a heavier leather.
One thing that helped propel the chair and ottoman to success was its appearance in 1956 on the Arlene Francis Home Show, one of NBC’s top daytime programmes.
“It didn’t hurt,” says Demetrios.
Aimed squarely at home-making women, the programme gave centre stage to the lounge chair, included interviews with Charles and Ray, showcased their other furniture designs, and included a short film the couple had made about how the lounge chair was made.
“People loved it right away,” says Demetrios. The chair and ottoman went on to become a key reference point in furniture design, influencing chairs that followed and spawning swathes of copies.
Charles and Ray Eames
Married in 1941, they built their groundbreaking Eames House in 1949 – a classic of 20th Century design
Designed toys, buildings and furniture – also produced several films
Charles died in 1978, Ray died on the same day in 1988
She said: “What works is better than what looks good, because what works good lasts.”
He said: “Anything I can do, Ray can do better.”
The World of Charles and Ray Eames is at the Barbican Art Gallery London until Sunday 14 February 2016.