A 50-Year-Old Chair Design and, for 30 Years, a Craving

Many consider the Eames lounge chair and ottoman the world's most comfortable. The pair was designed in 1956 by a husband-and-wife team with an understanding that predated the established science of ergonomics.
Many consider the Eames lounge chair and ottoman the world's most comfortable. The pair was designed in 1956 by a husband-and-wife team with an understanding that predated the established science of ergonomics. (Herman Miller)
By Katherine Salant
Saturday, January 12, 2008

The first time I sat in an Eames lounge chair, I was hooked.

It was simply the most wonderful chair I had ever encountered, its curved and playful profile unlike anything I had ever seen. When I finished architecture school and got my first real job, I had enough money to buy either the chair and its matching ottoman or a car. Deciding that transport was the wiser choice, or at least more practical, I bought the car.

But I never stopped wanting the chair.

Now, three decades later, I finally own one. In this long quest, I discover that I have not been alone.

"At some point in their careers, architects and designers all aspire to own one," said Marge Mojzak of Herman Miller, the Zeeland, Mich., company that manufactures the Eames lounge.

What accounts for the enduring popularity of this chair and ottoman, introduced in 1956? Unlike other chairs that are also considered "icons of modern design," this one is uncommonly comfortable, so much so that when you sit in it, you're not aware that you're actually sitting on something.

The chair has three upholstered pieces, each attached to a curved plywood shell. The larger one is the seat; the smaller two are back supports. All three are strategically angled to maximize your comfort. Charles and Ray Eames, the husband-and-wife design team behind the chair, had a remarkable understanding of ergonomic principles long before these were developed into a science in the 1970s.

Bill Dowell, a certified professional ergonomist and director of research at Herman Miller, characterized the relationship among the pieces of the lounge chair as "profound." He explained that the angle of the seat takes the weight off the base of your spine while the lower back piece supports your lower back; this makes you feel relaxed. Meanwhile, the angle of the upper back piece that supports your chest allows you to be active -- you can comfortably read, chat or look straight ahead and watch TV.

The ottoman, which aesthetically enhances the chair, also has a health benefit, Dowell said. If you sit or stand all day, blood collects in your feet. When you put your feet on the ottoman in the evening, blood circulates back to your torso and out of your extremities.

The Eameses' ergonomic sensibility is also evident in the size of the chair. Their hands-on method of design included testing many iterations. In satisfying themselves, they also created a chair that will suit most people because they represented a broad range of body types -- he was tall and lean; she was short and stockier.

Today's designers use a slightly broader standard that includes about 95 percent of the U.S. adult population's body types, Dowell said. (The range for height is 4 feet 10 inches to 6 feet 2 inches, and the weight range is 105 to 230 pounds.)

The chair also incorporates another ergonomic concern: stability. It has a five-legged base, which prevents you from falling backward as you assume a semi-reclined posture and sit down. Today, the five-legged base is used for most office chairs because it keeps the chair upright when you lean back, Dowell said.

The look of the upholstered lounge chair was entirely new. That it still remains fresh after more than 50 years is due, in no small part, to the emphasis on function. Although the designers were known to have an obsessive concern with visual details, comfort trumped looks. "What . . . works is better than what looks good," Ray Eames once said in an interview. "You know, what looks good can change, but what works works."

The price for the chair and ottoman was also a radical departure for the designers and marked their first foray into the luxury furniture market. The set originally sold for $578, a lot of money then. The current list price is $3,900 to $4,900, depending on the finishes selected, but many retailers periodically offer discounts. If you're persistent, you can also find a secondhand set, as I did.

As with other popular but expensive luxury items, knockoffs began to appear soon after the ensemble debuted.

Unlike most companies that face this problem, however, Herman Miller went to court and won. In 2003, a landmark decision granted Herman Miller "trade dress" protection.

This rarely used legal instrument allows a business to prevent competitors from manufacturing look-alike products that might confuse consumers. Unlike patents and copyrights, which protect manufacturers and authors for a specified period, trade-dress protection does not expire as long as the company continues to manufacture the product.

As a result of the ruling, only Herman Miller can legally sell the "Eames lounge chair and ottoman." A quick scroll through eBay and Google, however, indicates that the look-alikes have not disappeared. For anyone who wants to buy these classic pieces, caveat emptor applies.

Many books have been written about Charles and Ray Eames and their work. Three excellent ones:

  • "The Eames Lounge Chair: An Icon of Modern Design," Martin Eidelberg, et al. (Merrell).

  • "Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century," Pat Kirkham (MIT Press).

  • "The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention," Donald Albrecht, et al. (Harry N. Abrams).

    Katherine Salant can be contacted via her Web site, http://www.katherinesalant.com.

    Copyright 2008 Katherine Salant

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