Anyone who has ever sat in an Eames lounge chair and rested their feet on the ottoman raves about comfort. What is it about this iconic pair that’s so special and how can you get something like it for your house?
I posed this question to Jeff Jenkins, an Alexandria-based interiors and furniture designer, as I began to try out some of the classic modern pieces in his personal collection.
By today’s standards, the Eames pieces don’t look so unusual, Jenkins said. But when the Herman Miller Company introduced the pair in 1957, they were a completely new look that made no sense until you sat in the chair and put your feet up on the ottoman. And then you immediately said the same thing that people say today — it’s unbelievably comfortable.
That’s because the chair was designed to give support exactly where you need it to relax, Jenkins said. The seat tips backward to take pressure off the base of your spine and a back panel provides lumbar support. A second back panel supports your chest so that you can comfortably watch TV, read, work on a laptop, or take a nap, as Jenkins himself often does. Resting your feet on the ottoman enhances your relaxation because it helps to increase blood circulation back to your torso, a benefit that most people don’t think they need, but when you stand or sit all day in an office, blood collects in your feet, he said.
The Eames were guided by ergonomic principles, which they intuitively understood decades before these became the basis of a scientific discipline in the 1970s. These principles are now widely known throughout the furniture industry and they can be incorporated into almost any style of furniture. But, Jenkins said, you shouldn’t assume that this is always the case. Before you buy a lounge chair, check out the way it supports your body and then apply the 30-minute test: If it’s really comfortable you’ll be ready to spend another 30 minutes; if it isn’t, you’ll know.
While comfort is essential in selecting furniture, functionality is equally important, a seemingly obvious point that is often overlooked, Jenkins said. Something can offer a high level of comfort but it’s not suited to your needs. He offered as an example his 1958 Eames sofa, which was designed for corporate office waiting rooms and lobbies and is only temporarily in his living room. I found the sofa to be unusually comfortable with great back support, but Jenkins assured me that I wouldn’t sit in it for long. “It’s not a lounge around sofa,” he said. “It forces you into sitting upright” — just the posture that you would naturally assume in a waiting room as you mentally rehearse the presentation you’re about to make in the executive suite, but not one for when you get home afterward.
Besides exploring the comfort and functionality of a piece, Jenkins also encouraged homeowners to consider its flexibility, especially if you want to use it in ways that the designer may not have envisioned. To illustrate this point, he showed me Philippe Starck’s 2011 243 Volage sofa, which he has in his TV room. You can sit in it as you would an ordinary sofa, you can stack the pillows if you want to sit higher or on the floor, and when the pillows are removed, the seat is deep and firm enough for Jenkins and his wife Beth to stretch out and watch television together. It’s also practical, as its simple aluminum frame allows you to easily vacuum underneath, an important feature if someone in a household has dust allergies, Jenkins noted.
Jenkins’s last tip: Be alert to subtle nuances that are nearly invisible. A great example of this, he said, is Bill Stephens’s dining chair, introduced by Knoll in 1965. It looked unremarkable, until I sat in it, and then I immediately agreed with Jenkins’s assessment: “I haven’t found any other stationary chair that gives this degree of comfort.”
For a dining chair, the seat is unusually wide and deep, which makes it more comfortable for men. The seat slopes gently toward the back, which takes the pressure off the base of your spine, while the continuous curved shape of the padded seat and back accommodates the curves of your own body, supporting it exactly where you need it. Even the arms slope slightly toward the back. The Stephens’s dining chair is no longer in production, but Jenkins said that for him it remains the gold standard for dining chair comfort.
Because the nuances that make a chair a standout are often hard to see, Jenkins said that the only way to find such chairs is to try everything in a show room, even the pieces that look strange and make no sense, just as the iconic Eames lounge chair once did so many years ago.
Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or would like to suggest topics for coverage, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.katherinesalant.com.