I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Your Bottom’s Best Friends: Charles and Ray Eames and the Modern Day Throne

by Kristen Bialik
Sept. 12, 2011

There are certain things that demand a dramatic unveiling with heavy velvet curtains and anticipatory drumrolls. Things like a new Mercedes Benz model or high budget magic shows. But for most people, a chair would not deserve this kind of pomp and circumstance. For most people, a chair is a necessity to prevent you from eating on the floor or watching movies standing up. Chairs are things that end up on front lawns for the taking or at Salvation Army, hiding their stains with overturned cushions. But most people can also agree that the Eames lounge chair is not most chairs.

Invented by super husband and wife design team Charles and Ray Eames, the Eames lounge chair and ottoman was originally made as a gift for their friend Billy Wilder, Hollywood screenwriter and director of movies like The Seven Year Itch and The Spirit of St. Louis. Then in 1956, the Herman Miller furniture company began manufacturing the chair and ottoman for anyone with expensive tastes and artistic sensibilities. Since its creation and grand release on Arlene Francis’ Home, the chair has been in continuous production with Herman Miller.

A work of art and a landmark in modern furniture design, the Eames lounge chair and ottoman is held as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. The two piece furniture set is so celebrated that the Museum of Arts and Design created an entire exhibition around the chair for its 150th anniversary, entitled “The Eames Lounge Chair: An Icon of Modern Design.1” But unlike most art pieces, you can nap in it! Designed with the behind in mind, the Eames are no Noonies out of an SNL “Art Dealers” sketch - when you step back from the rosewood curves, the soft, wrinkled leather, and the robot silhouette, the set is as recognizable for its rich, simple look as it is for being simply a chair. Apparently it’s very comfortable, with the seat tiled at the perfect 15-degree angle to take the weight off your lower spine and the cares off your rich, Modernist mind. I wouldn’t know, though. They’re very expensive2.

On top of the chair’s status as art piece and luxury item, the Eames lounge chair is a pop culture icon, making comfortable appearances in the backgrounds of cartoons, movies, and television shows. Prominently displayed on the sitcom Frasier, the Eames lounge chair appeared in all but one episode. The chair has also made cameos in Dr. Gregory House’s office on House, in Dr. Cox’s apartment on Scrubs, in Joey and Chandler’s apartment in Friends’ first season, and in the Steely Dan song “Things I Miss the Most.” As a testament to its classic, mid-century design and modern, futuristic look, the Eames chair is used as convincingly as a 1960s parlor prop on Mad Men as it is sci-fi chic in Disney’s Tron: Legacy.

While the Eames lounge chair is one of Charles and Ray Eames’ defining pieces, they were true artists, architects, and visual visionaries with a wide range of projects and passions. The Eames House, commonly referred to as Case Study House No. 8, is an iconic piece of modern architecture that the Eames submitted to Arts & Architecture magazine’s Case Study House program. The goal of the Case Study House program was to imagine a modern, post WWII household and all of its functional and aesthetic requirements, have an architect design a house that fit that conception, and then make the home a reality and actually build it. Unlike most case study houses, which remained lonely in their austere beauty, Charles and Ray Eames lived and worked in the Case Study No. 8 project from its 1949 construction until their deaths. Today the house is registered as a National Historic Landmark3 and continues to house ongoing work of the Eames Office.

The couple also indulged their aesthetic interests through the creation of an extensive list of films and exhibitions. Collectively writing, producing, and directing over 100 titles between 1950 and 1980, Charles and Ray Eames put out works such as Powers of Ten, a documentary adaption of Kees Boeke’s book Cosmic View that explores the size, structure, and relative scale of the Universe in factors of ten. The film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, as it was deemed (like many Eames creations it seems) “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”4 The Eames designed an interactive visual math exhibition for IBM for the California Museum of Science and Industry.5 They helped found the National Institute of Design after the Government of India asked them to travel around India for 3 months and take notes on design problems and ways to spark training and innovation. They even designed an inexpensive and transportable leg splint for boys in the U.S. Navy during World War II6. And you thought Beyoncé and Jay-Z were a power couple.

Through their work setting up schools and museum exhibitions, the Eames ensured that art and learning would go on living in brightly colored steel and molded plywood homes. But the designs themselves did half that work for them as their architecture, furniture, and textiles continue to provoke artistic expression7. In this way, the Eames lounge chair is, once again, more than a chair. It’s a place, a gift, where you can throw back your feet, sink into leather and clouds, and let your imagination run along beautiful, molded tangent lines.

1 The New York Times covered the 2006 event in an Art Review article by Roberta Smith.

2 But if you don’t have $4,500 to shell out, you can still get your Eames lounge chair. Miniatures on a 1/6 scale are sold for a mere $670. All the sweet luxury of an Eames chair – as a toy on your desk!

3 As a National Historic Landmark, the Eames House now undergoes government threat level checks. And in case you were getting worried, the website can reassure you that the landmark is stable and the 2008 threat level was “satisfactory.”

4 Powers of Ten was one of only 25 selected in 1998 for the National Film Registry, sharing the honor with other cinematic doozies such as 42nd Street and the world’s first Mickey Mouse cartoon release, "Steamboat Willie."

5See the Wikipedia article for some great pictures of Mathematica: A World of Numbers… and Beyond.

6 Not to mention the leg splints are surprisingly beautiful (or unsurprisingly depending on whether you think about it as an Eames design or as a leg splint). Interestingly enough, it was the access to military technology that helped push the Eames toward the Aha! moment of figuring out molding plywood techniques, which would become a part of their signature furniture look and feel.

7 Check out the Herman Miller blog and the Eames Inspiration website for some fantastic pictures of paintings with Eames chair legs for an easel and the seats and backs as an awesomely sittable canvas!

Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.