The Power of a Picture? Posted October 9, 2014 by Daniel Ostroff

This image, with its delightful graphic quality, is one case where the picture is worth less than a thousand words.

The Eames Wire Chair is often misunderstood because of the visual appeal of this picture.

Eames wire chairs
Charles and Ray Eames were very clear about their intention for this design. They always called it the “Upholstered Wire Chair;” however, the steel frame looks so good by itself that it is easy to forget that.

 

The Upholstered Wire Chair One

Original 1952 Eames Office graphics (including the red arrow!)

We can connect to this chair a comment made by Ray Eames, who directed the shoot for the famous photograph.  Ray wasn’t joking when she said, “What works is better than what looks good.  The ‘looks good’ can change, but what works, works.”  Charles and Ray Eames did not design for “appearance.”

My appreciation for  the Eames Upholstered Wire Chair is enhanced when I think of the upholstered sofas in my parents’ living room when I was growing up.  My older brothers and I used them as “end zones” for endless games of “sock football.”  The goal was to get on to the sofa with the ball, and this often involved a pile on.

As you can imagine, this activity was really rough on the upholstery.  When it came time to reupholster the living room furniture, the cost was close to eighty or ninety percent of the original cost of the sofas.

Charles and Ray Eames turned that problem on its head.  When they saw that wonderful things could be done with steel wire—that they could make strong, lightweight, inexpensive structures out of it—they realized that they could fulfill one of their goals: to give people low cost products that really last and are easy to service.  I think if we do the math, the upholstery on the original Eames Upholstered Wire Chairs accounted for less than ten percent of the cost of the chair.

With easily removable, easily replaceable pads, customers were well served.  Customers could even make seasonal changes by buying more than one set of pads.

 

Original 1952 Eames Office graphics

Original 1952 Eames Office graphics

At first, Charles and Ray Eames designed this chair with a one-piece pad that covered the entire chair.  While it was very comfortable, the original cost of that chair was $29. The design duo thought they could do better, and they did.  They took the one-piece pads, which were made with upholstery techniques devised in house at the Eames Office, and they looked to see how much they could remove while still giving the user a comfortable sitting experience.  They came up with the two-piece pad, popularly referred to as the “bikini pad” because of its resemblance to bikini bathing suits.

But Charles and Ray were not thinking about bathing suits.  Instead, they addressed themselves to the need, which was for comfortable, strong, lightweight seating, that was affordable to as many people as possible.  The “bikini pads” that we have today are the result of the Eames process, by which they removed as much as they could from the one piece pad, but left enough so that the user still got a comfortable sitting experience.  The savings in material and weight, meant that the first manufacturer, Herman Miller, could charge less.  The original two-piece pad upholstered wire chairs sold for $22.

For a long time, I came across references to the “upholstered wire chairs” in the product literature from the days when Charles and Ray were actually in charge of what was written, but I really only “put it all together” when I followed a suggestion from Eames Demetrios, Director of the Eames Office.  He suggested that I look to confirm my findings in the writings of Olga Gueft, long time editor Interiors magazine.  I found the confirming information in one of her interviews, published in 1958, in which she and Charles Eames reviewed the development of the Eames aluminum group chairs.  In this interview, Charles said, “Meantime, the upholstered wire chair brought with it some real attempts in another direction—towards mass production in upholstery—by fellows in our office.  Don Albinson, who had been a student of mine at Cranbrook and who had worked even on the early model for the photographs we entered in the Organic Furniture Competition, took hold of this problem and developed some really ingenious techniques.”

The Eames Wire Chair is not about a striking graphic image.  It is, instead, a breakthrough that is still relevant today.  It is a method of mass production in upholstery—a method of much more sustainable upholstery and lower cost upholstery, which is something we can all celebrate.

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