The Spirit of (St. Louis) a Chair Posted November 2, 2014 by Daniel Ostroff

The Eames Chaise has one of the best origin stories of all Eames designs.

Charles & Ray Eames 1968

While the idea of the Eames Chaise may have been brewing for a while, it really took hold in 1955, when Charles accompanied renowned film director Billy Wilder on a film location scout to Gander, Newfoundland.  During this trip, Charles learned that Billy liked to take naps in the same way as lighthouse keepers–on a narrow plank of wood.

The advantage of napping on a narrow plank of wood may not be so obvious, but it is very practical.  Lighthouse keepers can’t afford to be down for a long time, because they must be ever-vigilant.  Napping on a narrow plank of wood (back down with arms crossed over chest), facilitates a restful, but brief sleep.  When the sleeper falls into too deep a slumber, his arms fall to his sides and he wakes up.

Wilder himself enjoyed naps and wondered whether he might have such a device, an Eames-designed “machine for napping.”

Another interesting detail about the Eames Chaise is that, even though Charles had the idea to design the chair by 1955, it didn’t go into production until 1968.  (The Spirit of St. Louis, Billy’s film in which Charles served as second unit director, was released in 1957.)  The thirteen year design process paid off.

Taking one’s time with a design can yield great results.  Here it is, 2014, and Herman Miller, the original manufacturer of the Eames Chaise, still makes the chair on the very same aluminum molds developed by the Eames Office in 1968.Eames-Chaise_HermanMiller_watermarked1  While Charles and Ray tweaked many of their other designs over the years–changing glides, making slight structural modifications, and upgrading bases–Herman Miller makes the Eames Chaise just as it was when first produced. Vitra began making the chaise for our customers in Europe and the Middle East in the 1980s, and also follows the design specifications from 1968.

Charles and Ray put much time and effort into the Chaise design.  Former Eames Office staff members report that, even near the end of the development period, the Eameses considered making the Chaise wider.  But with Charles’s training as an architect and Ray’s training as a painter, they knew how to apply real discipline to their work.  They were great designers—and great designers, like great artists, know not only what to add to their work, but also at what point to stop.

The Eameses were deciding between two models–one 24 inches wide, the other 18 inches wide.  Upon learning that they were working on such a design, Billy Wilder urged them to make it narrow enough that it couldn’t be mistaken for a casting couch.  On the final day of decision-making, Charles called Ray to his office and invited her to join him on the 18 inch-wide model.  They linked arms and hung on to each other.  Staffers say they were dangling from it like a pair of saddle bags, but they didn’t fall off.

Charles and Ray pronounced the 18-inch model “wide enough,” and the Office sent the final instructions to Herman Miller accordingly.

Billy Wilder got the first production model.  When he saw it, he quipped, “This would be fine if my girlfriend were built like a Giacometti.