Eames: The Best in Airport Seating Posted September 23, 2020 by Daniel Ostroff

In 1961, two new terminal buildings were opened at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Progressive Architecture magazine (November 1962)  presented the background of the development of the seating for the airport, in the words of the team: the architects, designer Charles Eames of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames, and the manufacturer.  The following are excerpts from this article.*

Charles often found himself having to explain to people that the “visual” was not the way they approached design. What’s particularly interesting about this case study, is the elaboration on what, instead of “the visual,” was important in the Eames design process. The important considerations were: “fitness to need,” budget, durability,  maintenance, and replacement.

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Carter H. Manny, Jr. (Partner-in-Charge for C.F. Murphy Associates): From our analysis of traffic, we knew that O’Hare had a passenger service problem unlike any other terminal in the country. More than 25 percent of all passengers who deplane at O’Hare continue their trips on flights with other airlines. Quite often, many passengers must wait up to two and three hours between planes. This pointed up the necessity for soft seating; comfort became an objective of prime importance.

Having spent countless hours ourselves waiting in airline terminals, it was obvious to us that most of the public seating used in such places was inconsistent with the image of comfort and service that the airlines attempted to portray. In a final presentation to executives of the several airlines using O’Hare, we emphasized that their responsibility of providing comfort and service to the passenger did not end with the termination of a flight: it included the furnishing of comfortable seating for the traveler who might have to wait several hours in the terminal between flights. Too often the advantages of jet travel end as soon as the plane touches down on the runway.

We knew also that cost would play a major role in presenting any new ideas to our clients—not only the initial cost, which had to be within a range experienced at other airports but maintenance and replacement costs as well. We, therefore, evolved objectives for the structural strength of the seating, its durability, resistance to wear, and the ease of replacing parts.

 As architects, we were concerned with the beauty of the seating when used individually and in groups. We were also concerned with the aesthetics of relating blocks of seating unite to interior spaces. Like most architects, we rebel at the thought of cluttering up building interiors with a lot of furniture. In our planning of the interior spaces at O’Hare, we wanted to keep the furniture as anonymous as possible.

 At one time, our own staff considered developing the new design, but concluded that it would be better to draw on the experience of firms who made a full-time profession of seating design and manufacture.

Harvey Stubsjoen (C. F. Murphy Associates): We approached several suppliers, were, in turn, sought out by others, and, in the end, conferred with seven different manufacturers. To our surprise, we found most of them very cooperative and willing to modify their present designs to answer the specific requirements we had laid down. We felt, however, that the problem called for more than simply a variation on an existing design.

 One of the suppliers to submit samples was Herman Miller. We were familiar with the Eames Aluminum Group and suggested that the construction and scale of these pieces might be applied to a new multiple unit for public seating.

 As it turned out, Eames had been thinking along the lines of developing public seating based on the concept of suspended upholstery, and was happy to continue in this direction.

Charles Eames: Occasionally we work on a piece of furniture without any specific application in mind—but that is the exception. Usually, the development of a design is triggered by some real and immediate need—a need of our own, or that of a friend, or a building or a situation. In the case of Tandem Seating, C.F. Murphy Associates, via O’Hare, provided the trigger. Our response could not, however, be completely impersonal—not with the amount of air travel we do these days.

 Specific applications, such as O’Hare, have deadlines, and deadlines require definite statements to be made by a definite time. This is one of the things that makes product design different from research in the same field. It also makes such design a kind of architecture in miniature—sometimes hair-raising, but not without its pleasures.

The role of the manufacturer in such an endeavor is interesting. In the early stages of development, Herman Miller kept a flow of information going between the architects and our office, and vice versa.

Hugh De Pree (President, Herman Miller, Inc.): Upon completing a mock-up, then a prototype, the Eames Office put the seating through basic tests. Herman Miller’s Technical Center subjected this prototype to the following tests: a 100-lb padded weight was dropped in a 5-in. free-fall onto a seat pad 15,000 times; arm, seat, and back-pad materials were subjected to 100,000 cycles on a Wyzenbeek abrasive test machine; seat and back-pad material were chilled at -15F for 30 minutes, then folded and run through a wringer; seat and back-pad material were exposed t 120 hours of ultraviolet light, 65-70 percent relative humidity, and to 105F ambient temperature.

 

Carter H. Manny, Jr.: The exhaustive, accelerated testing the Eames design was given indicated that it was very durable and would require little maintenance over the years of hard wear that lie ahead.

Charles Eames: As the project progressed, Herman Miller began treating the complete O’Hare installations as a prototype, working to raise all the values that could be built into the seating. As for concern about appearance, their hope and ours was that the seating would become a part of the over-all unity that is characteristic of the O’Hare architecture.

Hugh De Pree: Herman Miller did not analyze the market for public seating before deciding to produce this new seating group. …We are depending on the validity of the design and on the quality of its manufacture to create a demand for Tandem Seating.

Charles Eames: Two gratifying things about the project can be directly attributed to the architects: the architectural background within which the seating worked was sound and consistent; and the architects were content to consider black as a color.

Carter H. Manny, Jr.: Eames Tandem Seating was finally selected over the other submissions because it met our requirements more than any other design. It was easily as comfortable, perhaps even more comfortable, than units with conventionally upholstered seats and backs, yet the back and seat in this Eames design are simple reinforced pads, identical, interchangeable, and capable of quick-low-cost replacement. This replacement factor was also constant for the polished, cast aluminum legs and frames, which are assembled with mechanical joints. It was a key factor in deciding on the Eames unit. None of the other designs submitted had such a feature.

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We’re not aware of any other airport seating that ticks all of the boxes. That’s why we call Eames Tandem Seating the best in airport seating. Hundreds of airports around the world provide Eames Tandem Seating to their guests, and it is suitable for many types of public places. Some Apple Stores have equipped their in-store theaters with ETS. The design is available in Europe and the Middle East from Vitra, and available in the United States and the rest of the world from Herman Miller.

*You can read the entire article and interview, “Evolution of a Design,” in An Eames Anthology.

ETS graphic presentation by The Eames Office (1961)