An Eames Anthology: Charles Eames on Chair Evolution

We’ve always been aware of not even attempting to solve the problem of how people should sit, but of rather arbitrarily accepting the way people do sit and of operating within that framework. But if we ignored that problem, we really knocked ourselves out on the technical aspects—the bonding agents, the impregnation of veneers, integral finishes, high-frequency curing, shock mounts, compounding of rubber, induction welding. We actually designed and built within our office all the presses and tools and jigs and fixtures that were used in the original production—this is still the molded plywood chair I’m referring to.

The molded plastic chair was much different. The reinforced polyester was a special technique developed for areas that demanded a high-performance material. Essentially this meant the aircraft industry, which could afford big investments for the development of material and tooling. Our object was to make this high-performance material accessible to the consumer in a chair that would ultimately give it a high performance per dollar. The problem wasn’t so much one of form. The real problem was to make this essentially industrial material available at the consumer level. At first we had very clear ideas of the kind of surface we wanted to maintain, but eventually we realized that anything would do just as long as it was uniform. Uniformity, uniformity . . . eventually we realized that this was what we were striving for and that actually it was the toughest thing to get. It was in the most desperate hours, when there seemed to be no hope of getting the perfect molding for the reinforced polyester chair, that the upholstered wire chair was conceived—and in the meantime it began to look as though the thin molded shell really belong to the jet age. As far as furniture was concerned, we were still at the Wright Brothers level.

So we thought we would go to the opposite extreme and do a molded, body-conforming shell depending on many, many connections—but connections that we as an industrial society were prepared to cope with on the production level. If you looked around you found these fantastic things being made of wire—trays, baskets, rat traps— using a wire fabricating technique perfected over a period of many years. We looked into it and found that it was a good production technique and also a good use of material. Before the molded plastic chair had been solved, the molded wire chair was well underway.

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.

Again we were at the point where the design and production of even the machinery for making the furniture was being done in our office. Jigs and fixtures for building up the upholstered pads were made and operated in the initial production stage by fellows in our office.

This is some of the background in which we have to consider the development of the cast aluminum chair. It sounds ridiculously simple, and in that way it doesn’t seem to make sense. The blood and the pain don’t show. They say in the motion picture industry, “It looks easy on the screen.” Well, it sounds too easy on the tape.

But the beginnings of the cast aluminum chair were entirely different. This one started when Alexander Girard, Sandro, came to visit, and we were talking about furnishing a house which he and Eero [Saarinen] had just completed, a house marvelous in concept and superb in quality, and Sandro was bemoaning the fact that there was no real quality outdoor furniture that he could get for such a place—that is, the quality he wanted.

You start on a close human scale. Here is a friend who has done something. He needs something for it, and you become involved. As we were trying to analyze the reasons why there was nothing available on the market to suit him, why we were of course starting to write a program for designing the object to fill this void. That’s how it started.

Well, having the program in mind, you gradually begin to stew about it—while traveling in planes and so on. The actual idea, the idea for the chair—that is, the gimmick, the device that made it possible—is something I recall drawing on the back of an envelope.

This was not like the beginnings—or even the motives—of the other chairs. The story of those was mostly of sticking to a concept through all the pitfalls of technique. This one was more like an approach to an architectural problem, where you have the program fairly well embedded and call on past experience. And like the beginning of an architectural solution, this one began with a cross section. It was in this full-sized doodle of a cross section less than two inches square that the whole framework of speculation could be built: Is it structural? Is it natural to the tools and the materials? What about the economics of tooling? Is it a monster, or is there some hope of elegance? But perhaps the real question that you must ultimately face is: Is it a function of the necessary connections? In architecture or furniture or jackstraws, it is the connection that can do you in. Where two materials come together, brother, watch out!

The cross section was really a system of connections based on tension which served to support the body. The chair was when we applied this system to a theory of support we had developed earlier. In the other cases, we had fought our way up through technical problems. In this one we had a fair idea of what cast aluminum and fabrics would do. Don Albinson, who really fought this one out, went directly to casting in the mock-up stage. By now he and Dale Bauer in our office know about everything you can do with a sewing machine or heat-sealing device. But there are other things. When you develop a cross section you have to develop a way of terminating it. When you develop a system of stitching it has to come to an end. There is always the problem, once having developed the system, of when do you call it off? The final, the topper, the resolving of the problem. And there were many of these.

Also, when you’ve committed yourself to casting, you’ve committed yourself to a plastic material and the kind of freedom that can really give you the willies. If you’re dealing with extrusions or rolled sections, you’re really given a limitation which is pretty nice to fall back on. But in casting there are times where the definition of the problem is pretty vague. At that moment you find yourself face to face with sculpture, and it can scare the pants off you. There’s the suspicion that maybe you’re doing sculpture for which there is a valid, practical need—a need you’ve neglected in the past somewhere along the line. I know that when we were trying to cope with that phase of the job there have been times when Ray and Don and I have sort of worked and worked and reworked form, and where vagaries intruded until we found we had worked ourselves into a deep, deep hole. Whatever was it that Oppenheimer said in his interview with Murrow? Something about we work in the day and we question and correct at night. The working was in the day, the questioning and correcting at night.

Oh yes, this started to be an outdoor chair for a special client of Sandro’s and Eero’s. Well, I supposed it’s still an outdoor chair. We’ve been using one for a test outside our house for the past six months. But it’s also an indoor chair. Probably a high-budget outdoor chair, a low-budget indoor chair. But whatever it is, it’s something that has been done really not just for Sandro’s client anymore but for the people that work in the factory with us day by day who would flop down in one at the end of a hard day and from whom we would really get our feedback, our clues.”

Read more excerpts like this one, and delve into more than one hundred primary sources written by Charles and Ray in An Eames Anthology.