The History of the Eames Molded Plastic Chairs

Posted May 4, 2014


The history of the Eames Molded Plastic Chairs
by Kaitlin Handler
MA. candidate, History of Decorative Arts and Design

Submitted as part of course requirements, August 2010.

On Thursday, October 23, 1947, a dinner was held at the Rainbow Room in Manhattan. Attended by various leaders of the United States furniture industry, and presided over by Nelson A. Rockefeller, President of the Museum of Modern Art, the event announced the International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design.

Various addresses were given that evening expressing concern over fact that, while world government and industries were focusing on the problem of affordable housing, minimal attention was being paid to the “design and production of good, inexpensive and attractive furniture.” The announcement made that evening highlighted the need for well-designed, moderately priced furnishings for the vast majority of people; furnishings that could be easily moved, stored and cared for, thus meeting the demand of modern living.

The project, brought to the attention of the Museum of Modern art by the Museum Design Project, a non-profit organization which represented prominent retail merchants throughout the country, was meant to improve low-cost furniture through the cooperation of talent in the fields of design and research. The designers, pared up with one of six MoMA-selected design-research teams, were encouraged to utilize new materials, tools and production methods to focus their attention to the production of quality and inexpensive furnishings for the modern home.

The culmination of the exercise would result in an exhibition slated to be held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, as well as the franchise of the prize-winning furnishings for sale in those retail establishments associated with the Museum Design Project.

On January 5, 1948, the International Competition for the Design of Low-Cost Furniture officially opened for submission, with prizes and grants totaling $50,000. The closing of the competition was announced as midnight, October 31, 1948, with the winners announced by the jury two months after the closing date.

Participants were directed to submit their entries anonymously to Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., Director of Industrial Design at the Museum of Modern Art. Submissions were to include plans not exceeding 20” x 30” sketch boards which indicated elevations, details of construction and cross sections of the proposed furniture. In addition, the competitors were instructed to send in a working model of each unit submitted, not less than ¼ full size.

The guidelines for the competition outlined that the intent was to “obtain furniture capable of being adapted to a variety of uses.” Acceptable furnishing submissions included seating units such as upright and lounge chairs, sofas, benches or daybeds, or storage units for household or personal effects. There was no restriction on the total number of entries that a competitor could submit. First, second and third prizes would be handed out separately for seating and storage entries.

Charles Eames was announced as participating in the project with the University of California, Los Angeles Department of Engineering.

November 28, 1948: Judging of Low Cost- Furniture Competition by Jury made up of various personalities such as housewives, engineers, architects, and curators.

After nearly 3,000 entries submitted, on January 18, 1949, Nelson A. Rockefeller presented awards to the winners of the International Low-Cost Furniture Competition, stating that the designs made “a real contribution to the improvement of standards of living.” Charles Eames along with the University of California, Los Angeles, was announced as the second prize winner for seating units, and received the cash prize of $2,500. Eames contribution, La Chaise received an honorable mention. The chair which was awarded the second prize was stamped steel, not fiberglass. The shell chair is believed to have been awarded a prize because of its thoroughly inventive base system. This system allowed for the shell to be utilized in a variety of different environments, be it in home of office life, seamlessly able to suit the needs of the consumer with the selection of the appropriate base type, and choice of arm or side chair. No other submission included such customizable variations.

“Early” 1949, In keeping with the Eameses constant striving to improve their designs, Charles sought out a change in production method for the now prize winning design. The re-examining of materials met the concerns of Herman Miller as far as production costs were concerned, as the price of steel molding was quite costly (seventy to eighty thousand dollars in 1949). Additionally, the original steel molded chairs had possibility of rusting after time and, additionally, were cold to the touch. Because of this, temperature issue the chairs needed a neoprene coating added to the production process in order to ensure comfort for the consumer. This, with the added step and cost of labor, added an unwanted rise in cost to the chair.

Charles, with craft paper mock-up of the shell chair in tow, arrives at the workshop of John Wills, a noted fiberglass manufacturer and boat builder. In 1947 Wills had developed a manufacturing technique which allowed for fiberglass to cure at room temperature, eliminating the need for heat and pressure to be involved the process. Charles asked John to produce a fiberglass shell from his model. John Wills agreed to do so for a fee of $25.00.

The technology for working in fiberglass didn’t allow for female molds to be produced, only male, which guaranteed that the craft paper mockup would be destroyed in the process.

Two weeks later Charles arrived to view the prototypes that Wills had produced. Unable to pay for the two prototypes produced in the workshop, Charles paid for one, leaving the second perched on the cylindrical piece of corrugated metal from a disassembled agricultural feeder. This piece of design history has since been donated to the Henry Ford Museum as part of the Herman Miller Consortium.

The shells which ultimately went into production are identical in shape and dimension to the original Wills prototype. The dimensionally correct casting would be made for a “Keller” milling machine to make a female mold of the prototype, which would then carve the opposite male die.

September 1949: Zenith Plastics received a phone call from the Charles Eames with a request for representatives from the company to come in to the Eames Office and discuss a possible application for fiberglass. After showing up several hours late for the meeting with Sol Fingerhut, (a prior researcher in Owens Corning Fiberglass laboratories, who had previously developed fiberglass airplane wings for the US Air Force), and Irv Green (also from Owens Corning), Charles immediately launched into his discussion of the project, resulting in a four hour conversation.

His concerns revolved around the possible issues that might arise with fiberglass production of his design, namely how to adhere the base to the shell, and how to treat the edge. Charles wanted to ensure a seamless design by incorporating a radius edge. These issues were resolved with the adherence of “buttons” to the shell with epoxy adhesives where the base met which allowed for it to be screwed in and secured, as well as treating the edge of the chair with rope. The rope-edge was ultimately abandoned because it added an additional step to the production cost and upped the price of the chair.

Tackled first was the armchair. It was believed that if the armchair could be produced, the sidechair would soon follow, as its design was less complex to produce. The tooling equipment was purchased by Zenith Plastics at no overhead cost to Herman

On November 4, 1949, an agreement was drafted outlining the partnership between the Zenith Plastic Company and the Herman Miller Furniture Company to produce the “Fiberglass Armchair Designed by Charles Eames which won a prize in the Museum Design Project of the Museum of Modern Art” which stipulates an attempt to turn out acceptable shells within 60 days for display in Chicago on January 9, 1950. The first order was for 2000 shells. The contract was one page long – according to Charles it was because “if it won’t fit on one page, it’s not a friendly contract.”

Herman Miller made the individuals involved in their projects feel like part of the company’s family. Sol Fingerhut and Irv Green relished in the fact that HMI and the Eames Office considered them valued contributors and attached much importance to the work that they did for the company.

It was in the Zenith workshops that Charles shot his iconic film on the making of the fiberglass shell chair.

Sol and Irv really appreciated what the Eameses were contributing to the world. Although they initially had hesitations about understanding what exactly “Good Design” meant, Charles absolutely took the time to explain the value of the process and explain to them the reasons behind the production of their design. According to Fingerhut:

“A big part of the time was educating us, so we could understand what he was talking about, because initially we didn’t. We knew technically what we could do, from a technical standpoint, but we didn’t understand, we knew nothing about furniture business, we knew nothing about modern furniture, we knew nothing about, other that what he was saying, what his objectives were, and we didn’t understand that. We did, after five hours; believe me, we did. Because he was absolutely fantastic, in the way he would really kind of pick us up and carry us along with him in his discussions. This was his method.”

Ultimately the men stated that they were proud to be part of something that became the subject of design books, museum prizes and awards, as well as remaining proud of getting to know what Good Design meant to the world.

A joint series of exhibitions between the The Museum of Modern Art, and the Merchandise Mart in Chicago entitled “Good Design,” meant to exhibit the best examples of modern design, opens January 16, 1950. The Eames fiberglass shell chair is on display along with other models of winning designs from the International Low-Cost Furniture Competition.

Winning designs from the International Low-Cost Furniture Competition on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art; officially for sale at Sachs Quality Furniture, May to July 1950. The corresponding exhibition catalogue entitled Prize Designs for Modern Furniture outlines the winners of the competition and notes that the Eames chair is the first piece of furniture to be made of “fibre glass…never before used in furniture.” The chair is praised for its smooth surface, virtual indestructibility, and the flexibility of design proposed by the series of bases available, prominently illustrated in the corresponding photograph.

May 1950, the winning designs officially on sale at Sachs Quality Furniture in New York City. The collaboration between the Competition and Sachs seems to have been a good fit, as the President of the company Richard C. Sachs, was himself interested in the virtues of providing for the community as a whole:

“Good business and profit making no longer signify solely sound merchandizing, intelligent price policies, and efficient service and deliveries to customers. Today, good business must also connote an intelligent interest and concern for what happens in each community. The community is good business, because without the community, there would be no business…if the business recognizes its inherent function and it is living in a real world in modern society then to do good also means active participation in the life of the community…When business and industry in the United States awakens to the realization that the good and the profitable can spring from the same seed, they will have discovered a formula for producing profits and benefitting society unequalled since the Industrial Revolution”

In ARTnews, Edgar Kauffman wrote extensively about the Eames win at the Low Cost Furniture Competition, and of the process of the designer:

“…he is creating a design tradition…engaged in an infinitely adventurous and rigorous exploration of the world around him. At the same time he is an ardent experimenter, trying every possible way to use his finds singly and in combinations until they are transmuted from mere loot into elements of a new design. The end products are composed of the stuff of ordinary living and ye they are integrated and heightened far beyond that.”

In this article, Kauffman discusses the “magnificent new material” out of which the shell chairs are produced. It praises the chair for being tough, while still soft to the touch, all the while flowing naturally to create the curvilinear shapes that Eames favors. Kauffman tells the reader that the plastic, embedded with glass fibers, takes colors easily.

The colors were embedded into the fiberglass during the beginning stages of production. After the initial shape of the chair had been formed, following the application of the glass threads, the colored ink would be applied to the surface and then embedded deep into the threads through a pressurized process. The original colors composed of by the Eameses, mostly under the scrutiny of Ray, were Greige (a portmanteau which hinted at a grey/beige), Elephant Hide Grey and Parchment, which was notoriously translucent. Shortly after, still early in the production, Sea Foam Green was added, along with yellow and red.

These colors were labored over lovingly. Charles and Ray would spend endless hours in the factory, tweaking and making slight alterations to the specifications of each color option, often creating several chairs in one day in order to ensure perfection. The color options developed were those which would most seamlessly blend with most the most number of interiors.

According to Sol Fingerhut, Charles was never quite satisfied with the result of the coloring of the fiberglass. He had always envisioned the result as a solid, uniform, matte finish color.

Prepared with the assistance of Daniel Ostroff.