Jan 23, 2013

Eames Lounge Chair


The Eames Lounge Chair, familiar to many from books, living rooms and even TV shows, is certainly an icon for mid century modern era. Since its launch in 1956 the Lounge Chair has since been in continuous production. It won the first prize at the Milan Triennial of 1957 and it was accepted to the design collection of the Museum of Modern Art in 1960.

We used to own a newer Eames lounge chair a few years back, but that one was sold some time ago and replaced by two vintage ones. Now preparing to the restoration of the two disassembled Lounge Chairs in the Man Cave, Pekka has intensively been searching information about the history of this chair. Despite it is well known, the detailed history and evolution of the chairs is not, however, as widely recognized. In this posting, we would like to share some of our key learnings and curiosities with you. 

Eames Lounge Chair (Herman Miller late 1960's model)

So, let’s get started. The Eames Lounge Chair, officially titled as Eames Lounge (670) and Ottoman (671), first appeared on the Arlene Francis “Home” show broadcast on the NBC television network in US in 1956. The chair is a design of Charles and Ray Eames (husband and wife, not two brothers) for the Herman Miller furniture company, and it was released after several years of development. In the early days of the Lounge Chair, Ray Eames remarked in a letter to Charles that it looked "comfortable and un-designy". Charles's original concept had indeed been a chair with "the warm, receptive look of a well-used first baseman's mitt." 

The lounge chair was the first chair the Eameses designed for a high-end market, and it was made of molded plywood and leather. During the World War II the U.S Navy had called upon the Eames couple to create a lightweight, inexpensive leg split to help transporting wounded soldiers. Access to military technology and manufacturing facilities allowed the Eameses to perfect their plywood molding technique, subsequently used in several of their designs.

The Lounge Chair was originally produced and exported worldwide only by US company Herman Miller in Michigan. Despite its later success the initial sales were not very promising when compared to the tooling investment that had been done for mass production. During the chair's first full year of production only 484 items were sold. Subsequently, the sales rose to 1300 items per year in the beginning of 1960 and to 3500 per year by the end of the decade, ultimately hitting a hundred thousand items by 2004 (Eames Lounge Chair, in "An Icon of Modern Design" by Eidelberg et al.).

A year after it's launch in the US, a Swiss company Vitra become the legitimate manufacturer of Eames furniture in Europe. In 1970, Herman Miller issued also other licenses in order to manufacture more Eames furniture in Europe. The chosen manufacturers were NK in Sweden, ICF in Italy, Hille International in the UK and Mobilier International in France. However in 1986, Vitra was awarded the sole manufacturing rights for the Europe and Middle East regions. 

Given the above, if you are interested in buying a new Eames lounge chair in Europe today, you are restricted in buying one produced by Vitra. None of the other new Eames lounge chairs sold in Europe are made by an authorized manufacturer. Again, if you live in the States or Asia you would buy a chair made by Herman Miller. And is there a difference between the two? Yes, there is. An easy way to distinguish between the two authorized manufacturers is to look at the base. The one made by Herman Miller has a so called flat top-base, whereas the one by Vitra has a so called contract-base. In all other respects the two chairs are very similar, if not identical, for us the commoners.


Herman Miller base on the left, Vitra base on the right

With the introduction of new materials and manufacturing methods the chair’s construction has evolved during almost 60 years it has been in mass production. Based on these structural and visual cues, such as the number of screws under the armrest (only the very first series had three screws under the armrest, all the other series have two), it is possible to derive the approximate age of a given chair. And why is this be important? Besides the general condition, the age is one of the key factors determining vintage chair's market value. With relatively few chairs initially manufactured in the early days, the older a chair, more valuable it is. Quite simple, isn’t it?


First generation Lounge chair, armrest with tree screws

Some chairs have an actual stamp on a sticker, which is placed underneath the seat stating the exact year of production. However, when it comes to chairs lacking one, knowing the exact year of production can sometimes be difficult. Even if structural differences can give out the general age, in addition to the mass produced chair series, there have been special orders and made to measure series that deviate from the "norm". Additionally, when trying determining the age of a given chair one has to understand that some of these chairs are almost 60 years old. Therefore it is very likely that at some point during the lifetime of a particular chair, it may have been altered due to maintenance or a breakage of a component. In these cases, a chair was sent back to the manufacturer who replaced a broken vintage component with a newer one. This, of course, created a mix of old and new, making it more difficult to determine the age of an altered chair today.


Surprise in our first generation cushion filling - layer of foam added afterwards!

Originally the Lounge Chair was designed in 1956 with 100% down and duck feather fill. As Charles Eames ended up not liking how the cushions became flat and unsightly after only a few years of use, the design was changed so that for a time, most chairs were made with a mix of down feathers and foam. Sometimes around 1971, with the arrival of new filling materials all of the Eames lounge chairs were made with a mix of foam and fiberfill, and no more feathers were added. However, custom options certainly caused some variability, and for example a chair with 100% foam cushions as early as from 1960 has been identified. 

A good way to confirm the age of the frame and cushions of the chair is to check the shape and color of the clips attaching the cushions to the wood shells. If they are circular and silver in color, the clips were installed before October 4th, 1971. After 1971, the clip of choice was long, thin and black in color.


Cushion clip - pre October 1971

Cushion clip - post October 1971

It is import to understand that together with the shockmounts (we'll come back to these in the later postings) one of the most delicate components of this chair is the leather on the cushions – if not treated well, it will crack. So when the old chairs returned to manufacturer for a cushion repair, they usually changed not only the cushions, but also the clips (to fit the new cushions) altering this important visual cue. 

Originally the wooden parts of the Lounge Chairs were made of Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia Nigra) veneer, which was used until 1990 but then discontinued due to harvesting restrictions. Nowadays, the chair is made of walnut, cherry or sustainably grown Santos Palisander, which was introduced in 2006 for the Lounge Chair 50th year celebration.


Brazilian rosewood veneer

The chair is composed of three curved plywood shells. In modern production these shells are made of seven thin layers of veneer glued together and shaped under heat and pressure. This is different from the original, vintage chairs in which instead of seven layers, there were only five layers of plywood.

Three different kind of brand labels can be found in the Lounge Chairs marking the different production times: a round label (1956-1970), a black horizontal label (1970-1990) and a silver horizontal label (from 1990 onwards). Labels can and will rub and fall off, so if your chair does not have a brand label it does not automatically mean that the chair is not authentic piece.


First & second generation label

Fourth generation label

The earlier production series had a push-on rubber boot glides on the feet of the ottoman. This design stemmed from the ottoman base used originally as a side chair base, which only designed to accept boot glides. When this base was adapted for use on the ottoman, customer complaints poured in, as it turned out the glides fell off quite easily and were not adjustable like the glides on the lounge chair base. Therefore the design was altered and similarly to the chair, also the ottoman received adjustable, screw-in glides called the “dome of silence”.


First generation push-on rubber boot (before 1957)


Screw-in glides, "Dome of Silence" (after 1957)

Taken together, rather than trying to give you tools to determine the exact manufacturing year of a given chair, it is simpler to divide the designs in different production series, e.g. “Generation 1,” “Generation 2” etc. The most significant structural differences and visual cues for each production generation are listed below. Please note that there is variation not only due to the reasons presented above (e.g. custom orders and repairs), but due to the differences in opinions of various sources.


GENERATON 1 production: 1956-1960 
   Silver circular cushion clips
   100% down cushions filling
   Boot glides to ottoman base (pre '57)
   Three (3) screws to armrests
   Round Herman Miller label
   Brazilian rosewood veneer
   Gun stock oil finish

GENERATION 2 production: 1960-1971
   Silver circular cushion clips
   Down cushions + other materials
   Adjustable/screw glides to ottoman base
   Two (2) screws to armrests
   Round Herman Miller label
   Brazilian rosewood veneer
   Gun stock oil finish

GENERATION 3 production: 1971-1991
   Long black cushion clips (Oct '71)
   Foam and fiber fill cushions
   Adjustable/screw glides to ottoman base
   Two (2) screws to armrests
   Long black Herman Miller label
   Brazilian rosewood veneer
   Lacquer finish since 1980

GENERATION 4 production: 1991-
   Long black cushion clips
   Foam and fiber fill cushions 
   Adjustable/screw glides to ottoman base
   Two (2) screws to armrests
   Long silver Herman Miller label
   Walnut, cherry or Santos Palisander veneer (2006)
  Lacquer finish


We will keep updating this posting whenever we come across some new information regarding the chair's history. If you have some updates or corrections regarding the text, please kindly let us know and we would be glad to learn and make the necessary updates! 

For the Eames Lounge Chair part II please go here.

22 comments:

  1. Thank you for this thorough review. I want to post a comment as well. I'm pretty sure I'm seen new productions (post-2006) with 5 layers of plywood. I don't remember if they were all Santos Paslisander, however. Is it possible that they tried to continue the tradition of the Rosewood plywood by using the same number of plywood on the Santos Palisander as well? It's only my speculation.

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  2. Thanks for you input! This is an intresting detail. Can you recall if it was a chair made by Herman Mille or Vitra?

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  3. Mine is Herman Miller in Santos Palisander. I wanted to post a picture, but I just don't know how =P. I actually have another question regarding the picture you posted above which shows the cushion with the feathers. Is the picture before or after you added foam in it? I don't see any foam in the picture. The reason I ask is because I THINK I have a first Series Eames just like in your picture and it doesn't have any foam in it.

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  4. I've seen round labels that are black too, but I don't know what year they were manufactured.

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  5. For sure there are chairs with and without foam. Its important to understand that some of these chairs are almost 60years old. All it needs is that one day a person decideds to add some foam in the cushions because theirs have gotten flat. Unfortunately 100% down cushions have the tendency to get flat over time.

    If we talk about the same picture there is the bag of down on top, foam in the middle and the cushion undercover in the bottom. By the way it looks I think someone has added it a long time ago and I actually don't think the seat cushion back cover, nor the shockmounts are original to this chair whereas the rest is. Being much older than me I just have to accept that a lot of things has happened to it before we met;)

    If yours is an early one too then I must ask that how are the shockmounts in yours? Have you checked them?

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  6. I've had my newer Eames Lounge Chair for a while and have recently acquired the first series which has the feather cushions. I wish I could send you a picture of my cushions. Maybe you can give me your email and I can email you the pictures. When I unzipped the cushions, I found pretty much exactly what's shown in your picture too. However, when I asked a restorer about his opinion, he pointed out to me that, besides the feathers/down pouch, the white stuff is Dacron, but not foam. So he believed that mine is considered 100% feathers/down. I have to say it was new terminology to me too and that I got Draco and foam confused. Therefore, I believe yours (in the above picture) was also 100% feathers/down. Of course, I could be wrong too.
    In terms of the shock mounts, I got a good deal on the first series one because of a broken shock mount. My plan is to do the repair myself and enjoy this beauty again! If you want to know more about the shock mount repair, I'd love to share my experience with you as I've been through hell and back from it, so you could avoid some potential mistakes.
    I really appreciate the discussion here as it allows me to broaden my understanding of this classic beauty. Thanks again! By the way, where are you from?

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  7. Dacron? So thats what it is. Thanks for your input!! Its great to learn new things about these beauties. Our first gen. needs to have new shocks also. I'am going to do it myself too and I was thinking documenting and posting the process once we get there. Which shocks were you thinking of using?

    Regarding the black round Herman Miller label. I believe they changed to black rectangular early seventies so before that. If with two screws and adjustable/screw glides to ottoman base I would guess second gen. and around 1960-1970, but could be wrong..

    We are located in Espoo, Finland. You?

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  8. ..there was just few days ago actually one with the black round label for sale on ebay but I cant find it anymore. That one was in the US and seemed be in very good condition.

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  9. I've been in close contact with Special K Products when it comes to the maintenance of my chairs. They're absolutely wonderful people to work with. I've gotten all the parts from them. They're located in the Los Angeles area in California, USA. Btw, I'm from San Francisco. They have very reasonable pricing as well. However, I do have to say the parts they carry are not Herman Miller original parts. If you go to ebay and look up Special K Products, they'll tell you what products they carry. If you want to do the repair yourself, make sure you know what it takes such as in tools and skill level because for example, for me, I'm not very handy and I've had to use my dad's skills in my recent projects =P Anyway, good luck and let me know if you questions and I'd love to see your restoration process!!! Take care!!!

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  10. Its exiting to see how multiethnic and global our reader group is. Between all the different nationalities people from US is actually the second most biggest group to read our blog, only after Finns!

    Please post your pictures regarding your lounge chair to to our blog-email: theolivegreenwindow@gmail.com

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  11. Agreed. That's what makes this design universal and classical. Btw, I'm a Stratovrius fan (a Finland band). Or at least I was, until the lineup changed a few years back.

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  12. And where is Herman Miller's HQ ? Oh, that's right... near Grand Rapids, Michigan aka "Furniture City", and also the home of your favorite Finn Americans :-)

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    1. Arja...Sara...Anna?? One more reason to come and visit one day!! :-)

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  13. I love the great Charles and Ray Eames designs of interior furniture. In these designs Charles DSR designs are my favorite. Excellent information shared here.

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  14. Thanks for your feedback! We are planning make an other update (part 2) regarding the Eames lounge chair. This time with some new information together with the story of the restoration of our first. gen. Eames lounge chair so stay tuned!

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  15. I have another question regarding the button fasteners on the backing of the cushions. They've changed over the years. My first series has bow-tie looking fasteners; some have black round ones; some have white round ones. The more recent ones have silver round ones. Do they indicate anything about production year?

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  16. Hi there! That is an interesting question and something we have not really looked into. I'm sure there are differences also in such a small details as button fasteners, depending from where they were sourced from. Unfortunately this is something that we don't have knowledge..

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  17. Hey thanks for sharing such kind information with us regarding Eames lounge chairs. I am really impressed with the way you have described it. Really a nice post.

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    1. Hi Christine! Glad you liked it:) We are planning to post a follow up, part II for the Eames Lounge chair in the near future, so stay tuned!

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  18. Something not mentioned here is the swivel ottoman. Apparently some of the earlier issue had the swivel ottoman but at some point is was discontinued. Can you shed light on the history of this? Thanks for a great page.

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    1. Hi,

      That is true, yet there is so little information available about this mythical item, that we'll need some time to gather necessary background information. Good idea, so let's see if we are able to write something about it later..

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  19. Just wanted to say that the newer lounges still have the 7 layer plywood although thicker than the older generations.

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