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March 30, 2006

Lounging: Still Popular After All These Years


Image courtesy of Spectrum Workplace.

The Boston Globe



It was the mid-1950s, a time of big ideas and soaring spirits.

Disneyland opened. The Soviets launched Sputnik l. The Hula Hoop was invented.

And on March 14, 1956, a chair debuted on NBC's "Home" show, officially ushering in a revolutionary era of modern furniture design.

It was a leather lounge chair and ottoman designed for the Herman Miller company by the husband and wife team of Charles and Ray Eames, introduced with unparalleled fanfare (for a chair): The crescendo of violins, the parting of curtains, the glare of TV lights.

Most viewers had never seen anything like it. The shape was abstract, like sculpture. The lines were clean and simple, and there was curved molded wood on the sides. The leather was as supple as a baseball mitt.

Yet for all the hoopla, the Eameses could hardly have known that a half-century later their chair and the so-called midcentury modern design movement it has come to symbolize would not only endure, but enjoy a revival that is actually gaining momentum.

The chair will be the focus of a traveling exhibition that opens in May at New York's Museum of Arts & Design, called "The Eames Lounge Chair: An Icon of Modern Design." Also in May, the Shelburne Museum of Vermont is presenting "Homey and Hip", an exhibit of furniture designed for Knoll that includes work by Eames contemporaries - Isamu Noguchi, Harry Bertoia, and Eero Saarinen, and other influential designers of the period.

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Comment on This Article Here! Lounging: Still Popular After All These Years:

Hello there. I own a storefront business, and handle original 20th century Modernist design. I have collected same for over 30 years, had the retail store for 15, and a web site for 10. The Eames chair, truly a Period Icon, has been an interesting object for me to ponder in terms of reputation vs reality. I do not believe it deserves full status as a Design Icon.

There are aspects of its appearance I like very much, and the modular construction is wonderfully logical. However... I have NEVER "lounged" in an example that came anywhere near its promise of comfort.

In case you haven't encountered the real thing, it is smaller than you might expect. This creates no problem for the average sized person such as myself, but for the increasing size of the typical American, this WILL pose a problem. That aside, the cushions are hard (Germanically "firm"?), and the pressure points are not ergonomically well-positioned. It is, simply stated, an uncomfortable chair for actual lounging.

I doubted my conclusion for some time. How could this ICON deliver so much LESS than the reputation preceding it? Over the years, I've tested quite a few - new and old. The same disappointing experience came with each. I then began acquiring the Plycraft versions by George Mulhauser (one of which was inspired from the Eames' design). What a revelation! A lounge chair that delivered! A chair that had me feeling BETTER after I'd used it! Clearly, the Eames chair was studied, and improved upon. Mulhauser is what I've acquired for my own collection and relaxation.

My final "confirmation" came when I was in a discussion about the Eames chair with a representative of the parent company, Herman Miller. I asked "Have you EVER sat in an Eames lounge chair and felt comfortable?" The answer: "No."

Objects up for "Icon" status need to be more than pretty or easy to run down the assembly line - it needs to deliver on ALL its promises to the person who invests in, lives with, and depends upon such an central piece of furniture.

Ronn Ives, owner
FUTURES Antiques
Norfolk, Virginia

Posted by: Ronn Ives | Mar 31, 2006 9:52:45 AM

Very interesting.

I've just started shopping around online for an Eames lounge and have yet to sit in the real deal. I'm glad I came across the story and your comments on PC. great timing!

Do you know where I could see the George Mulhauser Plycraft version? Thanks!

Posted by: julia | Mar 31, 2006 11:50:54 AM

Hello again.

Julia, I wish I could advise you on where to find a vintage example of the Plycraft Mulhauser (I do not have one at this time), but a web search may work. I was recently contacted by a European dealer who wanted my opinion on one he'd found via eBay. I suggested he pass on it, since it had wood & upholstery damage, and was covered in avacado vinyl. Yek! When you see the Mulhauser design, you WILL see its source (Eames), but if you're anything like me, you'll come to like it more even on a visual level. In the "SOLD" gallery of my web site, I show mediocre photos of a different and much rarer example (which does NOT look like the one we've been discussing). (Two shots, one of the chair, one of the ottoman. They are labeled.) I AM on the lookout for good examples. Once a person sits in one, it IS sold.

I'm glad I could help.

Ronn Ives, owner
FUTURES Antiques
Norfolk, Virginia

Posted by: Ronn Ives | Mar 31, 2006 7:01:27 PM

I am a big fan of midcentury modern furniture and my personal favorite is the Saarinen womb chair. We had an (original!) orange one when I was growing up, and I have often bemoaned the fact that my mother threw it out along with the Nelson slatted wood bench and other authentic examples of the period. My mother, however, claims that the womb chair was brutally uncomfortable.

I have never had the pleasure to own one -- does anyone know? What's the real truth about this icon?

Posted by: Penny Daniels | Apr 3, 2006 4:55:32 PM

Not too long ago I spoke with ergonomic master Niels Diffrient about his work and his influences. Here's what he had to say about "the icons."

"Though it was called functional, what they really were doing was creating a functional style. It was not necessarily very functional. The chairs are, in some cases, notoriously uncomfortable."

"Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona is the great icon of modern chairs, but it does everything wrong. Everyone falls in love with its appearance without appreciating that it bends your back the wrong way, the seat is way too deep, it’s very hard for people who are old or infirm to get out of, or, for that matter, even get into it.

It’s really a good lesson in what not to do in chairs, but it’s forgiven because its main function was to impress, not to support a body comfortably. With such items, at least the ones I own, I sit in the comfortable chair and look at them, because that’s what they were designed for in the first place."

I've never sat in a Le Corbusier chaise. How does that one stack up?

Posted by: caroline Kooshoian | Apr 4, 2006 10:26:20 AM

Penny and Caroline:

Hello, it's Ronn Ives again. I seem to have opened a can of worms by mentioning the lack of comfort in the Eames lounge. Good! Design is MUCH more than appearance, cost, or ease of construction, shipping, and assembly.

Unfortunately, I hear "and they threw it out!" stories ALL THE TIME. There's nothing that can be done about those tragedies, but there IS a lesson for the rest of us: JUST SAY NO! (I have a couple stories that would make you cry.)

I find the Womb chair comfortable, but limited. (Here's where we get into functional preferences. If you lounge for less than an hour, one chair may be fine, but if you're using it to view the uncut version of the film "Das Boot", the chair might be a miserable failure. This is one way I rate seating in my store. "It's a Dinner Chair", "It's a Board Game Chair", "It's a Movie Chair", "It's an All Day in Front of the Computer Chair"...) The Womb chair is limited because it doesn't move. MY "Lounging" involves the desire to rotate, tilt back, and rock while seated. The Womb also consumes a huge amount of space in a typical sized room, which can affect room-flow incredibly.

Tip: Get the dimensions of ANY lounger you're considering, and make a 4-sided cardboard box equal to its MAXIMUM outer edge dimensions. See how the size affects your space. Lots of people have small rooms. You may have Womb Envy, but parking it outside in the apartment hallway is NOT ideal.

How lucky you were to speak with Niels Diffrient! A designer who talks the talk, and walks the walk. I generally agree with him. I do find the Barcelona more show than go, but my spine bends improperly only when the support straps of the back cushion begin to lose their tension. The seat IS deep, and tilts at a strong angle, but I like this aspect. On the other hand, a lounge chair or sofa without ARMS is not a lounger - it is a "Chair +". Put arms ON the Barcelona? May as well put a moustache on the Mona Lisa.

This is exactly what I was getting at earlier. Full "Design Icon" status should require solving ALL the problems intrinsic to the object, not just some. It's the difference between good and great, I suppose. The Eames lounge: good. The Barcelona: good. The Eames compact sofa: good. The Mulhauser lounge: great. The Eames bent wood dining chair: great. The Chadwick & Stumpf Equa/2 task chair (Herman Miller): great. ANY chair by Paul McCobb: great...IF you want your guests to go home & never return.

As for Corbu's chaise: I don't know. I've had fewer experiences with any real (non-knock-off) versions of designers chaises, since they're far less available. I love the "machine" look with the contrast of cow hide. I suspect I'd prefer the function of the Aalto version because of the slight spring allowed in the wooden framework.

Ronn Ives, owner
FUTURES Antiques
Norfolk, Virginia

Posted by: Ronn Ives | Apr 4, 2006 12:52:54 PM

I have to say, I love the Eames lounge chair. I have picked up a few replicas at Estate sales and what not, our of pure need for something like it. The best replica I ever had was a Plycraft - In fact, I held on to it. I have since donated to the Eames Foundation and I am awaiting my 'gift' of a hand-numbered 50th Anniversary chair. I will be posting photos once I receieve it, so feel free to check out my site. It should be here within a few weeks.

Thanks again.. love the site. It's a tremendous resource.

Avid Collectior and Enthusiast

Posted by: Dan | Jul 1, 2006 2:55:08 PM

Just found a great store in my area (Baltimore) which sells mid-century furniture at a good price ( My husband and I stopped by "just to look" and ended up buying a womb chair and the plycraft lounger mentioned above. Both are amazingly comfortable.

I agree with the comment on the womb that it would be nice if it swiveled, but other than that, it is very cozy. My husband bought it for me as our anniversary gift and it was well-priced ($2000) for a leather (re-upolstered) chair that seems to run about ($6000) new.

I've been coveting the Eames lounger for years, and I agree that the plycraft lounger is more comfortable. It rocks back a little more than the Eames, and the leather (though used) is much more pliable and soft.

I learned through reading these blogs, that apparently I inherited another plycraft lounger (Mulhauser design) that my parents had for years. I always found it uncomfortable, but had no idea it was iconic!

Thanks for the info!


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