Described as “a special refuge from the strains of modern living” that enveloped you with “voluptuous luxury” when it first came out in 1956, the Eames Lounge Chair could almost have been designed for these pandemic times — as we discovered in a recent afternoon tea affair with Eames Demetrios, grandson of the chair’s designers, Charles and Ray Eames. Demetrios himself is established in art, design and film, aside from heading the Eames Office and authoring several books.
Organized by Philippine Tatler and CWC Interiors, the Zoom event was a rare chance to get an intimate account of how one of the most revolutionary pieces in modern furniture design came about and get a glimpse into the lives of two of the greatest designers of the 20th century.
Charles Eames was an early rebel who was expelled and lost his architecture scholarship from Washington University because of his advocacy of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Ray Kaiser Eames studied fashion design first before moving to New York City, where she studied painting and became a founding member of the American Abstract Artists in 1936.
The two met in 1940 at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where Charles was the head of the design department and where they collaborated with Charles’ best friend, Eero Saarinen, in preparing designs for MOMA’s Organic Furniture competition. They were awarded two first prizes for their innovative molded plywood furniture.
After divorcing his first wife, Catherine Woermann, Charles married Ray in 1941 and moved to California, where they developed a special process for molding plywood, which came in handy by World War II when the US Navy commissioned them to produce splints, stretchers and experimental glider shells.
After the war, they concentrated on furniture again, producing the molded plywood LCW (Lounge Chair Wood), which was called “the chair of the century” by the respected architectural critic Esther McCoy. Produced by Evans Products in 1946, the chair, as well as the subsequent designs of the couple, later shifted production to Herman Miller in the US and Vitra in Europe, both of whom still manufacture Eames furniture to this day.
“The now iconic LCW chair was a game changer for both the industry and my grandparents, but before that they’d already made movies, toys, architectural exhibitions and graphics,” Demetrios related in an interview with Tatler. In fact, the couple didn’t achieve economic success until they designed that chair.
Although a love of the process was paramount, discipline was very important for them – never stopping till they got it right. The Lounge Chair and Ottoman, in fact, took two long years to develop.
Money was never the primary reason for working, as Charles learned while wandering around Mexico before getting married. Supporting himself with odd jobs and painting, he experienced life with the villagers, who didn’t have much but had a rich cultural and spiritual life. From then on, he vowed that he would stop making the excuse of “making a living” to justify working on things he didn’t believe in.
Together with Ray they envisioned living and working together in an authentic way, exploring ideas and designs that answered people’s needs. It was also a form of play that made themselves and everyone around them happy.
Although a love of the process was paramount, discipline was very important for them — never stopping till they got it right. The Lounge Chair and Ottoman, in fact, took two long years to develop, with 13 different armrests considered, aside from the basic shell and other details undergoing numerous changes.
The idea started with the need for an update of the stodgy English club chair. They wanted an amply proportioned chair that combined ultimate comfort with a lighter, more elegant, and more modern design utilizing the highest-quality materials and craftsmanship. It had to have “the warm, receptive look of a well-used baseball glove,” according to Demetrios.
For the couple, the role of the designer is that of a good host anticipating the needs of a guest — a wonderful philosophy that is people-centered and has proven invaluable in the success of their designs. The lounge chair, for example, is just something you naturally feel comfortable and secure in the way a good host takes care of you at a party or a weekend stay.
Their attention to detail was so exacting that they had precise instructions for the manufacturers and even designed the tools needed to complete the 47 intricate steps in building the lounger. For them, it was designing the whole system so that everyone got the host-guest experience that they originally intended.
A major point discussed at the Zoom affair was how to style the chair in your interiors. Did everything have to be mid-century, matchy-matchy?
Demetrios answered that, just like the way his grandparents lived, the furniture they designed could be incorporated into one’s lifestyle together with other pieces just like in a “collage” of cultures and memories, which inhabited the Eames House overlooking the ocean in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Their furniture coexisted with books, fabrics, folk art, shells, rocks and straw baskets. Modern as the architecture of the house may be, “it is one filled with Victorian clutter,” as one writer observed. It ultimately reflected their life and philosophy of being human-centered and experiencing different cultures, ideas and ways of living in the best possible way.
In other words, having a rich, meaningful life, no matter the circumstances — something we should strive for during these challenging times.
Photos from Charles & Ray Eames Instagram.