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The Art and Evolution of the Eames Shell Chair

From modern design enthusiasts to the casual observer, most people today will recognize an Eames Shell Chair on sight, even if they don’t know the chair’s name or the extensive process by which its esteemed designers arrived at the final curvy seat.

Due to their inability to compromise on quality, Charles and Ray Eames spent several years developing the first incarnations of the iconic Shell Chair.

The Beginnings

The initial seeds for the chair were planted when Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen began working with bent plywood in 1939. Striving to create a one piece seat and back, Eames’ journey to achieve this design took some detours along the way, as well as some material changes and even a design collaborator change to arrive at the final destination.

Teaching at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Eames and Saarinen’s first design was a concept chair with two-dimensional curves for Saarinen’s design for the Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo, NY. Next, they designed an entry for The Museum of Modern Art’s “Organic Furniture Design” competition in 1940 with three-dimensional curves. The design won first prize, but it was only produced in very limited quantities. Eames was not happy with the quality of these pieces and continued his experimentation with materials and manufacturing processes in search of the quality and design he envisioned.

Shortly after the museum competition, Eero Saarinen moved on to pursue other projects while Eames continued forward on the Shell Chair design. During his time at Cranbrook, Eames met Ray Kaiser, and in 1941 they were wed. Ray had assisted the two men in preparing their design for the Organic Furniture Competition, making her a natural fit to take Saarinen’s place. Together, she and Charles continued to pursue a new process to mold plywood into compound curves.

Shortly after they wed, the Eameses moved to California and opened their own design studio. During their pursuit of a new technique for molding plywood, the design duo developed stretchers, lightweight stackable leg splints (1942), and a glider seat (1943) for the U.S. Navy. Despite all these successful designs, they were still unable to create the single piece chair they desired.

With a little imagination and a re-working of the original design, Charles and Ray came up with a two-piece design that is still in production today. In 1946, they launched the popular two-piece Eames Molded Plywood Chair, which would eventually earn the title of “Best Design of the Century” by Time magazine.

Success!

The next stop on the Eames’ journey was another competition for the Museum of Modern Art. This competition, called “International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design,” yielded a single form shell stamped from metal and coated in neoprene. Garnering second place, the design didn’t quite live up to the “low cost” element of the competition, proving too costly to produce. As a result, the Eameses found themselves on the hunt again for a new material better suited to their goals.

They finally found what they were looking for. A material that had not been used in consumer applications before, fiberglass-reinforced plastic was the golden ticket to creating the organic, single piece seat they desired. The production process was both cost effective and allowed the chair seat and back to be molded into a single, organic shape. This winning combination met the Eames’ quality requirements and, when released in 1950, became the first mass-produced plastic chair.

However, this was not the end of the chair’s design evolution.

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Material Concerns

A variety of bases were developed to allow the chairs to be customized to specific uses, from lounging to dining to working. An upholstered version was created, giving the chair a two-toned and textured look. Over the years, seat colors have come and gone.

The chair was even briefly taken out of production and off the market. In the late 1980s, environmental concerns around fiberglass production were brought to light. As a result, Herman Miller ceased production of the chairs in the early 1990s. Searching for yet another alternative material, the perfect solution was found in recyclable polypropylene. With this new, more environmentally friendly material, the Shell Chairs returned to the market in 2001.

In 2013, the design evolution came full circle. Partnering with the Eames family, Herman Miller was able to finally create a single-piece molded wood chair using the latest 3D veneer technology. Herman Miller was also able to formulate a new molded fiberglass material that is GREENGUARD Gold Certified, making the Shell Chair family complete.

How to Choose

With a variety of bases (including barstool heights), two seat types and three materials to choose from, it’s easy to find a Shell Chair that fits an individual’s style. I personally own an Eames Molded Plastic Rocker Chair that I just love. The hardest part was picking a color because there were just so many lovely options.

The various styles of the Shell Chairs are easily identifiable based on their manufacturing codes. Every model with a plastic seat begins with a simple three letter code that defines the family, basic seat style and base. For example, as shown above, for the chair designated DAX, D is used for the Shell Chair family, A stands for armchair, and X stands for the 4 Leg base.

For the more recent re-introductions of molded fiberglass and wood, an additional F or W has been added after the D to identify that specific material.

Armed with this information, you, too, can have a piece (or several pieces; why not?) of history and fine design all of your very own…and made to your exact specifications. Just what the Eameses always wanted.

Nicole Tatem

Nicole Tatem

Nicole is the Sr. Site Merchandiser for Accessories, Kids, and Textiles at YLiving. She is obsessed with great design in all forms with a special love for jewelry, wine bottle labels, and tableware. When she’s not exploring the many museums and art galleries of the Bay Area, Nicole spends time looking for and visiting obscure and unusual destinations (locally and abroad) while practicing her photography skills.

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