Design Icon: How to Spot a Real Eames Chair
Introduced in 1956, the Eames Lounge Chair is arguably one of the world’s most recognizable pieces of furniture. Designed by husband and wife duo Charles and Ray Eames, its sleek aesthetic and genius construction have kept it relevant (and highly coveted) for close to 60 years. As with many iconic designs, with fame comes fakery. The Eames Chair has been endlessly imitated — even some replicas are highly sought-after — but reproductions still don’t compare to the craftsmanship of the real thing. “Herman Miller has been the licensed U.S. manufacturer since the ‘50s,” says Senior Curator Brittany Gersh, and each piece is still assembled by hand. “The company is based in Zeeland, Michigan, which is not far from the Cranbrook Academy of Art where Charles and Ray met. Cranbrook is like a Midwestern design mecca. Many of its buildings were designed by Eliel Saarinen, whose son Eero Saarinen studied design there alongside other now-famous designers like Florence Knoll and Harry Bertoia. Basically, almost every mid-century designer passed through Cranbrook. It’s where they all met and shared ideas. It was very collaborative, like a Bauhaus of the US.”
Charles and Ray Eames at their Santa Monica, California home, 1950
And it was there that the Eameses began to create their signature aesthetic. “Their modernism was very different from European modernism, which was stark, austere and characterized by cold lines,” explains Gersh. “Charles and Ray were more about accessible design. For example, compare Mies Van Der Rohe’s Barcelona chair vs. the Eames Lounge — one is all about classic lines and pared down luxury, while the other is about comfort. They’re also using plywood whereas the Barcelona was done in really opulent marbles and leathers.” Read on as Gersh breaks down the elements of this iconic design and shares some helpful tips for telling the real deal from the many reproductions out there.
1. Eames Chair Design
“The couple’s designs were all about clean lines, and had an aerodynamic quality to them with rounded edges and bent plywood” notes Gersh. “The idea for bent wood furniture actually came from an innovative leg splint the couple invented to help injured soldiers during WWII, which was designed to conform to the body’s curves.” They later adapted their process for molding plywood to use in furniture design, and the same organic shape can be seen in the Eames Lounge Chair, of which Charles Eames famoulsy said, “The leather cushions do have built-in wrinkles to start with, but that is a clue that spells comfort to come, like the warm, receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt.”
“Like the original leg splints, authentic Eames chairs should not have any visible bolts or screws going through the plywood. The design was meant to hide the inner workings of the chair,” says Gersh. Another element replicas get wrong? The ottoman. “With some replicas, the ottoman might be a different width than the chair, whereas authentic chairs will have ottomans that match exactly.” You’ll also want to check the base, which should have five legs. “The base and legs should not appear to be screwed on. They should be invisibly attached like the rest of the design.”
2. Eames Chair Materials & Hardware
In 1991, Herman Miller discontinued its use of rosewood (the original wood used to make the Eames Chair) due to its status as an endangered, non-sustainable material. Now the 7-ply veneer shells are made with sustainable options including cherry wood, walnut, ash and palisander. The back braces and bases are made of die-cast aluminum, and the cushions are upholstered with natural leather which improves and develops a patina as it ages. “There are something like 200 leathers that Herman Miller uses to manufacture the chairs, so the leathers can vary quite a bit,” notes Gersh. “Just because the leather looks different from one chair to another doesn’t indicate a fake.”
3. Eames Chair Brand Markings
Gersh notes that “the stickers they apply and the logo they use have changed over the years.” While there is not one universal logo sticker common to all authentic Eames Lounge chairs, most real pieces will have a sticker on the bottom featuring the iconic Herman Miller logo in some variation.
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