Design Icon

Design Icon: The Eames Molded Plastic Armchair

by Maxwell Tielman


Illustration by Libby VanderPloeg.

Earlier this week, we kicked off our new Flower Glossary, a weekly series that showcases specific flowers and all of the essential facts about them. Today, we are launching another series, much in the same “baseball card” vein: Design Icon. Many times a week, we find ourselves receiving comments and e-mails from readers asking us to identify such-and-such a product, and very often, the product in question is none other than an Eames Armchair. Or a Saarinen Tulip Table. Or an Alvar Aalto vase. Although these classic objects are as ubiquitous as they are beautiful, it is often difficult to ascribe a title or a maker to them. You might, for example, call a George Nelson design “that clock with all the balls on it.” (Don’t worry—I am absolutely guilty of this, too.)

To celebrate some of history’s most iconic and enduring design objects (and to give you the tools to identify them), we have decided to begin this series. Each week, you will be treated to a lovely illustrated image of an iconic design (courtesy of the talented Libby VanderPloeg) and all of its essential “tombstone” information, from its official name to facts about its materials and construction. So, without further ado, here is the first installment of our Design Icons series—a true classic that never gets old: Charles and Ray Eames’ Molded Plastic Armchair. —Max

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Design: Eames Molded Plastic Armchair

Designers: Charles Eames (1907-1978) and Ray Eames (1912-1988)

Year: 1950

Manufacturer: Herman Miller

Materials & Construction: Originally produced using molded fiber glass. You can usually identify this material from its textured, crosshatch-like appearance. In 1989, in response to Ray Eames’ insistence that the non-recyclable fiberglass was detrimental to the environment, Herman Miller began producing the chairs in recyclable polypropylene. In 2013, however, it was announced that Herman Miller would again be producing the iconic chairs in fiberglass, albeit a more sustainable version that was less hazardous to the environment.

The chairs are available in both armchair and dining chair versions. They are able to be paired with numerous interchangeable bases, among which include wooden dowels (depicted above), metal “H” bases, metal “Eiffel Tower” bases, and a stackable version.

Fun Fact: Although today, the designs of Charles and Ray Eames have achieved “legend” status and are oftentimes sold at luxury prices, many of their works (the molded plastic armchair included) were originally developed as low-cost, mass-production solutions. In fact, the Eames’ molded plastic chairs, constructed from easily manufactured and reproduced materials, were originally conceived as an entry for MoMA’s 1947 International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design.

Purchase: Design Within Reach, $419

More Information: “Molded Plastic Chairs” from the official Eames Office website

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  • Hey! I love this series. Would you consider including a photo of the piece in addition to Libby VanderPloeg’s drawing?

  • Saddest fact about classic Mid Century Modern designs like these is, that back then, it was meant as a cheap affordable furniture for everybody, nowdays it is being luxury.

  • The chair in the illustration is actually a wood dowel leg chair. The wood legs come in walnut, maple and ebony-stained ash. The metal Eiffel base has more metal pieces in a more complex configuration. I verified this on the DWR website.

  • this is what kills the intention and purpose of the design and consequently the designer, the piece, in this case the Eames molded plastic, was intended for low cost high design living, their message was ‘you can construct something beautiful and highly functional out of inexpensive materials’, and even when fiberglass turned to be harmful to the environment their message was let’s make it out of plastic then, without compromising the cost, and the design. However, this capitalistic and profit driven society has allowed Herman Miller and others, including Room & Board to continue to sell this chair at a laughable high price when other companies stay true to the design and cost to the consumer, which is exactly what Charles and Ray Eames intended in the first place. To me is obscene that someone would pay above $500 for a chair that others sell in equal quality for $150. That’s where design gets corrosive, because then is not truly for cultural presentation but for class and status.

  • In full agreement with Patricia. I bought a couple fiberglass versions manufactered by Herman Miller in the 60s about 5 years ago for $25 each. Perfect. How in the world are Room & Board/DWR selling these chairs for such astronomical prices, and who’s buying them? (Also, have you considered an editor for this blog yet? I’m seeing more and more proofing errors every week, it seems.)

    • Hi, Erin!

      I performed another read-through of this post and wasn’t able to pinpoint any glaring errors—would you mind letting me know where they are? I’d be happy to correct them.

      As for the current pricing of Eames furniture—I cannot say exactly why their prices have skyrocketed so much, but I assume it may have something to do with the fact that furniture that is considered “low cost” today is oftentimes produced using cheap, underpaid, and outsourced labor. In cases like that, the consumer’s costs are externalized and taken out on the makers and the environment. Eames furniture has always been and continues to be made in the USA with top-of-the-line materials in relatively small scale. In addition to this, Eames furniture may have been found a bit too “unusual” looking in terms of mainstream popular taste. Much of mass-market furniture (select modern pieces from retailers like IKEA notwithstanding) tends to conform to a much more traditional aesthetic. Because of this, Eames furniture seems to have become more of a niche design object.

  • Hey Max! Thanks for your thoughtful response. I still think the pricetag is silly, and I can’t open a magazine without seeing an eames chair so I’m not sure I agree with the “unusual” argument, but I do appreciate your points.

    The error that jumped out at me was “non-rycyclable fiberglass .” Unless rycyclable is a word that I don’t know? Unlikely, but not impossible. :) I know how difficult it is to proof your own work, and I can only imagine how busy you all are anyway, so I think having someone editing full time would be really beneficial!

  • Whenever I see one of these Eames chairs selling for a few hundred dollars, I think of the run down pool hall in the town I grew up in, full of about 50 of them, the orange stackable design (I checked one day, Herman Miller is written underneath, plain and clear). These people probably bought them when they were basic, affordable chairs… they have no idea how much of a fortune they could make selling ’em. But I hope they never do, it creates some really quiet, humble charm in there.

  • Wow, people are nitpicky! Love the site, and I appreciate having a design resource for creatives that don’t necessarily live in sprawling mansions. I think the Eames chair may seem ubiquitous for those who care to follow design blogs, but not for the general masses. I’m not trying to be elitist; it’s like arguing that an iconic Chanel jacket be affordable–it sells for far more than it costs to make, and very similar copies are sold for much cheaper, but those who purchase one want to own a piece of history, symbolic of a time period when fashion was undergoing a radical transformation that valued minimalism and simplicity. The same could be said of the Eames chair. Nine out of ten people off the street may think an Eames chair ugly and weird, but those who appreciate design and it’s history might admire the beauty of its simplicity, and it’s symbolism of a radical change in how people furnished their homes.

  • Most.. if not all Eames designed chairs are comfortable! they designed (or molded) the chair to fit how the body would sit comfortably. To me when you can get the whole package of style, comfort and quality, then that is huge. How many new designed modern chairs at a high dollar price are very comfortable?

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