The History Behind America's Favorite Chair: The Eames Lounge and Ottoman

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By Alex Ronan / Published by Dwell
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The molded plywood chair that became an American icon.

Charles and Ray Eames often visited their friend Billy Wilder on his film sets. While working, the famed director would put together a makeshift lounge chair so that he could nap between takes. Something about his jerry-rigged seat struck a chord with the duo.

The smooth curves of molded plywood on the Eames Lounge and Ottoman were unprecedented in furniture design at the time.

The couple already had significant experience working with plywood. Applying heat and pressure, Charles and Ray had molded it for use by the U.S. Navy during WWII. Following the war, they continued to experiment with the material. The resulting smooth curves of molded plywood on the Eames Lounge and Ottoman were unprecedented in furniture design at the time. The chair is upholstered in leather and has an aluminum base.

Charles Eames (right) visiting the Herman Miller factory, where the Eames Lounge and Ottoman has been produced since its 1956 debut.

When it debuted on Arlene Francis’ Home show in 1956, she called it "quite a departure" from the designers' earlier creations. The lounge set came about during a period of very spare and minimal furniture, but Charles was insistent on building a chair with "the warm receptive look of a well-used first baseman's mitt," one that would provide respite from the "strains of modern living." In a letter to Charles, Ray wrote that the chair looked "comfortable and un-designy." Despite its humble origins, the Eames Lounge and Ottoman are in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The first completed set was gifted to Billy Wilder, and is produced by Herman Miller.

A 1959 advertisement for the Lounge set emphasizes its comfort. Another ad from the era reads “A good chair, nowadays, is hard to find,” and suggests that it’s “the only modern chair designed to relax you in the tradition of the good old club chair.” Charles took on the project because he was “fed up with the complaints that modern isn’t comfortable.”

Employees at the Herman Miller factory polish the molded plywood shells in the seventies.

Production today continues in much the same way.

Mad Men star Vincent Kartheiser gives a nod to the show’s midcentury roots with an Eames Lounge in the living room of his Hollywood cabin.

Mad Men star Vincent Kartheiser gives a nod to the show’s midcentury roots with an Eames Lounge in the living room of his Hollywood cabin.

The owners of this modern home on the outskirts of London, adorned with an Eames Lounge, originally planned to use it as a weekend getaway, but after completing renovations, they couldn’t imagine leaving on Sunday afternoons.

The owners of this modern home on the outskirts of London, adorned with an Eames Lounge, originally planned to use it as a weekend getaway, but after completing renovations, they couldn’t imagine leaving on Sunday afternoons.

The living room of this Connecticut cottage is decorated with iconic modernist pieces, like the Eames Lounge in white, the Saarinen Womb chair, and an Eileen Grey E1027 side table.

The living room of this Connecticut cottage is decorated with iconic modernist pieces, like the Eames Lounge in white, the Saarinen Womb chair, and an Eileen Grey E1027 side table.

The Dwell Home, a prefab house built for an invitational design competition, features the Eames Lounge and Ottoman. The set provides classic style and a comfortable seating option without blocking too much of the view.

The Dwell Home, a prefab house built for an invitational design competition, features the Eames Lounge and Ottoman. The set provides classic style and a comfortable seating option without blocking too much of the view.

The Eames Lounge sits across a fiberglass chair designed by Richard Conover in this Brooklyn home.

The Eames Lounge sits across a fiberglass chair designed by Richard Conover in this Brooklyn home.