Friday, October 24, 2008

Mid-Century Modern Designers

A few weeks back I discussed Mid-Century Modern Architecture and some of my favourite architects. Now let's take a look at some of the influential designers who created this functional, streamlined furniture.

Being a collector of this furniture myself, I have a soft spot for the pieces of this time. They are of a smaller scale, so great for those loft apartments many of us live in these days; the pieces usually make sense and have ingenius capabilities, since they were created for function first; and while modern in line and scale, the pieces transcend time in a way that makes it work in today's interiors.

Charles & Ray Eames
This husband and wife design team are best known for their groundbreaking contributions in furniture design but were also involved in architecture, industrial design and manufacturing, exhibitions, photography and film making. Married in 1941, the Eameses lived in Los Angeles and arguably became the most important designers of the 20th century.

Firmly believing in modernism as a way of social change; they were “idealistic realists” who wanted to create “the best, for the most, for the least”. They sought to bring the good life to the general public by integrating high and low art forms, modern materials, and production techniques, along with craft and design.

Eames Lounge Chair Wood (LCW)
Looking for a solution to provide affordable, comfortable furniture that could be easily mass produced. Charles’ entries into the Organic Furniture competition were designed to have the seat and backrest joined in a singe 'shell'. The plywood, however, was prone to crack when bent into the sharp angles and had to be covered with upholstery. Through extensive trial and error Charles and Ray arrived at an alternate solution: create two separate pieces for the seat and backrest, joined by a plywood lumbar support, with plywood legs. The result was a comfortable chair with a sleek and modern appearance. The seat was joined to the lumbar support and legs with a series of four heavy rubber washers with nuts embedded in them (later these came to be called 'shock mounts'). The shock mounts were glued to the underside of the seat, and screwed in through the bottom of the chair. The backrest was also attached using shock mounts. The rubber mounts were pliable, allowing the backrest to flex when the chair was occupied. This was one of the first examples of a chair with a responsive backrest.

Even though the plywood chair was a compromise of the Eames' vision to create a single shell chair it still constituted a successful design. Following the LCW the Eames created a family of plywood chairs. The chair continues to be an icon of Modern Design style. It is valued for its comfort as well as its status symbol. Original production models are highly valued by collectors. The chair was initially offered in 3-4 natural wood veneers such as ash, walnut, and cherry. It was also offered in two aniline dyed colors: ebony black, and red.

Eames Lounge Chair
The Eames Lounge Chair and ottoman, correctly titled Eames Lounge (670) and Ottoman (671) were released in 1956. It was the first chair the Eames designed for a high-end market. These furnishings are made of molded plywood and leather. You can see an example of this chair and ottoman as part of the permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

The chair is composed of three curved plywood shells. The shells are made with several thin layers of wood veneer glued together and shaped under heat and pressure. The shells and the seat cushions are essentially the same shape: composed of two curved forms interlocking to form a solid mass. The chair back and headrest are identical in proportion, as are the seat and the Ottoman. The chair has a low seat which is permanently fixed at a recline. The seat of the chair swivels on a cast aluminum base, with glides that are threaded so that the chair may remain level.

The Eames Lounge Chair appeals to people for several reasons. It is a classic design that has been in production continuously since its creation. In addition to the style, it is also very comfortable, a combination not always found in high-end design. There is a decent used market for these chairs. Some collectors are willing to pay high prices for earlier chairs made with Brazilian Rosewood veneer, which is no longer available. In 2006, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the chair, Herman Miller released models using a sustainable Palisander Rosewood veneer. Prices for original rosewood chairs have recently reached as much as $7,000 USD in auction.

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