Eames moulded plywood chairs

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 October, 2003, 12:00am

Moulded plywood? How innovative is that? Very. It may not seem revolutionary today but when these chairs were produced, contours on both seat and back-rest panels made sitting for long periods much more comfortable. The design also included rubber mounts between the frame and panels to absorb movement. These features had a profound effect on chair design.

When? 1946.

Who? Charles Eames.

Wasn't he a 20th-century design guru? Yes, and his plywood chairs have become a classic. They looked good, and their outer-ply veneers were available in a variety of woods: cherry, walnut, natural ash, red-stained ash or ebony-stained ash. In the dining version, Eames mounted the five-layer laminated seat and back on frames of either chunky wood or sleek chrome-plated metal rods. The larger lounge versions were fashioned in wood only with the seat and back tilted at a more relaxed angle than the upright dining chairs.

How did Eames mould plywood? In the early 1940s, while working on film-set designs in the United States for MGM, he would return to his flat where he and his wife, Ray, experimented with wood-moulding techniques, one of which involved warping thin sheets of veneer using bicycle pumps as compressors.

Were they first commissioned to make movie props? No, their first orders were from the United States Navy to develop moulded plywood splints and stretchers.

Were the chairs immediately popular? Yes, they were comfortable, modern and stacked easily for storage. And they were not priced beyond the budget of the masses. This last point met Eames' moral concerns about his design. This, after all, was a man who in 1950 said, 'Design should bring ... the best to the greatest number of people for the least.' His unpretentious moulded plywood side chair was even used by a number of schools and colleges, earning it the nickname 'the Eames classroom chair'.

Are the two designs considered dated today? No. While vintage 1940s versions are highly collectable, top US furniture manufacturer Herman Miller still produces them.