A chair of distinction
von Markus Frenzl | Feb 8, 2013

There’s always one somewhere nearby. You can find them in almost any of the photographs posted on blogs presenting apartments in Berlin’s Mitte District, oh so pronounced in their individuality; in the Home Stories section of the “Freunde von Freunden” blog or in articles by “Apartamento” magazine. As though completely by chance, it just happened to be right next to a teak sideboard, decoratively draped with a pile of clothes. Spirited dashes of color on a sea of white or in its rocking chair version juxtaposed with a linear sofa – the Plastic Chair by Charles and Ray Eames. Clearly a piece from times past, proudly presenting its textured fiberglass structure for all to see. It comes in a plethora of wonderfully retro colors, spent years as a badge of connoisseurship and insider knowledge among design aficionados, and over the last 10 or 15 years has become an icon of the retro revival phenomenon like virtually no other.

The predecessor to the “Plastic Armchair” and the “Plastic Side Chair” was designed in Eames’ office back in 1948, an entry for the “Low Cost Furniture Design” competition tendered by New York’s MoMA. In their use of glass fiber reinforced plastic in the later design, the Eames were setting foot in completely new territory, conceiving the first ever plastic chairs to go into industrial production (from 1950). The organically-shaped seat shells and range of differently shaped bases, they allowed for a plethora of variations with differing seat height and/or inclination, with or without upholstering, for indoor and outdoor use, in private or indeed semi-public spaces.

Charles and Ray Eames even shot one of their famous films on the chair’s design and production for manufacturer Hermann Miller. Accompanied by the familiar sounds of Buddy Collette, one gains a unique insight into their work: how they create the unique shape, form the fiberglass into a seat shell, pour the viscous, dyed resin into the mold, to then press it once again and trim any rough edges, how they attach the shock mounts, add a seat cushion, and finally mount the seat shell on the base.

The result: a fascinatingly beautiful chair for universal use, which like many other designs would wait another 60 years before it reached its current iconic status – beginning as a piece that was ambitious for its time, experiencing a phase of great success and subsequent rebuke as “old-fashioned”, before undergoing a revival as an untouchable classic.

Herman Miller and Vitra continued to manufacture the Eames Plastic Chairs in the millions right up to the mid-1980s. Then their omnipresence caused them to go out of fashion for some time; even in the 1990s it wasn’t unheard of to come across an Eames Plastic Chair sitting on the scrap heap. Yet over the past one or two decades a number of factors – a renewed enthusiasm for all things retro, the formidable process of emotionalization characteristic of the modern age and most notably the 1990s remake of the Plastic Chair in matt, fully-dyed polypropylene – have generated a remarkable, new appreciation for these fiberglass chairs, which had up to that point been considered anything but en vogue.

An old Plastic Chair offered those who weren’t quite brave enough to go with a 1960s teak sideboard or didn’t have the budget for a pricey Lounge Chair an alternative means of adding an authentic retro touch to their apartments. The old “originals” were available by the truckload, emancipated from their former uniformity as “mass seating” and transformed into iconic design one-offs in homes across the world.

The aesthetics of casual connoisseurship

Owing to its onetime use as a simple everyday chair that was often employed en masse, in such contexts the Plastic Chair became a symbol of implicitness, verging on banality, and even spent some time alongside plastic-framed glasses and fixed-gear bikes as an item of distinction among the hipster community: A Plastic Side Chair was the absolute limit when it came to the amount of design considered acceptable in an apartment going for that purposefully unpretentious, unfinished and individualistic look. With a simple H-base or stackable frame, this wasn’t the kind of chair to overtly flaunt its fashionable status as a “classic” in the way an expensive Barcelona armchair might. The earlier fiberglass version was now considered more authentic and vibrant than the new edition, whose matt polypropylene seat shell may have been softer and more comfortable, but proved rather dull and samey in its appearance. Resultantly, placing an original fiberglass Plastic Chair in one’s apartment even became a declaration of a critical stance on the excessive perfectionism of our times. The chair had become something of a symbol for an aesthetic of casual connoisseurship, which was now spreading throughout the blogosphere like wildfire, cropping up in almost all media coverage of design topics as a mark of identification for those flying the flag for the “real life”.

This is presumably why today there are more Eames fiberglass chairs in our homes than ever before. They are testimony to their owner’s design know-how as well as their belief that as a reader of Wallpaper and fan of the mid-century aesthetic it is of course only right to have one of these fiberglass chairs in their home. Now available from vintage dealers or on eBay, the old Plastic Side Chair has become that which manufacturers increasingly aiming for: an individual mass-produced product. It answers the consumer’s call for design and simultaneously distances itself and its owner from the overstyled and overcommon. The Eames Plastic Chairs can be combined with a wooden kitchen table, offer a spot to drape your clothes in the bedroom or create a bright mélange of colors and bases set around a dining table.

Even outside of the design world, many would be able to identify this omnipresent chair as an “Eames”. Design is more strongly anchored in our everyday cultural canon than ever before, such that many laymen have managed to acquire a basic knowledge of design history; a little “research” on eBay soon reveals which pieces are most sought after and how much money one can expect to make on them. We know how to decipher the “three-letter-code” used to identify side and armchairs according to their seat height and base (DSW, DSX, DSR, DAX, DAW, DAR, RAR, LAR, LAX...). We know that the old seat shells are especially difficult to find in colors such as magenta and electric blue and enthuse over the seafoam green, lemon yellow, raw amber, greige and ochre light versions. We know that an intact paper label beneath the seat shell is a good sign, what the old bases look like, that the earliest versions of the chairs are called “Zenith Rope Edge” and are distinguished in their handmade rope edge. One can discover all of this and more in the extensive, two-volume work “The Story of Eames Furniture”, published by Gestalten Verlag in 2010, which tells the story behind the Plastic Chairs in great detail, spanning almost 60 pages.

Not so special anymore

For a few years vintage dealers made a great deal of money from buying in Plastic Chair seat shells in bulk and selling them off again individually as coveted items, but now they have long since grown weary of these now rather vanilla chairs: No new or exciting discoveries to be had, no specialist knowledge required and no effort necessary to sell them, just 15 minutes in the store window and they’ll have been snapped up. But most notably, in today’s market the chairs are rarely able to promise a desirable profit margin since the buying-in prices have been driven through the roof. Thus it is not unusual to see a Side Chair seat shell in one of the more coveted colors selling for 350 Euros in vintage stores in Cologne or Berlin. Of course, there are still dealers who sell the “old originals” in the sought-after fiberglass finish via online stores such as fab or Monoqi. On ebay you can even find sets of four Plastic Side Chairs in carefully chosen color combinations, relieving the buyer of that last bit of hard work, namely the tedious search for chairs in matching colors. Some sellers even repaint the seat shells in the much sought-after “original” colors or coat them with a layer of transparent varnish to give them back some of the luster that they never really had in the first place.

Its omnipresence in our homes and in the photos that plaster today’s design blogs has made the Plastic Chair a mass phenomenon of the retro revival, it has even become something of an online meme. When in an interview with German daily “Süddeutsche Zeitung” in February 2012, Konstantin Grcic posed the question as to why one “still sees these stupid Eames chairs in all these apartments,” his statement was met with some biting critique on the web. Yet for some time now it seems that the chair has in fact become more significant in its symbolic function than in its practical one. It is no longer an expression of individuality and autonomy in an apartment but rather a safe (and therefore somewhat boring) bet, just like all other classics. It can no longer be considered an item of distinction, making you stand out from the crowd: Since the Eames Plastic Chairs can be found everywhere, hipsters have been left with no option but to turn up their nose at them in contempt – far too mainstream. Anyone who still has and loves these old Plastic Chairs in their apartment can barely describe themselves as a part of the design avant-garde. But they do have the certainty that a great design is not losing value simply because others have also taken a shine to it. And what’s more, they can find comfort in the fact that they no longer have to hear the wiseacre comment that all owners of the new PP version have probably heard dozens of times: “But the old fiberglass version is so much nicer!”

The icons of American furniture design united, photo © Gestalten 2012, From The Story of Eames Furniture
Many pieces of the classic furniture were created in the Eames office. Photo © Gestalten 2012, From The Story of Eames Furniture
Not only children like to rock on the "Eames Plastic Armchair RAR". Photo © Gestalten 2012, From The Story of Eames Furniture
Eames furniture can be combined with many different styles. Photo © Ailine Liefeld
The armchairs offer a great sitting comfort. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Their organically shaped plastic seat shells were later combined with various different bases and manufactured in their millions. Photo © Gestalten 2012, From The Story of Eames Furniture
The "Eames Wire Chair" is a variation on the organically shaped one-piece seat shell, boasting a light transparency and high technicality. Photo © Ailine Liefeld
In the "shell chairs" video you can get a good insight into the different stages of the Eames furniture production.
The "Eames Plastic Chair" is a stackable design classic. Photo © Ailine Liefeld
Everyone likes to take place on the Eames furniture. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
The colorful chairs by the designer-couple Eames provide an interesting contrast with minimalist interiors. Photo © Ailine Liefeld
The furniture from the well known American designer-couple can be found in many households. Photo © Ailine Liefeld
The "Plastic Armchairs" were first presented as part of a New York Museum of Modern Art competition. Photo © Gestalten 2012, From The Story of Eames Furniture
The "Eames Plastic Side Chair DSR" was the first industrially manufactured plastic chair. Photo © Lukas Gansterer
The "Eames Plastic Side Chair" is a contemporary version of the legendary fiberglass Chair. Photo © Ailine Liefeld
With the "Color Slideshow" you can discover all the colors of the "Eames Fiberglass Chairs" from 1950.