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Notes on a New Refrigerator, Plants, Animals, an Eames Chair : HIGH STYLE : Classic Icon: Eames Lounge

January 24, 1988|DAVID LASKER

THE HUSBAND-AND-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames was the Renaissance couple of American design. They created everything from children's toys to the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 New York World's Fair. Their much-photographed 1948 Case Study house in Pacific Palisades, granddaddy of high-tech houses, proved that exposed, low-cost, prefab metal components could make a warm, inviting interior. But it is for their innovative furniture that the Eameses are best remembered (Charles died in 1978). In fact, they were perhaps the most influential American furniture designers of the century.

Charles Eames sprang to prominence as a student by winning the 1940 Organic Furnishings award in a competition sponsored by New York's Museum of Modern Art. His sensuous entries, graciously contoured to cradle and support the human figure, enunciated the "Eames look": a soft, flowing, "romantic" line unlike the crisp, geometric angularities typical of the period.

After World War II, the Eameses used wartime technological advances to revolutionize furniture production. Through their research for the Navy in making lightweight, stackable leg splints, they learned new methods of molding and laminating plywood.

The Eames ES 670 lounge chair and ottoman embodies these advances. Originally designed for Hollywood film director Billy Wilder and still manufactured by Herman Miller, it comprises three upholstered, molded-plywood shells. Cast-aluminum spacers with neoprene shock mounts allow the chair to flex, visually reducing the big chair's apparent bulk by allowing daylight to flow among the components. The chair base features five points--instead of the customary four--for extra stability (just like today's ergonomical office chairs). The chair has inspired innumerable knockoffs, and even subtle details have been cloned, such as the articulation of the steel frame with light (chrome-plated) and matte (black-enameled) finishes.

A status symbol from day one--it cost $680 in 1956--the rosewood-veneer plywood shells and tufted black leather upholstery convey luxurious opulence. Old-fashioned feathers-and-down cushioning, said Charles Eames, "gives one the feeling of settling in, and the leather's built-in wrinkles are a clue that spells comfort to come." Architectural Review, the British journal, agreed, calling the chair one of the first pieces of contemporary furniture "to provide the standard of comfort considered a necessity by the average London club man." Here in Southern California, the Eames lounger is both a classic and a rarity, a modern-design icon coveted by traditionalists as well as by design buffs.

The Eames ES 670 lounge chair and ottoman is available through Herman Miller Inc., Pacific Design Center, Suite 229, 8687 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles 90069 (213) 659-7600. The retail price is $2,700.

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