My Year of Eames
Who are Charles and Ray Eames? Most people will know as soon as they are shown some photos of their famous mid-century furniture.
For interior designers, they are studied for their approach to the design process, creativity, attention to detail and the significant impact they had on twentieth-century design. Charles studied architecture and worked closely with Eero Saarinen at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Bearnice "Ray" Kaiser studied art in New York. They met at Cranbrook Academy, were eventually married, and settled in southern California where they established the Eames Office. Their main focus was the design of furniture that would be comfortable, mass produced, and attainable for all. However, above all, they were extremely creative and touched the design areas of furniture, film, exhibitions, graphics, photography, toys, and of course, architecture.
I've always been a fan of their molded plywood furniture and had a goal to one day own the famous lounge chair and ottoman. It was interesting how quickly my husband surprised me with the chair when I conceded that he could have a motorcycle when I'm able to buy the Eames Chair and Ottoman. (Thanks Jeff!) It is as comfortable as advertised. The construction of the chair, like all Eames pieces, is top notch. I remind myself of that when visitors who don't know the importance of the chair toss their bags and coats on it, or children play on it like a merry-go-round. The Eames Lounge Chair is part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art. I could go on and on....
I had reason to be in Los Angeles last May and knew that was my chance to visit the Eames House. This was Charles and Ray's residence, Case Study No. 8, part of The Case Study House Program that took place between the 1940s through the early 1960’s. There were 25 homes in the study intended to be built and furnished with techniques and materials derived from the experiences of WWII and express man’s life in the modern world. Tucked away in a neighborhood overlooking the ocean in Santa Monica, it currently serves as the home of the Eames Foundation. It is still privately owned and maintained, so access is limited. Herman Miller furniture company had a partnership with Charles Eames and still produces the Eames available today. They graciously, provided a pass to my husband and me so that I could check that item off my bucket list!
While creating a single piece molded plywood chair was Eames original goal, after years of mock-ups and trials, they settled on the segmented version expressed in most of their chairs. They shifted their focus for the single component chair to fiberglass, a new material to the seating industry. They were able to move forward with many chair designs in the durable molded material that many of us remember from school in the 70s. The fiberglass chairs have made a comeback recently as the Mid-Century retro design trend continues to dominate the HGTV network, sitcoms, and commercials. The Mid-Century style has also dominated the design industry in the style of furniture, materials, and their simple streamlined application for the last several years.
Mid-century design fanatics are always on the lookout for the fiberglass shell chairs at flea markets and internet searches. They seek vintage, original condition pieces to use as is, or restore. A good friend that knew of my mid-century interest, let me know of a renovation project, where the previous tenant had left several Eames fiberglass stack chairs behind and the new tenant didn't want them. I knew they would be a great addition to our office to use for pop-up meetings and events. I tempered my excitement with the amount of work that might be needed to restore them.
Now I had my summer project set up for me!. While purists may think they should have been left as is, I preferred to restore them, so that they would at least be cleaned up for office use with visitors that may not know the history. They are the fiberglass stacking version in three different colors: yellow, beige, and a sage-like green. The exact color name is not known since the production date has not be identified yet. The metal bases had significant surface rust, the glides were broken, the rubberized shock mounts were hardened and degraded, and the shells had dirt imbedded in the fiberglass along with paint and gum added by children over the years.
I researched many sites on the proper way to restore them and found manufacturers that make replacement parts for professional restoration companies. This is a cult folks! Now it was time to get to work. First, I removed the bases. I removed all the old plastic glides that were mostly broken. I was able to find new metal swivel glides that were a perfect fit meant for this type of chair. Next, I "chiseled" off the old shock mounts and took a palm sander to the remaining residue. Summer may not have been the best time to do this since I needed eye protection, a mask, long sleeves and gloves to protect from the itchy fiberglass dust. For the bases, I tried to sand it off by hand, but could see that it would take far too long and left behind a pattern different from the original finish. I tried to dip them in a homemade bath method used by gearheads to clean engines, but that took long also with mixed results for the number of chairs I had to do. Finally, I ended up having them sandblasted at a local shop. That did the trick, but I had to act quickly to get them sealed so the surface rust would not return. I used an oil based product called Penetrol to seal the metal. I then topped it with polyurethane, as recommended by many. This is hopefully a permanent fix for use in an interior environment. The Penetrol and polyurethane are very "loose" products so I had to work quickly and continually look for runs before they dried. I may have missed a few, but mostly in inconspicuous areas. Perfectly good finish for our use.
Now for the fiberglass shells. This was the longest process. It took about an hour per shell. It had to be done wet to keep the dust down. It was more of an elbow grease issue than a difficult process. The cleaning solution recommended was just OxyClean spray gel. I wet the chair, sprayed the gel and let it soak a while. Most of the surface dirt and paint came off easily with that yellow/green sponge. However, these chairs were aged and dirt had embedded into the fibers, especially on the edges. The yellow shells were my favorite, but they were in the worst shape and the most difficult to clean. To get out the embedded dirt, the shells had to be wet-sanded by hand with about a 40 grit sandpaper. This was effective but sanded deep into the fiberglass so I used it minimally. Then I moved up the sand paper grades from 40 to about 150 then finished at 220 to smooth out the scratches from the 40 grit. A lot of work and not perfect, but for the most part, they looked great, especially the parchment and sage shells.
Next, I had to adhere the new shock mounts. This was the step I most feared. In the Eames genius, they provided a pattern in the mold for 2 base style attachments on every shell. That way, the same shell can be used for the wide mount stacker base, the rocker base, the wood dowel base, etc. However, there was some wiggle room within the pattern so I had to be careful so that the base would line up with the shock mounts in the end. A two-part epoxy adhesive was used and sets up in about 5 minutes so you have a little time for adjustment while it sets. The shell was turned upside down on a stable surface. The adhesive was applied to the shock mounts loosely attached to the base. Then I enlisted the help of my husband to align the shock mounts on the bases with pre-marked spots on the shell. We then held it in place for 5 minutes while it set enough to let go. This was some serious "bonding time" done for each of the 20 shells. We are still happily married!
One last step: finish the shells. After sanding and cleaning, the gelcoat is compromised and needs to be restored. I tried 2 methods. The first way is a special (expensive) wax from one of the restoration companies. Easy to do with several coats as desired. Just apply, set, and buff. The other method is to use the Penetrol product that was used to condition the bases. It results in a more glossy finish. However, it must be monitored as it dries to keep any runs at bay. It takes a couple of days to dry and can then be buffed out. Both look great. For cost reasons, most were done with the Penetrol.
Overall, about 80 hours were invested into the 20 chairs, but the results have been great. Most of the chairs were re-attached to the original metal stacker bases for use in our office. However, those same restoration companies also sell some other popular bases that can be applied to the shells. We bought a rocker base and 3 stool bases for the yellow shells. I also kept two for my own use and bought 2 wood dowel bases for them.
After all of this work, I have a new appreciation for the fiberglass line of Eames products in addition to the wood. As a thank you to the group that let us have the chairs, we are selling one of the refurbished beige stackers on eBay. The shells have the official Herman Miller and crescent embossed markings. There are some labels that were a little damaged and further compromised in the wet cleaning process. They are paper labels with the patents listed. I sent photos to the restoration experts to help determine the age of the chairs. One of the companies believes that they could be from the mid-sixties due to the screw type from the original shock mounts that were phased out at that time. All proceeds will go to Corvilla of South Bend. If you are a fan of Mid-Century items or want to support Corvilla please consider bidding. It would make a great Christmas present! Here is the link for eBay