The range of fiberglass reinforced plastic chairs is a wonderful example for the ability of Charles and Ray Eames to adapt their ideas to the latest available technology and absorb industrial innovations into the furniture world. With this material they could finally unfold the versatile collection of chairs they had imagined.
The task was once again to create a seat out of a single shell for a chair that was to be lightweight, versatile and inexpensive to produce.
With plywood the journey began at the same point but experiments and expertise not only with furniture led them to give up the idea of a single shell and rather employ innovative ways to connect seat and back to combine maximum comfort and freedom of form with feasible production methods.
The development of the plastic chairs started – who would have guessed – with a design that was to be stamped out of sheet metal. The industrial technique was successfully applied in the automobile industry and adapted for the production of seat shells. Similar to the plywood chairs in 1940 once again a competition by the Museum of Modern Art explicitly scouting designs suitable for mass production should become a launch pad. For the plastic chair series that would be successfully in production for decades even though the initial designs for the competition turned out to be too expensive in mass production. The same fate had met the winning plywood chair by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen for the Organic Design competition in 1940.
The initial designs for the International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design in 1948 were intended to be made of varnished or coated metal sheets but by the time realistic prototypes for mass production were to be presented Eames realized that fiberglass reinforced plastics were better suited for mass production and decided to abandon the idea to work with metal sheets for the shell. He should be right in the long run but placed second in the competition. The jury believed in the use of sheet metal for mass production and accordingly a metal sheet chair placed first.
While metal stamping proved to be too expensive for low cost production fiberglass caught the attention of the Eames office and with Zenith Plastics a competent partner was found to develop the prototype and commence production. The Plastic Chairs were born. Fiberglass had been used extensively during the war, was moldable and made it possible for Charles Eames and Hermann Miller to launch a chair based on a shell that allowed a variety of bases and functions and made the design extremely versatile in practice.
As if to point out that everything is possible the modern shell was even coupled with a rocking chair base. The Eames Plastic Armchair RAR or Rocking Armchair with Rod base as it is known, is unusually light and simple for a rocking chair and a charming piece of furniture. For some time after its addition to the fiberglass series Hermann Miller gave the padded RAR to employees who had just become parents.
The more common versions of the Eames plastic chair can be adapted for any kind of usage by choosing between different base options:
DAX or DSX (Dining Armchair or Side Chair with X-base)
DAW or DSW (Dining Armchair or Side Chair with Wood base)
DAR or DSR (Dining Armchair or Side Chair with Rod base)
Add to this a selection of colors and optional upholstery and the possible configurations are unlimited.
Since 2004 Hermann Miller offers the shell in an updated polypropylene version that replaced the fiberglass due to environmental and health risks related to fiberglass. Fiberglass itself replaced asbestos in the 1950’s but the chemical similarities gave reason to assume the same health issues might occur and the use of fiberglass was discontinued. Recently the company launched a retro edition in fiberglass applying a monomer free binding process, thus eliminating the health concerns related to the material. The models available at steelform apply the same technique so you can enjoy your palstic chairs today with the same feel and look as in the 50s.
And the evolutionary process is not over. The latest addition pays homage to Eames early trials with three-dimensional shapes in plywood. With the latest 3-D veneer technology the leap from plastic to wood, from the once low cost chair back to a high design icon, is made. In 2013 the elite wood model arrived.