When I started looking at the furniture of Charles and Ray Eames as a student at the Royal College of Art in London, what struck me was how it transcended its era. This chair, the LCW lounge chair, was launched in 1946. American furniture in the 1940s tended to be chunky and made of solid wood. In comparison this looks like something from NASA.
What was new about it were its compound curves, which give it a soft, friendly feel, almost like a piece of kid’s furniture. They did it by embracing modern technology. Plywood was first introduced to America in the 1860s, but the way you could mould it had always been limited. Then, during the second world war, Eames was commissioned by the American navy to design a cheap, lightweight leg splint. When you try to bend and stretch wood in different directions it wants to split, but the Eameses devised a method of layering thin sheets of plywood veneer and moulding them under heat and pressure, which allowed them to form the material in three dimensions. After the war they applied the same method to furniture.
Formally complex for its time, the LCW is also beautifully simple in its construction. It is made from five pieces, and each one is an elegant, well-proportioned piece of sculpture. With most chairs there are angles from which they don’t look so good. But the LCW is as attractive from the underside as it is from the top. They also thought about ergonomics, about how you can use sheet material to give the maximum amount of comfort. The lumbar support is strong and they added rubber shocks to the back rest to give it flexibility.
Designing a chair like this is more difficult now. The tests that prototypes are put through are more strenuous than they used to be. When my business partner, Jay Osgerby, and I designed the Pacific office chair for Vitra, regulations stipulated that the metal base had to withstand a 1.5-tonne load – the equivalent of a 350lb person dropping to their seat. Nevertheless the friendliness and simplicity of the Eames is something that we have always tried to replicate. We found that the typical office chair looks like a machine, a celebration of knobs and levers. But machines don’t look friendly. So we set about making the functions invisible. We hid everything, pushing the controls under the seat until you couldn’t see them, and burying the lumber-support adjustment in the back of the chair so that there was a unified upholstered shape. People spend a lot of time on these things, and we wanted it to have a more tactile, human feeling.
The skill of a great designer is to be able to create something that’s new when it arrives and still relevant decades later. The LCW chair is exactly that. It is so well designed and the proportions are so good that to this day it remains one of the bestselling products on the market.