Eames chair: recognising and buying an original

The Eames chair is a true icon of the 20th century and is one of the best-sellers of vintage furniture. In this article you will discover its history, the different models and editions, and how to recognise copies from originals! Contents:

  1. Charles & Ray Eames, a couple of mythical designers
  2. The origins of the Eames chair
  3. How to recognize a real Eames chair?
  4. The different models available
  5. The different editions
  6. The semi-original Eames chairs
  7. The colour palette
  8. Eames chair prices

And to find out where to find hundreds of original Eames chairs, visit the Design Market website and the section dedicated to Eames chairs.

Charles & Ray Eames, a couple of mythical designers

Charles Eames was born in 1907 in St Louis, USA. He studied architecture at Washington University and decided in 1930 to open his own firm (of architecture and design) with Charles Gray, even though his studies were not finished. In 1938, he decided to resume and complete his architectural studies at the Cranbrook Academy of Arts. He later taught industrial design at the same school.

In the following years, Charles Eames met Eero Saarinen, and in 1940 they won the first prize in the “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition organised by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Ray Eames was born in 1912 in Sacramento, USA. She studied painting for several years at various schools. In 1937, she was one of the American abstract artists exhibited at the Riverside Museum in New York. Three years later, she enrolled at the Cranbrook Academy of Art where she met Charles Eames. She became his wife in 1941. This year also marked the beginning of their professional collaboration. Throughout their lives, the couple worked together with a common recurring philosophy: to combine functionality and creativity.

The Herman Miller Furniture Company , and in particular its creator J.D. De Pree, quickly became interested in the couple’s designs and decided to buy the production rights. Since 1966, the Eames chair distribution network has consisted of 150 professionals. They are present in many countries: Canada, South and Central America, Europe, Japan, the Middle East, Australia and Scandinavia. The network was extended in 1969 and enabled Great Britain to benefit from the distribution of Eames chairs. From 1970 onwards, new production sites were set up in England, followed by France in the mid-1980s. At the same time, the company continued to expand in Australia, Korea and Malaysia.

Charles and Ray Eames are considered to be among the most influential designers of the 20th century, thanks to their revolutionary vision in terms of both the shapes they created and the materials they used, the Eames chair being the worthy representative of this vision. They leave behind them a mark that still influences young contemporary designers around the world.

A presentation of the work of Charles & Ray Eames by their grandson Demetrios.

The origins of the Eames chair

In 1948, Charles and Ray Eames teamed up with the UCLA School of Engineering for the Museum of Modern Art’s (MOMA) “International Competition for Low Cost Furniture Design “. Organised to meet the post-war need for equipment for middle-class American homes, the competition attracted 2,500 American and 500 European designers. The Eames couple presented the Fiberglass Chair, a UFO from outer space that caught the jury’s attention and earned them second place in the competition.

In 1949, the Eames contacted Zenith Plastics of Gardena, California, to produce a prototype in fibreglass, a material the firm had developed for the manufacture of radar protection domes during the war. After several sleepless nights at the Zenith Plastics factory with Irv Green, the Eames finally arrived at a moulded shell that met their needs and fulfilled the objective they had set themselves: to be able to mass-produce a compact moulded chair at a price that the average American could afford. The ” Eames Plastic Chair “was born, with a fibreglass shell, a material so unusual at the time, which not only had a high degree of strength but also a unique and modern look.

Herman Miller ordered 2,000 copies of the chair, and put them on sale in 1950, in the 11 original colours of the first collection.

How to recognize a real Eames chair?

There are many websites offering copies of Eames chairs at very low prices, ranging from 50 to 150€. If the price is too low, it is a copy…there is no miracle!

The quality of these copies is often mediocre, sometimes acceptable and in any case much inferior to the original or semi-original Eames chairs. Obviously they do not have the interest and charm of an authentic piece by a great designer such as Charles Eames, and will have little resale value (yes, you have to think about that too).

Some websites do not hesitate to play on words in order to deceive on the origin of the model, but only certain associated criteria allow to authenticate a vintage Eames chair:

  • The visible fibre in the shell: the first editions in particular, but also the following ones to a lesser extent, have a fibreglass shell with a greater or lesser density of fibre (the first editions are made of very dense fibres). It must be possible to see the branches of the fibre very clearly; this is an essential distinguishing feature.
  • The colour of the shell: there are 27 original colours which are an additional element to attest to the era and authenticity of an Eames chair
  • The presence of an engraved label and/or mark on the underside of the seat. This element is no longer always visible, as it has been erased by time, but when it is available it can be used to determine the era and provenance of an Eames chair with precision…

The different models of Eames chairs

There are different models of Eames chairs, mainly defined around two plastic shells (an armchair and a chair) of different colours and equipped with various legs. The most common are :

DSR (Dining Sidechair Rod base) DSS (Dining Sidechair Stackable)DSR EamesDSS Eames
DSX (Dining Sidechair X-base) DSW (Dining Sidechair Wooden base) DSX EamesDSW Eames
DAR (Dining Armchair Rod base) DAX (Dining Armchair X-base)
DAR EamesDAX Eames
DAW (Dining Armchair Wooden base) LAR (Lounge Armchair Rod base)
DAW EamesLAR eames
RAR (Rocking Armchair Rod) DKR (Dining K-Wire Rod base)

RAR eamesDKR Eames

DKX (Dining K-Wire X-base) RKR (Rocking K-Wire Rod base)
DKX EamesRKR Eames

Note that there are other models, with legs on castors in particular, which we have not mentioned here.

The different editions

Once the design of a chair has been conceived, the manufacturing/production stage follows, which is entrusted to a subcontractor on behalf of the brand. Herman Miller entrusted the production of the Eames chair to various manufacturers during the 20th century. A brief summary.

1950 to 1953 – Zenith Plastics (Gardena, California, USA):

Zenith Plastics was the first company to produce the Eames chair, they were already distributed by Herman Miller. A marking is not always present, and the label is in the form of a 4 checkerboard as here :

zenith plastics

Note that there are also editions with a Zenith Plastics label with only two squares on the top. In all cases, the Zenith editions are recognisable by their large shockmounts and the shell with a very special rope edge. These models are very rare and highly sought after as they are handmade.

1953 – Zenith Plastics,2nd

generation (Gardena, California, USA):
Zenith Plastics produced a second generation of Eames chairs for a few months in 1953, without a “rope edge”, with a rectangular red label and the name Herman Miller.

Some Zenith or post Zenith editions sometimes show a “Z” surrounded by three dots on the shells.

1953 to 1957 – Transitional chairs (USA)

Herman Miller outsources its production to two factories: Summit Plastics and Cincinnati Milacron. Eames chairs from these two manufacturers are recognisable by a label detailing the patents, origin and date. These models are called “Transitional Chairs”.

1953 to 1970 – Cincinnati Milacron (Cincinatti, Ohio, USA)

Chairs from this period have a distinctive logo consisting of the embossed Herman Miller logo and a “C” with a star in the centre.

milacron eames

1953 to 1972 – Summit Plastics (Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA)

The Herman Miller logo appears more distinctly, it is moulded directly into the fibre. Labels may also be present. These editions have an “S” on the back of the shell, either circled or not. Sometimes there is also a logo with two triangles superimposed.

summit plastics eames

Note: there are some American editions on which the logo is in the form of a flame.

1959 to 1972 – Herman Miller & Mobilier International (Tours, France)

From 1959, the French company Mobilier International obtained the exclusive rights to distribute Herman Miller chairs in France. In 1964, Mobilier International started to produce the fibreglass chairs in its own factory in Tours. Below are some examples of Mobilier International’s labels.

mobilier international eames

1972 to 1989 – Herman Miller & Vitra (Weil am Rhein, Germany)

In 1972, the Fehlbaum family, already long-time friends of Charles Eames and Vitra, obtained the Herman Miller licences for the European market. A production unit had to be built.

It was built on land belonging to the Fehlbaum family in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany. Until 1989, the shells were recognisable by the M and/or V signs moulded directly into the fibre.

hermann miller vitra

During the 1970s, it is also possible to find labels like this one:

zooland michigan eames

It indicates where the chair was produced (Michigan, Herman Miller’s world headquarters).

Eames chairs of the 90s

Herman Miller is again inscribed in the shell, as in the example below:

hermann miller 1990

In 1993, Herman Miller and Vitra stopped manufacturing Eames chairs in fibreglass for ecological reasons.

In the early 2000s, the production of the chairs was resumed thanks to propylene (ABS plastic), a recyclable and therefore more ecological material. It is used for manufacturing. However, Vitra will soon bring back to the European market fibreglass shells, close to the original editions, even if the fibre of the time will probably be difficult to imitate.

Modernica also produces Eames chairs, the rights to which have been in the public domain since 2006 in the United States (not in Europe!). The brand uses fibreglass for the shells of the chairs. The legitimacy of Modernica is hotly contested by purists and afficionados as these pieces are not official Herman Miller, although their quality is recognised and the design identical. But this is a matter of individual judgement…

The semi-original chairs

In order for an Eames chair to be considered original, the shell, shock mounts, base and screws must be original. It is rare today to acquire such a piece as this type of entirely original item is so rare.

Semi-original Eames chairs are the most common on the Eames chair market. The shell is original (i.e. fibreglass), but the base has been replaced by a new one. The main advantage of these models is that they are more affordable to buy, while the legs are higher and therefore more consistent with current standards. However, a semi-original Eames chair may lose interest in the eyes of collectors and afficionados, and the market value is therefore less than a fully original chair. The shells used for these semi-original pieces are often those of the DSX or DSS. DSS originally had wide shock mounts as opposed to narrow ones. Originally, the base used for DSS was the “Scholastic” as opposed to the Dowel or Eiffel base. Today, it is possible to find “wide” DSS models with a Dowel or Eiffel base. For the connoisseur, this type of assembly is a heresy since it does not respect the history of the chairs, but everyone will appreciate it.

The colour palette

The first Plastic Chairs were originally available in eleven colours (Greige, Navy Blue, Lemon Yellow, Olive Green, Red orange, etc.). Over the years, new colours have been added to the Herman Miller catalogue, which now includes twenty-seven colours. Some colours are very rare and particularly sought after. Moreover, they can be used to prove that a chair is an old edition. Here are the 27 original colours (11+16):

herman miller eames couleurs

Since 1993 Vitra has reissued the Eames chair, but in ABS plastic. This collection has been accompanied by new, more contemporary colours over the years, to arrive at the following palette:

new eames vitra colors

The price of an Eames chair

The price of an Eames chair is very variable and depends on many things, so there is no single standard price.

Prices vary according to the model, its edition, its age, its colour, its state of conservation and whether or not it has an original frame. Prices range from 150€ for a basic and recent chair such as DSX from the 90’s to several thousands of Euros for rare and old pieces such as RAR 1st edition Zenith with rope edge and original base.

And to find out where to find hundreds of original Eames chairs, visit the Design Market website and the section dedicated to Eames chairs.

Please note: these prices are for the French market, as prices vary greatly from country to country (the best prices are in the United States, of course, and closer to home in Belgium and the Netherlands)