Seldom in the history of modern furniture design has an idea been as consequential as the development of the Plastic Chair by Charles and Ray Eames. In the nineteenth century, Thonet’s No. 14 chair had a tremendously widespread impact, and in the 1920s, Marcel Breuer, Mart Stam and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s use of tubular steel for the design of furnishings altered both the appearance and production methods of chairs throughout the first half of the twentieth century.Charles and Ray Eames’ Plastic Chair, which was based on a concept Charles had developed in 1948 for the Museum of Modern Art’s ‘Low-Cost Furniture’ competition, introduced a new material to furniture design: plastic – or to be more precise, fibreglass-reinforced polyester. He simultaneously presented a new type of seat – the shell – and discarded the notion that a chair had to unite the seat and base in an inseparable whole, instead making it possible to combine individual seat shells with different bases.
This led to the production of an entire family of chairs that could be used in almost any setting – homes, offices or public spaces – thanks to the great variety of combinations. There were task chairs, dining chairs, stadium chairs, low chairs, rocking chairs, auditorium chairs, stacking chairs, chairs with and without upholstery, chairs in myriad colours, chairs for waiting areas etc. This concept dominated the market in the following decades. Astonishingly, the Plastic Chairs by Charles and Ray Eames were not just a pioneering invention: despite their understated aesthetic, they are clearly distinguishable from the countless variations of this typology developed by other designers over the ensuing decades – their appeal remains unabated up to the present day.
The couple's search for alternative materials eventually led them to glass-fibre reinforced polyester resin, which until then had been primarily restricted to military applications such as aircraft radomes and cockpit covers. The Eameses recognised and fully exploited the advantages of fibreglass: mouldability, rigidity and suitability for industrial manufacturing methods. With this material, which was previously unknown in the furniture industry, they successfully developed the moulded seat shells for mass production: the Fiberglass Chair was born. Its organically shaped, one-piece shell proved to be a much-admired innovation at a time when chairs typically consisted of a seat and backrest. Fibreglass offered the added advantage of pleasant tactile qualities and a perfectly moulded form for optimal comfort.
In close collaboration with the Eames Office, which is run by the Eames family, Vitra launched a polypropylene version of the Eames Plastic Chair in 1999. Polypropylene is a high-quality, robust plastic that serves as a good replacement for fibreglass and is also recyclable. This made it possible to produced the Eames Plastic Group with ecologically sustainable methods. Despite the success of this new generation of Plastic Chairs, Vitra never lost interest in the original material and continued to monitor advancements in fibreglass production methods.
Following in the tradition and spirit of Charles and Ray Eames, the sustainability of design is central to all activities at Vitra. We believe in the power of designs that forgo stylistic trends and eliminate superfluous details. With over 100,000 configurations, 23 shell colours and 36 upholstery options, there is an Eames Shell Chair for everyone, every home and every space. Be it in fibreglass, polypropylene or welded steel wire, the Eames Fiberglass Chair, the Eames Plastic Chair and the Wire Chair have been moulded on a human body to offer an increased level of comfort.
Invest in an original, for it will always retain its worth. An imitation will never be anything but a copy, a stolen idea. Appreciate the differences – not just the quality and more obvious variances but also the sensory and emotional appeal of the authentic product. An original is a lifelong companion and may well outlive you to be gratefully received by the next generation.