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When a chair launches a revolution.

Eames Fiberglass Chair and Eames Plastic Chair
The story of a Vitra original

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.

‘Way-it-should-be-ness. If an object is really well designed, the idea of it having been designed wouldn’t come up at all.’
Charles Eames

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.

© Eames Office, LLC

In 1950, Herman Miller presented the first mass-produced Eames armchairs with fibreglass shells. Vitra began manufacturing the Fiberglass Chairs in 1957 for markets in Europe and the Middle East. The chairs became an industry standard as the preferred choice of architects for the interior furnishings of large-scale projects. This success story lasted into the 1970s, when less expensive plastic shells based on new technologies entered the market and crowded the Fiberglass Chair out of the contract sector. The new materials also had ecological advantages, and Vitra decided to discontinue production of the Fiberglass Chairs in the 1990s.

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.

After years of developing a completely new manufacturing method, Vitra is relaunching the Fibreglass Chairs in 2018. Available in six of the early original colours, the shells recapture the lively appearance of the irregular surface texture with visible fibres, which is treasured by collectors and design enthusiasts.

Publication date: 26.10.2018
Images: Florian Böhm, Marc Eggimann, © Eames Office, LLC

Vitra originals and their stories in the Vitra Magazine
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. But that’s a story for the future.
The Original is by Vitra