The chair of a century
With their truly timeless silhouettes, the Eames Shell Chairs challenged the idea of what a chair should be. We take a look at the secret to their success.
As designers, Charles & Ray Eames liked to develop designs that solved problems. Taking inspiration from the everyday problems faced by themselves and their friends, they aimed to create affordable pieces that made great design accessible to everybody.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Charles & Ray Eames set out to create a new furniture typology that met the needs of a rapidly changing society. We pick up the story in the late 1930s, when Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen’s experiments with moulded plywood led to the creation of the Organic Chair. Although it won first prize at MoMA’s ‘Organic Design’ competition in 1940, it couldn’t be produced in the quantities the Eames’s desired, and so Charles Eames went back to the drawing board.
A multifunctional design
After spending many more years exploring the idea of a moulded shell that fit the contours of the human body, the search for alternative materials finally led the Eames’s to plastic-reinforced fibreglass. Offering mouldability, tactility and also being suitable for industrial manufacturing – the design duo went on to launch the first mass-produced Shell Chairs in 1950.
Something many of us take for granted today, the option to customise the Shell Chairs for multifunctional uses was a unique idea in the 1940s and 50s. With the invention of a seat that could be combined with a variety of different bases, the Eames’s created a modular design that could be configured for every kind of situation, looking as at home in an office as it did at the dining table.
A practical, robust design that was easy to clean and could be used in all sorts of situations, it wasn’t long before this iconic chair began to appear in homes, offices and public buildings across the globe. It enjoyed over four decades of great success before the environmental impact of fibreglass production began to be called into question.
New materials for a new generation
In 1993, Vitra discontinued the production if the original fibreglass chairs. After years exploring more sustainable solutions, Vitra re-introduced the production of the shell in polypropylene, a thermoplastic polymer in 1998. And finally, thanks to the development of a new, high-tech production process, Vitra reintroduced the fibreglass version of the Eames Shell Chairs in 2018.
The first mass-produced chair with a single shell - the models and materials have evolved over time, but the strength of the design concept has meant that the Eames Shell Chairs have remained continually popular for over seven decades.
Discover more about the iconic design duo in our journal feature – The Eames Story
A new palette for an iconic design
Having pioneered the use of integral dyes within their fibreglass chairs, the Eames were big believers in colour. After extensive research in collaboration with the Eames family, in 2019 Vitra have released a new palette of 14 contemporary colours that unite the Eames Plastic and Eames Fiberglass chairs.
Divided into groups of neutral, medium and bright shades - this new palette has been inspired by the original tones picked by Charles & Ray Eames in the 1940s and 1950s. This new palette of colours highlights the special properties of both fibreglass and polypropylene plastic finishes, allowing the two types of shell chair to be styled together harmoniously.
Alongside the choice of shell style, material, colour and leg options, there are now over 100,000 possible combinations for this iconic design, continuing its legacy as the chair that is perfect for every situation.