I recently picked up a gorgeous 1959 lemon yellow Eames Drafting chair (sometimes called the architects chair or stool) with an exceptionally rare and cool base. (Drafting chairs themselves aren’t too common, but usually these drafting chairs are found with what’s called the “universal base” which is similar to the office contract base). But the first question a few people asked me about the drafting chair was “why someone had painted the back of the chair’ and that’s what inspired me to write this blog post, to explain the origins of two-tone or painted backs on certain Eames shell chairs. These chairs with the painted backs are authentic Herman Miller production, a variation on the fiberglass chair that first occurred in 1954 with the introduction of vinyl coverings.
I became familiar with these versions of
the two-tone chairs when I bought a black arm shell at an auction years ago.
Here is a link to the official Eames Designs website that details these 1959 two-tone drafting stools, with the rare base. The Eames website describes the backs of these chairs in their original catalogs as “grey, baked wrinkle enamel,” an industrial grey paint, no doubt one as durable as that used on battleships, whose grey paint this resembles.” Most of these chairs had a vinyl shell on the chair, as the one pictured at the link above and my black arm chair below.
There is a big difference, wonderful, difference between these 1950’s vinyl chairs and the ones that were made later on. The later Eames/Herman Miller vinyl chairs had the vinyl vacuum sealed onto the chairs and bolted through the seats, once the vinyl is breached, torn or marred the chairs are basically trash. The fiberglass chair underneath these later chairs are unusable and ruined. However, on the early chairs the vinyl was a fitted form that merely hooked onto the frame of the chair.
Many people have taken off the old vinyl cover to discover extremely rare colors of fiberglass underneath, in pristine condition no less. Eames often used left over fiberglass chairs from special color orders to put the vinyl covers on, it didn’t matter what color the fiberglass was underneath – because they painted the backs of the chairs. So people have discovered a myriad of fiberglass colors underneath the formerly “vinyl” chairs. If the vinyl cover is still in good shape some people have hung them on their wall as sculpture because they hold their form perfectly once removed. I don’t believe every two-tone chair had a vinyl covering, but it seems to be the case with most.
The grey paint on the back of these chairs can also be removed if you want a pure one color fiberglass chair. However, I think the two-tone adds a nice contrast to the chair that highlights the lines of the design.
In my personal collection I have an example of another painted back/two tone chair. Mine is a 1954 DAR – a black vinyl arm shell chair with an eiffel base, which I have kept the original black vinyl cover on, pictured here. The Eames Design website mentions these chairs as coming in versions with both a black and beige painted back back. There is a difference between this and the type of backing on the stool. The back of the chair seems has a thick “flocking” like applied paint, it even has a bit of texture to it. The stool back on the other hand is just a thin smooth paint surface.
The arm shell chair itself is a very comfortable, great looking chair. I have not given into curiosity to take off the cover to find out what color of fiberglass is underneath it. The vinyl cover is in such mint condition I hate even taking the chance of removing it and possibly causing some damage or not being able to get it back on perfectly. (I’ve been assured it won’t cause
any problems, but I’m cautious. If I hated the color of the vinyl, or it was torn or was worn I wouldn’t hesitate to take off the cover and use it as a fiberglass chair. In fact many people actually buy the old vinyl cover chairs just to have the mint condition fiberglass shell chair underneath.)
I have a number of Eames fiberglass chairs, some rare and some common – a greige zenieth rope edge rocker, a orange arm shell chair with a swivel base which has been my office chair for years, orange side shells with contract bases, bikini chairs with blue vinyl bikini covers, white side shells with X base, etc… I mention this because I plan to do some posts on some of them, photographing details, background info and even ways to repair and improve chairs that may have some damage.
I love fiberglass chairs for different reasons. The only Eames side and arm chairs I avoid are the later production versions, ones that have the stacking bases and the later versions of the chairs with the vacuum sealed vinyl covers. (I once bought 4 navy blue Eames side chairs with the vacuum sealed vinyl covers. Two were in good shape, but the other two had what I thought were minor issues at the time – a bit of bubbling on the seat cover so it was not taught and tight. I soon found there was no repairing or saving these chairs, you either learned to live with the vinyl being a bit loose or get rid of them because there is no way to restore these chairs. )
Beware of the many period (meaning produced during the same years Eames were producing their chairs in the 1950’s-70”s) knock off versions of the Eames fiberglass chairs. The most common fiberglass chair knock offs were produced by Krueger, Cromecraft and Costco. There were also some mass produced plastic chairs some people label as Eames (why I do not know) which were popular in schools and many were done with attached desks. Eames had nothing to do with these chairs and they are merely institutional chairs. The Krueger and Cromecraft period production fiberglass chairs do hold some appeal for people, but just don’t pay anything above $40 for most examples of them. They can be found very cheaply but there are shysters (or ignorant people) out there trying to pass them off as “Eames” chairs. If you really want a Krueger or Chromecraft fiberglass chair you can probably go down to your local laundry mat and offer the owner $20 for them. These chairs were extremely popular in public places like laundry mats, but the quality and design is not there on these imitation chairs. These were the cheap alternatives to buying real Eames chairs 40 years ago.
Most Eames fiberglass chairs will have a “Herman Miller” logo embossed on them or a label sticker, but not all. It’s also common to find a “S” or S in a circle, overlapping triangles, “Z”, a crescent shape, “B” and occasionally some early version will be unmarked. There are many variations, but 90% or more of the time their will be a clear “Herman Miller” logo on the bottom of the chair. If you don’t have much experience with the Eames shell chairs, but want one, I would advise only buying chairs with the official logo to be safe.
On the black vinyl arm chair above with the flocked base you can’t see any embossed markings due to the thick layer applied, but on the lemon yellow stool the “B” is visible. The best way to ID an Eames fiberglass chair is to be very familiar with the exact shape of the chair and the fiberglass used. The older fiberglass chairs are more sought after due to the translucent beautiful fiberous texture that only the early vintage fiberglass has – the early production chairs being the best examples of this. I see the Krueger and chromecraft knock-offs a mile away due to the differences in shape, more squared tops, bases and mounts are totally different, but some people have trouble discerning seeing the differences.
Herman Miller still produce Eames side and arm chairs today but they are no longer made of fiberglass but of polypropylene – which is akin to a soft plastic. I don’t know anyone who particularly likes the material of these new versions. A company called Modernica bought some of the old manufacturing equipment and produce fiberglass versions of the chair, but these are not official Eames/Herman Miller chairs. Modernica also sells reproduction bases for these chairs and you will find a lot of sellers buying vintage, authentic Eames fiberglass shell chairs and putting a reproduction base on them. (This seems particularly popular with rocker bases.) In my opinion if you want your pieces to retain or grow in value only buy authentic chairs and bases, but if you just want a “cool chair” to have in your house then the reproduction bases may save you a few buck in the short term.