Charles and Ray Eames first designed the ever-popular "shell" chair for MoMA's 1948 International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design. This entry was made of metal rather than fiberglass, but the possibilities for the design were unmistakable.
By 1951, Herman Miller was making an armless side chair version that is still in production today, proving that classic design never goes out of style. Knock-offs of these famed designs are worth far less than originals though, so it is... important to be sure to learn to recognize an authentic Eames molded side chair before you start shopping.
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Eames Molded Side Chair Variations
The Eames Fiberglass Side Chair was introduced in 1951, a year after the original "shell" chair with arms was offered for sale. The back and seat of these chairs is made of a single piece of molded fiberglass contoured to the shape of the human body.
The armless version was harder to manufacture because the wider sides gave the piece stability. Without arms, edge cracks would tend to form where the back and seat curved together. Once they got the manufacturing technique down though, it was smooth sailing. The manufacturer, Herman Miller, shared in 1966 that two million had already been sold.
The armless examples are one variety of shell (a term used to describe an Eames piece made with molded fiberglass whether it has arms or not) chairs. They are sometimes called "bucket" chairs as well. Variations include wooden bases and those with four simple legs that can be easily stacked.
When the base of this chair is crafted of woven chrome rods, it is often referenced by its nickname: the "Eiffel chair." The examples here are made with wooden dowel legs, referenced as DFSW for dining fiberglass side chair with wood base.
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Look for a Label
One of the first steps you should take when identifying a genuine Eames molded side chair is to look for a label on the underside. Most vintage Eames furniture pieces were marked on the bottom (an estimated 70 percent or so), so seeking a label is a great place to start with authentication.
Early versions of these chairs made of molded fiberglass often have a decal touting the name "Zenith Plastics" (the company that made the material) still in place, along with manufacturing and design notations, as shown here. The manufacturer's name, Herman Miller, may also be found in raised lettering in the fiberglass as seen on chairs produced in the 1960s. Keep in mind that just because a chair isn't marked in some way isn't undeniable evidence that it is a copycat. Look for other indicators that you have an old original if you don't find a mark.
Newer chairs will most often bear a Herman Miller label (on chairs sold in America), or a Vitra label (on versions distributed in Europe). There may also be the letters HM for Herman Miller stamped into the material in American-made pieces. In chairs predating the labels, look for the letter identification code (like DSR for Dining Side Rod) on the bottoms as well.
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Consider the Material and Colors
Since you now know that older Eames molded side chairs were made of fiberglass with actual fibers visible in the material, you'll have a leg up in identifying a newer model made of another type of plastic. The original fiberglass colors were Elephant Hide Grey, Parchment and Greige (a combination of grey and beige). They introduced Orange Red, Seafoam Green and Lemon Yellow incrementally, along with a number of other colors chosen by the Eames' to fit in with popular home and office schemes of the day.
In 2001, after being discontinued in fiberglass during the 1980s due to environmental concerns, this chair style was reintroduced with a polypropylene shell. The new plastic material was better to work with during manufacturing, and completely recyclable, in addition to being less expensive. There are, however, collectors who view only the fiberglass versions as "originals," even though the newer polypropylene plastic versions are well made and legitimately manufactured.
Because of the popularity of the fibers being visible in the material, more recent versions of the chair are made from more environmentally friendly fiberglass that mimics material used in vintage pieces. The newer authentic Eames molded side chairs will be marked (as noted above) to help you distinguish them from other molded plastic lookalikes worth far less.
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Do Further Research
So you have a chair that you think is the real deal, but you want to be sure. One of the easiest things to do is compare it to a chair you know to be authentic. This might take the form of looking at vintage Eames chairs being offered by reputable sellers online, or visiting a local brick and mortar shop specializing in Mid-Century design. The more authentic chairs you look at, the easier it will be to determine if yours is an original.
Many museums feature valuable Eames pieces as well, so you can peruse their catalogs online. Charles’ grandson also developed EamesOffice.com as another resource filled with online examples that can be helpful when learning about Eames products. The Herman Miller website, HermanMiller.com, has a timeline and other information about the Eames available for researchers as well.
Reading up on the topic comes in handy, too. Many pros consider Eames Design: The Work of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames by Marilyn & John Neuhart and Ray Eames (Harry N. Abrams, 1989) to be the Bible when studying the work of this design duo, including their many chair styles.