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Michael Webb
writes on modern architecture, design, and travel. He is the author of 26 books, most recently Modernist Paradise: Niemeyer House, Boyd Collection (Rizzoli) and Venice CA: Art +Architecture in a Maverick Community (Abrams). He travels widely in search of new and classic modern architecture and contributes to magazines around the world. Michael lives in the Neutra apartment that Charles and Ray Eames once called home.

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« Book Review: At the Intersection of Old and New | Main | FORM on Design: Drawings in Houston »
Wednesday
Mar052014

FORM on Design: Iconic Modern Furniture Reissued

Herman Miller has updated some of its classic designs, including Eames Aluminum Group outdoor chairs. Image courtesy Herman Miller.

Living in the apartment where the Eames prototyped their first designs in the 1940s, I've always been fascinated by the subtle changes iconic pieces undergo as they are first put into production and later revived. Herman Miller, which began as a traditional Michigan furniture maker, was introduced to modernism by Gilbert Rhode in the 1930s, and again by George Nelson, who was their director of design, 1945-1972, a tenure no-one is ever likely to match. He designed an entire range of basic furniture himself in a year, and then brought in his friends, Charles and Ray Eames, who have been the company's household gods ever since. Over the years, as Herman Miller put a greater emphasis on the contract market, some of the Eames's designs went out of production. A few were pirated, European rights went to Vitra, but most of the drop-outs have been brought back in sparkling new editions.

Ward Bennett drew inspiration for his Scissor Lounge Chair from ocean liners' deckchairs. Image courtesy Herman Miller.

The Aluminum Group lounge chair was first used on the patio of J. Irwin Miller's house in Columbus, Indiana. Architect Eero Saarinen, who had collaborated on Charles's first chair, prompted the design, but the materials fared poorly outdoors. The full range became a staple of high-end interiors. Now it has been reworked for outdoor use with white or graphite powder-coated frames, a weatherproof synthetic fabric in five colors, and stone-topped tables. It's as timeless a look as when it made its debut, 56 years ago. The same is true of the fiberglass shell chairs, reissued in the original juicy colors and distinctive texture, but made from a newly reformulated, sustainable fiberglass. In 1950, the fiberglass shell was the next big thing, following the quartet of molded plywood chairs that launched the legend. Now, Herman Miller have found a way of molding plywood into a shell, and the boldly grained palisander version gives a familiar shape a startlingly new look.

New manufacturing techniques allow plywood to be molded into a shell in the case of the Eames Molded Wood chair in palisander. Image courtey Herman Miller.

The company has reached back into its archives to produce long-forgotten designs by the Eameses' contemporaries. Isamu Noguchi designed his rudder coffee table in 1949, but few were produced, and the Japanese-American sculptor is known almost exclusively for his classic glass-topped model. Few know the name of Ward Bennett, but he created a succession of timeless designs in the 1960s, and some of these have been reissued, notably the Scissors Chair, which was inspired by the deckchairs on transatlantic liners, the Envelope chair, and the I-beam side table. Complementing these revivals are striking new pieces by Konstantin Grcic and Leon Ransmeier, as well as Bassam Fellows, partners who are the current design directors for Herman Miller. All of this classic modern and new furniture is currently available from Jules Seltzer in Los Angeles, and other dealers nation-wide.

Noguchi's Rudder Table also received an update. Image courtesy Herman Miller.

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