On the flickering black-and-white screen, the lights dimmed to a grainy gray, and the camera focused unsteadily on a small stage. The curtain rose. There, revealed to the nation for the first time, stood a lounge chair.
It's impossible to say what the viewers of NBC's "Home" show thought on that morning in March, 1956, when host Arlene Francis unveiled the rosewood-and-leather lounger and matching ottoman, but if any piece of furniture has proved worthy of a network debut, it was the Eames lounge chair.
Created by the husband-and-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames, the chair has achieved classic status as a landmark of Midcentury Modern design in the 50 years since it was introduced, an accomplishment that is being celebrated with an exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design here.
A combination of elegance and function, the Eames chair has found its way into executive offices and family rooms for 50 years, living beyond its midcentury label. A comfortable chair with a timeless sensibility, it is one of those icons of design that seems like it's always been with us.
As Ray said in a 1955 letter to Charles while the design was being perfected, the chair looks "trim, neat, un-designy, but cared for, rather than hunks or straps."
In other words, it may be an icon, but it's as cozy as an old chair.
That combination of style and practicality may be one of the most important reasons why Herman Miller, the Grand Rapids, Mich., furniture manufacturer, has never dropped the lounge chair from its catalog. In fact, lately, it's been enjoying a resurgence, despite a hefty $3,125 price tag for the lounger and ottoman in natural cherry, cherry or walnut veneers.
The pair is also available in a new finish, called santos palisander, that closely resembles the Eameses' original rosewood veneer. The new finish raises the cost to $3,995.
At those prices, it's no surprise that cheaper imitations have abounded over the years, but the manufacturer says that a genuine Eames chair is worth the added dollars because of its durability. The lounge chairs and ottomans are assembled by hand using high-quality materials, with practical touches such as replaceable cushions and interchangeable back cushions.
If a balance between sophisticated design and attention to creature comforts accounts for the chair's longevity, it is also an embodiment in plywood and leather of the working philosophy of the Eameses, according to Eames Demetrios, one of the couple's five grandchildren and the director of the Eames Foundation in Pacific Palisades, Calif.
Hand in glove
"They did deeply believe in Modernism, and the lines of the lounge chair are extremely elegant and restrained," he said, running his hand along the gently curving plywood base of an Eames chair at the museum. "But they never used that kind of visual intent as an out for a lack of comfort."
By 1956, the couple already had been working together for 15 years, producing molded-plywood leg splints for the military during World War II and several famous chair designs in both plywood and plastic.
"They were always interested in new uses for old materials, such as plywood, or in new materials, such as plastic," said David Hanks, one of the curators of the exhibit, which was organized by the Grand Rapids Museum of Art.
Charles Eames, who was born in 1907 and grew up in St. Louis, studied architecture at Washington University and later worked with the legendary Modernist architect Eero Saarinen at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. There, they produced an award-winning molded-plywood chair for a 1940 competition at the Museum of Modern Art.
That same year at Cranbrook, Charles met Ray, who was five years younger. By then, Ray had studied painting and sculpture with emigre artist Hans Hofmann and modern dance with Martha Graham. She and Charles married in 1941 and moved to southern California, working together until Charles' death in 1978.
The good host
"In Ray, Charles found not only a romantic partner but also someone who, like Eero, was well-versed in European Modernism and abstraction and had a remarkable facility with three-dimensional form," writes Eames expert Pat Kirkham in "The Eames Lounge Chair: An Icon of Modern Design" (Merrell, $45, 189 pp.), a companion to the museum exhibit.
In the early 1950s, with the postwar boom under way, the Eameses started working on a design for Herman Miller for an updated club chair that would be luxurious yet relatively affordable, something that, as Charles put it, would have the "warm, receptive look of a well-worn first baseman's mitt."
They produced dozens of models, tinkering with the angle of the chair's body and with details that would ensure it could be built to their satisfaction in the Herman Miller factory.
Demetrios recalls that when his grandmother, who died in 1988, talked about the evolution of the chair, she would cup her hands together.
"One hand fits in the other, the way the leather fits in the wood, and the way you fit in the chair," said Demetrios, 44, a filmmaker and writer. "They were very focused on the relationship between a host and guest. They felt this relationship existed in every culture, and they felt that the role of the designer is to be a good host. So right now, sitting in their lounge chair, you are Charles' and Ray's guest."
In the first year, Herman Miller sold only 484 of the chairs, which cost $404, plus $174 for the ottoman. But sales steadily rose after that to a peak of 4,255 in 1978.
The chair's popularity fell in the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, but with the revival of all things Midcentury -- and perhaps with aging Baby Boomers showing interest in a comfy but stylish chair -- sales have picked up. Last year, the company sold 4,010 chairs.
Even so, the lounge chair's status as a luxury item is clear. In 50 years, total sales have amounted to only 106,000 chairs.
But sales tell only part of the story. Over the decades, the chair has entered the popular imagination through cameo appearances on such things as the television show "Frasier" and the Julia Roberts movie "Closer."
And, in a 1977 "Dennis the Menace" cartoon, Dennis' father is shown sitting on an Eames lounge chair. The original drawing is included in the exhibit devoted to the chair, complete with an autograph by the cartoon's creator, Hank Ketcham.
"Still sittin' pretty," he wrote.
"The Eames Lounge Chair: An Icon of Modern Design" is at the Museum of Arts and Design until Sept. 3. After that, it will be on view at the Grand Rapids Art Museum Oct. 6 to Dec. 31 and at the Henry Ford in Dearborn, Mich., Feb. 3 to April 29, 2007.
Stevenson Swanson is a writer for The Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times