When Emily Kirkpatrick visited Seattle last summer with friends, they stayed at a modern lake house outside the city, complete with steel beams, floor-to-ceiling glass windows and a black leather Eames lounge chair, dramatically reclining in its own sculptural glamour, like the red Ferrari California Spyder in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
It begged to be photographed, so Kirkpatrick climbed in with her glass of pinot grigio and smiled.
A few weeks later, she added the photo to her dating profiles on Tinder and Hinge, and she noticed a shift in the messages she received from her matches. “I just thought I looked cute in this weird, Ferris Bueller-y room,” she said. “I started getting hit up constantly about this chair. I didn’t realize I was tapping into that audience.”
On one hand, she gets it: The chair is a conversation starter. But some of the inquiries felt almost fanatical. “At one point, I had to clarify for a guy that I didn’t actually own the chair, that it was my friend’s, and he unmatched me. I was like, ‘Okay, wow.'”
When Kirkpatrick, a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York, later tweeted about her Tinder matches’ obsession with the chair, women confirmed her assessment. “The hold this chair has on men,” one user wrote. “The only chair they know,” quipped another.
Design symbol or status symbol?
The Eames lounge chair and ottoman, iconic pieces of 20th-century American modernism designed by husband-and-wife duo Charles and Ray Eames in 1956, have long enjoyed cult status among architecture and design enthusiasts who drool over the flowing wood grain, lack of exposed screws (except for the arm rests) and permanent recline.
More recently, though, the chair seems to have found a new audience, one perhaps more interested in its instantly recognizable silhouette and notorious price tag than its distinguished heritage. “I’m drawing assumptions, but these don’t seem like design fanatics,” Kirkpatrick said. “They seem like status fanatics, and this chair is their new symbol.”
Some would argue that it isn’t the chair’s fans who have changed, so much as the way they express their devotion to it. The lounger has always been marketed toward elite, urban professionals (think “Mad Men”), and it was even featured in Playboy in the 1960s as furniture for a gentleman’s penthouse. “It’s always been associated with aspirational interiors,” said Amy Auscherman, an archivist for Herman Miller, the Michigan-based company that has produced and sold the chair since it was introduced. “First, it was Playboy, then it was GQ, and now it’s Hypebeast or whatever the upwardly earning young men who are interested in style are plugged in to.”
Reeves Connelly, a graduate architecture student at the Pratt Institute in New York who runs a design-focused TikTok account (@reevcon), discovered the chair on YouTube. “It was portrayed as the pinnacle of achievement for men, a piece that says, ‘I made it,'” he said. “It’s always portrayed that way.”
Matheus Stancati, a fellow TikToker (@matheus_stancati) who posts about architecture, said the lounger is one of the few name-brand furniture pieces everybody recognizes. “It’s synonymous with success,” he said.
Part of that broadening recognition might be because of the pandemic, which sparked a wave of home makeovers documented on social media. And, Auscherman said, upwardly mobile millennial consumers are aging out of stores such as West Elm and Ikea, replacing less-expensive furniture with long-term investment pieces. “Suddenly, this place that used to be private is now up for public viewing,” Connelly said. “And furniture signifies wealth and status in a way that feels more modern than, like, a Ferrari or a Rolex.”
That cultural shift has also made the revered chair feel oddly trendy. Rather than telegraphing a passion for midcentury-modern furniture, it can, in the wrong settings, read as being ostentatious, mainstream and obvious — a sleek, safe bet. In worst-case scenarios, it doesn’t broadcast taste so much as suggest a lack of it, a box lazily checked. When the rapper Drake posted a shirtless photo of himself to Instagram Stories in front of his own lounger, for example, one Twitter user reposted it with a sly judgment: “drake showing off his canopy bed & eames chair obviously.”
Questions arise: Has the message that the chair sends also shifted? Has the once-niche, prized collectible lost its insider edge?
Auscherman considers the bigger picture. “When something hits the mainstream like this, it does lose some of that exclusivity,” she said. “But at least people are being thoughtful about what objects they live with.
“The Eames lounger is the gateway into the luxury furniture market for people who are just starting to wonder: ‘How is my table made? Where did it come from?'” she added. “We’re in a moment where design is more mainstream than ever, and I think that’s really cool. The design world can be so insular and snobby, like it’s only talking to itself. But that was never the goal with this chair.”
Elite design, mass production
Charles and Ray Eames introduced the 670 lounge chair and 671 ottoman on NBC’s “Home” show, hosted by Arlene Francis, a predecessor to shows such as “Good Morning America” and “Today.” The unveiling had all the theatrics of a runway show: sweeping orchestral music, a parting curtain, searchlights beaming onto the stage.
The chair was odd and avant-garde, a peculiar mix of padded black leather and laminated, undulating plywood shells that curled together like a beetle. (Charles said the inspiration was “a well-used first baseman’s mitt.”) But it was also a major hit, especially among the art and architecture set who placed it in reading nooks, living rooms and offices. Most importantly, it was scalable, able to be manufactured and sold quickly and in large quantities.
“The chair was introduced to the mainstream in a very ‘consumer goods’ way,” Auscherman said. “It was like, ‘Hey, America, check this out. We’re creating a new type of luxury that can be mass-produced.'” (Marilyn and John Neuhart’s 2010 book, “The Story of Eames Furniture,” reports that the chair and ottoman initially were priced at $310, or around $3,100 today. The pair currently sell for between $4,000 and $10,000.)
Over the years, it has morphed into a product that is art as much as furniture — and it’s one that never seems to go out of style. It’s in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. It’s taught in college lectures. It’s the subject of many books and documentaries. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Susan Sontag and the TV character Frasier Crane have all been photographed reclining in one. It has cameos in James Bond films. A surprising number of tattoos of it have been done.
Social media is full of TikTok devotionals, Instagram fan pages and Reddit threads for “Eames Enthusiasts” who nerd out on upholstery options and mock bad knockoffs. It’s the chair of choice for the judges on “Shark Tank,” and it appears in Serena van der Woodsen’s penthouse on “Gossip Girl,” where it was recovered in a classic Missoni chevron.
Given all that, it’s fair to wonder whether the chair may have finally reached a tipping point. Like bags emblazoned with designer logos and flashy sneakers sold for three times their market price, there’s bound to be a backlash, right? Surely a chair from the Eisenhower era can’t still be this cool.
Los Angeles interior designer Cliff Fong, who counts Ryan Murphy and Ellen DeGeneres as clients, says the backlash might still be a while off. “We’re talking about the most popular chair in the world for the past [almost] 70 years,” he said. “The only fashion parallel is, maybe, the Chanel flap bag or a [Louis] Vuitton trunk. It is that caliber of heritage, and in my opinion, more important.”
Fong notes that, although the manufacturing process has been streamlined, the materials are the same as they were when the chair was first produced: the same plywood, the same leathers, the same manner of production. “That’s unheard of,” he says. “It’s like the Porsche 911. Minor augments here and there, but otherwise, a pure form.”
But is it worth it?
Although everyone can agree on the chair’s historical significance, not all can agree that it lives up to its hype.
“Knowing the story about Ray and Charles’s relationship, I can’t say that I’m a fan,” says Shelly Lynch-Sparks, who owns the New York-based design studio Hyphen. (Ray Eames was often sidelined during presentations of the pair’s work, despite being an equal partner.) “It’s cumbersome, barely fits into most modern spaces and feels like it was designed for a cigar lounge. Something about it screams, ‘Cook me dinner and pour me a scotch.'”
Designer Brett Beldock has never warmed to the chair, either, despite its sentimental value. Her first design client wanted her living room designed around her Eames lounger, which Beldock reupholstered in eggplant pigskin. It was fabulous — but not enough to change her mind. “Something about the veneer never being dressed up [enough] bothers me,” she said.
Still, many designers stand by the chair. Washington, D.C., designer Annie Elliott thinks it’s absolutely worth bragging about in a dating profile. “If you can track down an original, be sure to brag about that, too,” she said.
San Francisco’s Emilie Munroe touts its under-discussed functionality. “It doesn’t matter if you’re 4 or 74 — or 6-foot-4 — lounging in it feels incredible,” she says.
Dan Mazzarini, of the New York firm BHDM Design, is all for the piece becoming as popular as it can. “Wouldn’t we rather see this in someone’s profile than a massage chair or a beanbag?” he said. “People have been cooped up for two years. If buying this $7,000 chair is proof that they’re investing in their home as a sanctuary, that works for me.”
Nina Barnieh-Blair, of Nina B Design, owns a black leather Eames lounger and called it a “topic of much discussion” in her household. “Count me a fan, but only under specific conditions,” she said. “For one, the leather needs to have been worn in for at least a decade. I’m not a fan of the fresh-out-of-the-box reproductions that are all over social media.”
Her husband bought their chair in the 1960s with his first paycheck. “Truthfully, it’s one of my favorite pieces from his ‘collection’ of stuff,” she said, pulling up a picture of the chair beside a wall of books. “Our beloved 60-year-old.”
Fong has selected the chair for many clients, sometimes opting to display them in pairs. He has also purchased vintage versions that weren’t in great condition and recovered them in playful fabrics to “offer a little irony.” He rejects the idea that the chair is flashy. “To me, ostentatious design tries to grab someone’s attention in the most immediate and sensational way,” he said. “This chair actually has a lot of restraint.”