Whether kitting out the company boardroom, or simply setting up your home office, the right chair is everything. Not only is it a place to sit and think through those all-important business decisions. It also sets the whole tone for the room itself. To think like a CEO, you’ve got to feel like a CEO- and that takes a chair that’s a cut above the rest. In this post, we’ll be taking a look at perhaps the single most iconic office chair ever built: the Eames Executive Chair. It certainly lives up to its name, having been the chair of choice for higher-ups for almost 60 years. But behind this classic design lies a fascinating story. Read on to discover just how this piece came to be, and how it became so iconic.
The archetypal office chair
Like so many of the Eames’ greatest works, the Executive Chair has its foundations in a completely different design project. In 1959, with the Cold War at its height, the couple embarked on a film project that would cut through those tensions. That year, the World’s Fair was held in Moscow. The American authorities wanted to introduce the Russian man on the street to the average American. To do this, they turned to the magazines which best captured the essence of the nation throughout the twentieth century: Time and Life. Founder and CEO Henry Luce agreed to give them a year of unlimited access to the magazines’ archives. From this, they put together the groundbreaking Glimpses of the USA, an ambitious multi-screen installation piece. But that left the couple owing Luce a favour- and it wasn’t long before he called it in.
That same year, the two magazines had moved into a new custom-built office block, the now-iconic Time & Life Building, in downtown New York. Yet Luce wasn’t satisfied with just dominating the surrounding skyline. He wanted every aspect of their new offices dressed to impress, with the lobby a key centrepiece. Naturally, he turned to the Eames’. More than just interior design work, he commissioned them to create custom furniture to fill the space. After all, this was a company who could afford to buy their own skyscraper. A set of chairs was mere small change to them. The brief was straightforward, yet Daedalean in its complexity. They were to design a chair that would be as iconic as the magazines themselves. In lesser hands, this would have been an impossible task- but Ray and Charles were no ordinary designers.
Impeccably designed to the last detail
As their starting point, the couple took their own Eames Lounge Chair. This earlier piece had cemented their reputation as designers par excellence, with a Playboy article stating that it offered sitters “a voluptuous luxury that few mortals since Nero have known.” But while the Lounge Chair was undoubtedly opulent, it was simply too large to fit this new design brief. Instead, Charles and Ray set out to create something which provided the same level of comfort, but on a smaller scale better suited to lobbies and conference rooms.
Most notably, the Executive Chair is quite a bit shorter than the Lounge Chair. That’s not to say, though, that it doesn’t offer ample support. Quite the opposite; the dimensions of the chair were very carefully chosen. The back of the chair comes up just high enough to fully support the sitter, but doesn’t envelop them like the Lounge Chair does. That makes it more suited to a business environment, where workers still need to be fully in-the-room during important meetings. To keep sitters comfortable through a long day at the office, three separate pads of luxurious leather upholstery are placed onto the aluminium frame. Lastly, generously padded armrests complete the look. Smart without being splashy, soft yet solid, it’s easy to see why so many other furniture companies have copied this iconic design over the years.
Sixty years on, and still a classic
The Executive Chair still a common sight in offices, but it’s also essential set-dressing for any Sixties-set drama. Rewatch Mad Men, for instance, and you’ll notice that it’s Don Draper’s chair of choice. Yet the main reason why it has stood the test of time is its versatility. The Executive Chair is ideal for any situation where the sitter needs to be firing on all cylinders. In fact, it’s so comfortable that American chess Grandmaster Bobby Fischer specifically requested one for his “Match of the Century” against the reigning world champion, Boris Spassky. He claimed that it was the only chair in which he could properly concentrate. When Spassky saw it, he promptly demanded one of his own- leaving the organizers scrambling to source an extra seat.
In the years since it was first designed, many companies have copied the Executive Chair. However, none have quite managed to replicate the magic of the original. A genuine period piece will set you back thousands, but modern editions are much more affordable. From the boardroom to your home office, we can't think of a better choice of chair. While other Eames designs might be more quintessential of their style, none have had such a huge impact as the Executive Chair.