“There’s no reason that great design can’t be something for everyone to have,” says designer Yves Béhar. With projects like One Laptop Per Child and See Better to Learn Better under his belt, Béhar’s belief in attainability rings true.
For Herman Miller, Béhar created SAYL—his answer to an attainable ergonomic work chair. To do this, Béhar challenged us to develop a technology not seen in low-cost seating: a unique frameless back, stretched into place, with ergonomic support molded into it.
SAYL proves that innovation can cost less than traditional foam and fabric construction—making great design available to more people.
Polypropylene makes the Eames molded plastic chair a weather-proof choice for outdoors.
Charles and Ray Eames designed products to last a lifetime, a fact evident in the Eames molded plastic chair. In production for nearly 60 years, the chair has been a mainstay of town halls, school cafeterias, and other public venues for its ability to withstand the rough and tumble of daily use.
Made from injection-molded polypropylene—the same recyclable plastic used in soda bottles and kid’s toys—the material of today’s molded plastic chair is nearly indestructible. And polypropylene is naturally flexible. It moves with the sitter, making for a comfortable seat. But if accidentally knocked over, the seat bounces back unscathed. No chance of cracking, chipping, or breaking. A perfect choice for an outdoor café or rowdy pediatrician’s waiting room.
Designed to last a lifetime, only the Eames molded plastic chairs sold by Herman Miller are approved by the Eames Office and Eames family heirs as an authentic design.
As Ostroff puts it, “The “Second Place” finish for Charles and Ray deserves an asterisk.” At the time of judging, months before the public exhibition, The Eames had only produced their single-form arm and side chairs in stamped metal. The winning designs—first place was shared by Donald Knorr and George Leowald—were both lightweight and very low cost. In comparison the Eames “shells” were heavier and more expensive.
However, by the time the exhibition opened Charles and Ray had worked out how to make their winning “shapes” from molded plastic. The result was a lighter, cheaper, and easier to produce than the other winner. While technically second place, The Eames molded plastic chair was the star of the show and has proven to be an enduring classic.
Of the two first place designs, only David Knorr’s chair of flat steel joined in a circular shape was produced, albeit for only a few months before being discontinued.
People intuitively recognize good design; it invokes a sense of inevitability—a “should be-ness” according to Charles and Ray Eames. For those outside of design this can seem simple, but the truth is it’s an iterative process of exploring every possibility until you land on the one that is just right.
Designer Yves Béhar knows something about this from his work on SAYL. Achieving the refined feel of SAYL’s frameless took nearly three years. More than 100 different patterns were created—each evaluated and informing the next pattern. This was repeated until Béhar and Herman Miller landed on the final design that everyone knew was just right.
The result is a frameless back with ergonomic support molded into it. The first of its kind, the back moves, supports, and responds to the sitter in a natural way. When you look at it, you don’t see the process of design; rather you’re left with a sense that it is as it should be.
Stamped metal prototypes of the designs that eventually became the Eames molded plastic chair.
The Eames molded plastic chair began as an entry in the Museum of Modern Art’s International Low-Cost Furniture Competition. Originally conceived in stamped metal, the entry marked a stop along the journey Charles and Ray Eames undertook to achieve a chair in a single form.
After taking second place in the competition, Charles and Ray remained committed to the form of their design, but continued to investigate other materials. They landed on plastic, which required fiberglass for reinforcement, since without it the plastic of the late 1940s wasn’t strong enough for the single-piece design. While not ideal, the Eames accepted the visible surface fibers as an honest constraint of the material.
They continued their journey. By the early 1970s, plastics had evolved to allow the solid, uniform, matte finish Charles and Ray originally envisioned. When a sustainable polypropylene became available, that was embraced too. As a result, only the Eames molded plastic chairs sold by Herman Miller are approved by the Eames Office and Eames family heirs as an authentic design.
An early advertisement celebrating the versatile styles, colors, and bases of the Eames molded plastic chair.
The Valastro's 1954 Brooklyn apartment with their new Eames furniture. Photo: danielostroff.com
In 1954, a young couple invested their wedding money in furniture for their modest Brooklyn apartment. The furniture, designed by another young couple, Charles and Ray Eames, lasted a lifetime.
For five decades, Sal and Gladys Valastro lived with their Eames designs. They treated the furniture with care, but never pampered it from the rough and tumble of everyday life. At the hands of the Valastro sons, an Eames rocker, turned over, became a turtle shell and the molded plywood coffee table was a spot to sit and spin.
Eames + Valastro is the story of a family with good design. Author, and Eames scholar, Daniel Ostroff provides a reminder that the Eameses designed for life, and their work only gets better with use.
In the 1970’s, designer Bill Stumpf sculpted foam to comfortably support people while they work—creating the first ergonomic task chair. He introduced ergonomics to our industry.
Since then, Herman Miller and its designers have continued to find innovative solutions, but have never forgotten that design begins with people. Not just their physical attributes, but their behaviors as well. We study the purpose of their work and their postures and movements. Design follows.
Nelson platform bench at the Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard University
In a world where design is often an exclamation mark, sometimes, good design is one that complements without calling undue attention to itself. Much like the perfect t-shirt or little black dress that round out one’s wardrobe, a thoughtful interior needs a few basic pieces that do not dominate.
The platform bench, designed by George Nelson in 1945, is one such piece. A stable of museum galleries around the world, and often found at the foot of the bed, the bench has been a durable icon for its ability to play a supporting role. Composed of solid maple slats, it reflects Nelson’s insistence on honest design—making a visual statement that defines an object’s purpose.
Only a few years old, MASS was founded on the belief of first-rate healthcare facilities for the third world. Utilizing a process of research and development focused on communities, MASS engages, empowers, and educates local workers in the construction of their projects. Breaking the cycle of poverty, they improve more than just health. The 140-room Butaro hospital in the Rwandan countryside is testament to this approach.
A partnership based on shared philosophy, Herman Miller supports MASS’s work in Rwanda and Haiti, and is a sponsor of the MASS Design Group fellowship program. Together we hope to build a better world around you.
Have an urge to get behind the camera? James Cameron, director of Avatar, may have been speaking to you when he said, “Pick up a camera and shoot something. No matter how small, or cheesy, or whether your friends and your sister star in it. Put your name on it and now you’re a director.” Herman Miller invites you do just that: pick up a camera, gather some friends, and make a video that answers the question “what makes your campus green?”
Commuting to school by bike, campus-wide recycling initiatives, perhaps a zero-waste sporting event. Large or small, it doesn’t matter; show us what your school is doing for the Earth.