Charles, Ray and the Elephants in the Room

If I haven’t said this before, I’m very grateful to have great people in my life. People who send me emails that say something like, “I have a friend who is selling these. Do you know anything about them and would you be interested?” with attached photos that look something like:

IMG_5659UM, YES and YES. Perhaps one of the most iconic mid-century designs, these fiberglass shell chairs are the brainchild of Charles and Ray Eames for Herman Miller. They’re famous, but that fame makes them a potential pitfall for buyers who don’t know what they’re buying. Why? Because these were not only produced for decades with several production variations, but they’ve also been extensively copied. Pieces from the early years can be highly sought after, while more common “institutional” examples from later years usually aren’t. To be sure what I might be getting into, I had to do a little research.

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The biggest clues to the age of shell chairs lie underneath the seat. Herman Miller used various labels and markings over the years that are often helpful for dating chairs, but unfortunately these were unmarked. The bases and shock mounts are also big clues. The first two generations of shell chairs featured an “x” base made of solid steel that crosses under the seat. Later examples used hollow tubular steel legs with bracing that forms an “h” under the seat. The first two generations of production also featured larger rubber shock mounts, often called “pucks” due to their resemblance to hockey pucks. Later iterations had smaller mounts.

 

H-Base used in third generation on. Image via AdoreModern

H-Base used in third generation on. Image via AdoreModern

So now that I knew these were mostly likely produced in the first two generations of Eames shell chairs, were these first generation or second generation? This clue also lies under the chair. The first two generations of shells were both made by Zenith Plastics, but only the first generation featured rope embedded into the rolled edge of the fiberglass seat. These are often fittingly referred to as “rope edge” shells. These chairs did not, thus they are second generation. Wary of my own crash internet research, I confirmed this with a very helpful friend who has much more experience with shell chairs. They’re indeed second generation.

First generation shell chairs have rope edges. Image via 1stDibs

First generation shell chairs have rope edges. Image via 1stDibs

Although I would have been over the moon about finding first generation shells, I wasn’t disappointed with these at all. Two of the chairs, my favorites, happen to be a very desirable color among collectors, Elephant Hide Gray. The other two are Ochre Light.

Elephant Hide Gray

Elephant Hide Gray

The original standard and contract colors. Image via Eames Office.

The original standard and contract colors. Image via Eames Office.

So there it is, my first time buying Eames fiberglass shell chairs. What I love most about buying and collecting is learning all of the details that make these pieces so special. When it comes to furniture like this, with high profile designers and unfathomable production numbers, the minutia of those details can make a huge impact on the importance or desirability of the piece. There’s so much to learn about such a simple chair and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. I guess I’ll just have to buy more and justify it as an educational expense.

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5 Comments

  1. Rena
    Posted August 31, 2014 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Hi Snag Team,

    You were such a huge help with refinishing my Lane Acclaim dresser that I wondered if you could please help me out again! I was just lucky enough to find a Drexel Declaration china cabinet. I can see that at least part of it needs refinishing. For starters, there were burns from hot dishes. I removed the burns with steel wool, but now we’re down to bare wood. The finish is also pretty worn on the doors and drawers.

    I tried a test with the natural shade of Watco on a removable shelf, but wherever the finish was thin, the wood turned orange like a popsicle.

    Would you advise stripping these sections and then using General Finishes Colonial Maple plus Arm-r-seal? Or would you suggest something else?

    Thanks so much for any advice you can offer!

    • Austin
      Posted September 1, 2014 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      Hi Rena,

      As you may know if you’ve read our blog for awhile, Drexel Declaration is one of my favorite lines (you can see some of my finds in this post: http://snag-blog.com/drexel-declaration-in-high-fidelity/).

      When I purchased my Declaration coffee table, it needed to be refinished. Ever cautious with such a beautiful piece and mindful that I may want it to match unrestored pieces in the future, I set out to find a technique that would match the original look. I contacted Drexel to see if they could help me figure out how the pieces were originally finished. Surprisingly, they answered by sending a scan of the original sales literature that described the pieces as “natural oil finished with protective lacquer top coatings.”

      In the end, I stripped my table and sanded to 400 grit. Then I applied Watco Danish oil in medium walnut according to the directions. It should be noted that this will result in a slightly redder complexion than the original, but not undesirably so. The instructions say to allow the Danish oil to dry 72 hours before applying a top coat, however I prefer to give a a good week or more to fully cure. Then apply your Arm-R-Seal just as you did on your Lane piece.

      You may have noticed while working on your Lane piece that lap marks can sometimes be noticeable as either a shiny or dull streak—especially on large flat surfaces. If this is the case, dip #0000 steel wool in mineral oil (usually available in the laxative area of the pharmacy aisle) and gently buff out the final coat. Wipe the surface completely dry with an absorbent cloth.

      Good luck and feel free to share your results!

  2. Rena
    Posted September 1, 2014 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Hi Austin,
    Thanks so much! I’ve really admired your Drexel Declaration collection, so I was really hoping that you’d help out with another Snag intervention!

    I feel so lucky to have found this piece in Canada, since it doesn’t seem that Drexel Declaration or Lane Acclaim were sold here originally. I got the Drexel and the Lane at the Salvation Army, and I could see from bits and pieces left in the drawers that they’d belonged to the same family. There was a 1970s fire safety memo from an eastern state in one drawer, so I’d guess that the family had moved up here to western Canada. What are the chances that I’d luck into quality pieces from the same family a month apart in a thrift store?

    It’s because of the Snag Team that I knew to leap onto these great pieces, so thanks again!

  3. Rena
    Posted October 22, 2014 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Hi Snag Team,
    I thought I’d check in again to let you know that I took Austin’s advice about fixing up my Drexel Declaration china cabinet. The advice was top notch, and my Salvation Army cabinet now looks fabulous!

    Following Snag wisdom, I only stripped the really damaged part of the cabinet, which was the horizontal section that had large burns from hot pots. As Austin advised, I refinished that section using Watco Danish oil in medium walnut, followed later by Arm-R-Seal. This worked beautifully!

    I also wiped down the door fronts and drawer fronts with mineral spirits to remove years’ of hand grease. Because there was still light accumulated damage, I wiped these areas down with Watco just to disguise nicks and rubs. This was an effective fix.

    There were a few larger dings in the piece, the worst being the huge scrape on the side of the cabinet that developed before my very eyes as the movers hoisted the cabinet into their truck! I filled these dings with Famowood in the walnut shade. Even after staining, the Famowood was still a glaring mauve. So, I carried a drawer to an art supply store to match artist’s oil paint for touch ups. I bought Windsor-Newton student-grade paint (Winton) in colours #2 (burnt sienna) and #34 (raw sienna). They blended to disguise the wood filler very well.

    One last thing I tried came from a tip I found online. Once the Arm-R-Seal had dried for over a week, I rubbed down the surface with a brown paper bag. This knocked off little dust nibs, making the surface even more refined.

    Thank you again for your invaluable help, Snag Team!

    • Angela
      Posted October 28, 2014 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

      Hi Rena! I’ve always wanted to try using oil paint for touching up gouges. Whenever I’ve tried a fill or a patch it looks ok but you can still tell a repair is there. So glad you are having such luck refinishing!

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