Weekend Finds: Eames Soft Pad Executive Chair

Sometimes you easily find something you never knew existed and it’s a happy accident. Sometimes you spend years looking for something to no avail, only to have it fall into your lap once you’ve given up. I’ve had both happen with the same item. Several years ago I picked up a worn but interesting office chair at a garage sale for $2. After a little research I discovered it was a soft pad management chair created by design gods Charles and Ray Eames for Herman Miller. I also discovered they are nearly impossible (if not entirely impossible) to reupholster and eventually swapped the dilapidated (and burgundy) soft pad seat for a more ubiquitous unpadded aluminum group seat found on eBay. I can’t complain, my total investment in that chair was only $30 after all was said and done.

My first soft pad-turned-aluminum group chair shown in my home office.

My first soft pad-turned-aluminum group chair shown in my home office.

But that taught, unpadded seat never really fit the bill for the long hours I sometimes spend behind the computer and it was relegated to side chair status in favor of a more “ergonomic” Herman Miller Aeron chair. The complicated 90s-era designed Aeron chair never impressed me much either and I vowed to someday replace it with a stunning (and comfortable) Eames soft pad chair. I hunted. I searched. For. Years. There were none to be found locally and any vintage examples I could find were priced sky high. Eventually I broke down and decided it was time to bite the bullet and pony up for one. I decided to go with a more recent production and shelled out the cash. We’re talking teenager’s first car money. It arrived. I was happy.

The "splurge" soft pad

The “splurge” soft pad

Then, not a week later, I get a text from a friend: “Should I buy this?”

IMG_8874It might have just as well fallen out of the sky and hit me. I’m reminded time and time again that the best way to find anything is to stop looking for it. Of course, having just bought one, it would have been logical to have said no to this one, but my zeal to not only have vintage possessions but also get great deals on them overruled all logic. Granted this one is a tiny bit of a train wreck, but it also didn’t cost used car money—more like gas money.

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The construction of these chairs makes restoration challenging, but I’m excited about getting into it. The leather, though in desperate need of cleaning and conditioning, is in surprisingly well-preserved condition. The wool fabric on the back, however, has sagged significantly. Since the upholstery cannot successfully be removed from the frame, it’s going to take some ingenuity to devise a way to shrink it back while in place. You might also notice it has a wonky incline as a result of a damaged tilt mechanism which should be a chore to reverse engineer.

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The severely abused cast aluminum arms and legs are another chore. These will require removal, stripping and lots and lots of polishing to regain their original mirror-like finish. I’m considering outsourcing this part to an auto body shop if I can find a willing one.

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The chair has a date stamp, though I can’t clearly make it out. I’m guessing it says Jun 1, 1986. Ray and Charles Eames first designed their Aluminum Group chairs in 1958 for the J. Irwin Miller house designed by Eero Saarinen and Alexander Girard. Their Soft Pad Collection was introduced in 1969—essentially just aluminum group chairs with soft padded seating surfaces. The Aluminum Group and Soft Pad collections have been in continuous production by Herman Miller since their introductions though today a new example of a Soft Pad Executive chair would run about $3,200.

I’m really excited to get started on this project. Conceivably I could just take the arms and base from the gray chair I already own and make one good chair out of the two. But that’s clearly too easy. Wish me luck. Hopefully I’ll have a before and after to show you soon!

 

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3 Comments

  1. Joe Smith
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Hey, Austin, I’m enjoying your blog (especially your latest entry – that desk and credenza are truly stunning). I’m a fellow mid-Century aficionado in Des Moines. A fellow collector, Kelly Parker, gave me your URL today when I got a Herman Miller chair from him. I wondered what new info you have, if any, since this post re Eames Aluminum chair restoration. I have two brown executive chairs (regular, not soft-pad) that I bought last year in Cedar Rapids for a good price, but they have a lot of aluminum crazing and then even a bit of cracking; the lower cushion is also pulling out a bit from the edge pieces. Don’t know whether it’s worth putting some $ into these or if I should just sell off the 4-leg bases on eBay as they’re in decent shape. I knew they’d be tough to restore but I was pretty sure I’d never see again for the price I paid.

    • Austin
      Posted September 2, 2016 at 12:14 am | Permalink

      Hi Joe. Unfortunately my Eames chair has remained parked since I purchased it—I do hope to tackle it someday though. The hardest part to restore on these is the upholstery—there are upholsterers out there who can do these chairs but, because of the construction and tension on the seat sling, most can’t or won’t. Unless you’ve got a guy, you’re better off to cash out and find another chair. The good news is damaged chairs do sell. The gray chair pictured above originally came with a destroyed purple soft pad seat, which I replaced with parts from another chair and then sold all of the damaged parts. In the end the chair didn’t end up costing me a dime. Just about an entire afternoon figuring out how to properly tension the seat to put it back together (hint: bar clamps are essential to this). Good luck!

  2. tom
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Hi Joe, i’m restoring the seat in France. I was wondering if you know the thread size of both armrests bolts and base bolts (the ones we can see in you last pict). I think this is UNF pitch but i’m not sure …so if do you have any info regarding bolt size and pitch, i would be very interested :-)
    Thanks a lot
    Tom

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