A design icon of organic form, the cloud-like fiberglass lounge chair, La Chaise by Ray and Charles Eames can be found today in homes, offices and galleries around the world. But this mid-century classic only became available to consumers in 1996, half a century after it was conceived. Answering a post-war demand for economical furniture, the prototype was one of several chairs the Eameses entered into the “International Competition for Low-cost Furniture Design” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1948. La Chaise stood apart from other submissions with its peculiar shape, which took inspiration from Gaston Lachaise’s bronze, “Floating Figure.” This dramatic, curved outline was made possible by technological innovations in fiberglass molding, which was employed to make free-form shells for light, upholstery-free seating. The design received an honorable mention, but the Eameses soon abandoned it as a model for mass production.
Acquired in 1973 the Conservation Department has recently undertaken a technical examination of the La Chaise. This analysis, including cross-section microscopy, X-radiography, and fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, combined with study of the Eames’s extensive documentation of the processes used to make the prototype, has provided insight into the chair’s construction and why it was never produced in its own time. Comparing the materials and structure of the 1948 prototype with a contemporary edition produced by the Swiss furniture manufacturer Vitra, MoMA conservators investigated the economizing alterations made to the design 50 years later and their aesthetic consequences. The study has also illuminated the Eames’s intuitive creative process and the history of the prototype, whose overall color changed several times before it was mass produced in its now iconic white.