California Classic: The Eames Shell Chair

Designed in Venice Beach post-WWII, it was the first chair that didn’t require upholstery for aesthetics or comfort

Photography courtesy of EAMES


The dining room of the Eames House in the Pacific Palisades, now a National Historic Landmark operated by The Eames Foundation.


Conceived in 1948 by husband-and-wife industrial design duo Charles and Ray Eames for the Museum of Modern Art’s International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design, the first prototype for the Eames Shell Chair was developed in response to the need for affordable home furniture design following World War II. Using the latest technology, including a hydraulic press to mold the fiberglass material that formed the seat, the armchair was the first one-piece plastic chair that didn’t require upholstery for aesthetics or comfort. After two years of careful redesign, mass-production for Herman Miller began in 1950 at the Zenith Plastics factory in Gardena, California. Also available in an armless version, the innovative chairs came in three initial colors — parchment, elephant gray, and greige (a combination of gray and beige) — and could be set on a four-leg wood, metal, or rocking chair base. The past 73 years have seen numerous redesigns and color changes, but for Eames aficionados and collectors of iconic midcentury design, nothing beats the original. 


An armless version with a classic Eiffel Tower base.


Eames Shell Chair Stats 

● Produced between 1950 and 1954, the first-generation Shell Chairs had a rope edge, or a ridged effect on the edges of the seat caused by indentations from the ropes used during the molding process. Next-generation models — produced at both the Zenith Plastics factory in Gardena and the Eames Office on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice — had clean, straight edges because the production process no longer used rope.

● Apart from the original three relatively muted colors, the early generation chairs were also made available in red orange, seafoam, and lemon yellow — all chosen explicitly by Ray and Charles Eames. Beginning around 1960, Herman Miller produced the fiberglass Shell Chair in as many as 26 colors, although since 2013 there are fewer than 10 hues to choose from.

● Initially designed for the home, the Eames fiberglass chairs quickly became popular for use in offices, schools, restaurants, and airports worldwide. Subsequently the chairs were developed into benches, rolling office chairs with casters, and stackable models, and even updated with upholstery. Today a variety of these Eames chairs are still produced by Herman Miller at its factory in Zeeland, Michigan, and in Europe by family-owned Swiss furniture company Vitra.


Inside the Eames Office on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in the 1950s.


Feature image: Charles and Ray Eames sit among their iconic Shell Chairs circa 1955.


This story originally appeared in the Men’s Fall 2023 issue of C Magazine.

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