Modern Masters: Daniel Ostroff
Considered some of the most influential designers of the 20th century, husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames ushered in a new way of thinking about furniture: that it could be both useful and beautiful. Their minimal, elegant pieces have endured as fixtures in homes and public spaces, and it’s no surprise their coveted lounge chairs, ottomans and shell chairs pop up regularly in EBTH sales. To find out more about the designers we spoke to Daniel Ostroff, film producer, Eames Office consultant, and editor of “An Eames Anthology” (Yale University Press).
You’ve studied Charles and Ray Eames for years. What continues to fascinate you about them?
I enjoy examining the details of their designs in relationship to their ideas. Charles and Ray thought deeply about you and me. When I reviewed the documents in the Eames archives for “An Eames Anthology,” I learned how all of their work reflects their principles. They didn’t say one thing and do another. They considered all of the human factors — everything they could possibly imagine that would be meaningful to their customers. They focused on how a design worked, how much service it provided and what its value proposition was. I think about this every time I lift an Eames chair and appreciate that it is not only strong enough to support me (I weigh 195 pounds), but also that it’s lightweight.
What should you look for when buying a vintage Eames piece?
Completeness. The Eameses created complete designs. To have one part of an authentic chair paired with a reproduction part is useless. If you are shopping for an antique, whether Biedermeier or Eames, you want it to be as close to its original condition as possible. Because Eames designs have always been shipped fully assembled, you ideally want ones that have never been taken apart. I always look at the screws to see if they show signs of being tampered with or don’t have the same patina as the rest of the chair.
Gray Eames Shell Chair by Herman Miller
Eames Shell Chair for Herman Miller
First Generation Eames Shell Arm Chair for Zenith Plastics
Pair of Ray and Charles Eames Shell Chairs for Herman Miller
Herman Miller Eames Giclee Poster Designed and Signed by Brian Edlefson
Eames Aluminum Group Typing Table by Herman Miller
Rare Advertising Tin Display for "Domes of Silence" Eames Chair Feet
Herman Miller Eames Aluminum Group Chair
What should someone consider in terms of material, structure, and markers of authenticity?
Buy what you like. Authentic Eames designs have been made since 1946, so there’s a range of designs and prices for every collector. Whether you prefer the plywood, fiberglass or lounge chairs, you should look at every aspect of the design and ask a key question: Is the patina consistent on every part of the piece? Until you develop an eye for determining this by examining a lot of vintage pieces, you can evaluate it with protective eyewear and a UV light. Under a UV, all of the parts will ideally have the same appearance. If one glows differently, that part may be a recent addition or represent refinishing. Keep in mind that different materials will have different glows. I recently examined an early Eames Molded Plywood Dining Chair with black light and the screws glowed differently than the rest of the chair, but they were clearly early and original; the wood had a consistent appearance everywhere under the light, meaning that the finish was original.
What did Ray and Charles think about collecting vintage pieces?
They anticipated honest wear and tear in their designs so that they would still look good after ten years. In “An Eames Anthology,” Herman Miller CEO Hugh Dupree quotes Charles Eames: “Don’t give us that good design crap, you never hear us talk about that. The real questions are: Does it solve a problem? Is it serviceable? How is it going to look in ten years?”
They insisted on integral finishes, not applied finishes. Integral finishes mellow with age. Painted applied finishes chip; you won’t find paint on Eames designs. They selected materials that age well, it’s fun to contemplate the fact the original upholstery you have still looks good after 40 years of use.
Why is an Eames piece a good investment?
Quality is usually a good investment, and in the case of Charles and Ray Eames, their designs stand the test of time. Their 1958 Eames aluminum group chair is still a bestseller. The Eames Tandem Seating, first introduced in Chicago O’Hare and Washington DC Dulles Airport in 1961, is still made the same way by the original manufacturers, and you find it in places ranging from the airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to the theater of the flagship Apple Store in Santa Monica.
Museums are also often good predictors of value and Eames work is in the permanent collection of more than 100 American museums! The Eames archives are among the prize holdings of the U.S. Library of Congress. Currently, “The World of Charles and Ray Eames,” a show mounted by the Barbican in London, is on exhibition in Sweden and is headed for other European capitols.
When in doubt, however, learn from those whose business it is to be connoisseurs: people known for their great design sense and museum curators who have a sense of what is important, historically speaking. Look at Steve Jobs. His first piece of furniture in his home — for many years his only piece of furniture — was an Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman. There’s a great photo of him sitting on the chair talking with Bill Gates, who sits on the ottoman. The fact that dozens of museums include Eames designs in their permanent collections is a good clue. Museums can’t collect everything, so they are good indicators of what is beautiful and important.
Daniel regularly answers Eames questions at [email protected]. To learn more about his work visit: http://danielostroff.com/ or check out http://www.eamesoffice.com/blog/, where he contributes weekly. Learn more about his book at https://www.amazon.com/Eames-Anthology-Articles-Interviews-Speeches/dp/0300203454.