Eames Rocking Chair: a potted history
The RAR, or Rocking Armchair Rod, is a classic modernist chair, designed in 1948 by Charles Eames. The prototype was designed for the Museum of Modern Art’s (MOMA) International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design’ in 1948, where it won first prize. It started out as an organically-shaped one-piece stamped metal bucket seat that could not be mass-produced, as fiberglass shells had not yet been developed.
The first generation rocking chair was commercially available from 1950 and produced by Zenith Plastics, California and distributed by Herman Miller, Michigan. During the war, Zenith Plastics had used fibreglass to reinforce plastic on radar domes for aeroplanes, and the company joined the Eames’ in adapting the stamped metal prototype for mass production. These early Eames chairs had distinctive large shock mounts, a roped edge and a chequerboard label. They were available in just three colours; greige, elephant-hide grey and parchment. Early in the first year, Eames discontinued this design, substituting it with the wire configuration found on today’s Rocker chairs. Following complaints that the wires that crossed at the front restricted the sitter’s position, a second-generation rocking chair was quickly introduced, on which the wires were moved to the side. Very few chairs were produced in the first configuration, making them extremely rare.
After 1950 the rope edge was discontinued and the choice of colours expanded to include seafoam green, lemon yellow and red. After 1953 Herman Miller outsourced the production to various manufactures, including Cincinatti Milacron, Ohio, and Summits Plastic in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The fibreglass Eames chair then became available in upholstered fabric or naugahyde (vinyl), with a choice of several other bases.
Unlike the Eames lounge chair, Herman Miller did not sell the rocking chair after 1968, instead it was given as a gift to every employee who became a parent. New mothers were encouraged to pick out the fabric and shell combination, and the name of the child and the child’s birth date was inscribed on a brass plaque screwed to the back of the chair.
The Eames Rocker chair hardly changed over its lifespan. Today it is widely recognised to be a classic in the history of modern furniture design.
Buying an Eames Rocking Chair: tips from mid century expert Russell Davis of Firefly House
Is it easy to identify vintage Eames chairs produced by different manufacturers?
The early models of the Eames Rocking chair, produced by Zenith Plastics, may not have any markings, but may still have the black and red chequerboard label. Those made by Cincinatti Milacron can be identified by a crescent ‘C’ with a star; those made by Summits Plastic have a pair of overlapping triangles, an ‘S’ or an ‘S’ with a circle around it. Chairs dating from 1951 – 53 had red rectangular labels; later in the ‘50s, a raised Herman Miller logo was introduced.
Should a buyer look for particular detailing on an Eames rocking chair?
This all depends on what you are buying and your budget. An all-original first edition Eames rocking chair will invariably cost a lot. If you are buying it because you are a serious collector and want an investment item then hold out for that perfect vintage chair. Make sure it has the rope edge, full chequerboard label, original mounts and hardware with original base and rockers. The original early wooden runners in birch were slimmer and rounder, whereas original later runners were thicker and less rounded. Make sure the chair does not have shock mount bleed-through in the seating area, dark areas in the fibreglass where the mounts are attached beneath. If you want the vintage Eames Rocker with a lower price tag, go for a later example on a reproduction base. This can alter the price dramatically. Certain colours were made in larger quantities, for example orange, so these tend to be cheaper than the more sought after seafoam green and elephant-hide grey.
How can a buyer tell if the shell and legs on an Eames chair are original to each other?
If the Eames rocking chair being sold is described as an all-original vintage chair then there are certain checks to be made. Firstly check the shock mounts and look for the indentation in the rubber mounts. Is it consistent with this base? Are there other indentations to be seen? If so, it’s probably a marriage of parts, indicating that another base has been fitted to the chair at some point. Both rocker base and shell could still be original though. Also check the bottom of the wooden rockers to see whether they show appropriate wear for their age.
How important is it to match an original Eames shell to a vintage rocker base?
It’s actually very rare to find an Eames rocking chair with an original base and consequently you can expect to pay a lot more. Most Eames chairs available today have original shells on reproduction bases. As the bases tend to suffer more wear and tear than the shells, it is common practice to find vintage shells attached to contemporary bases. The quality of reproduction bases vary, depending on where they are manufactured – generally speaking, it’s best to source bases from Europe rather than the Far East. Original vintage shock mounts can be used with contemporary bases, so if you find a vintage shell with a new base, it’s worth checking to see whether the shock mounts are new too. Provided they’re in good condition, the value of a chair will increase if the mounts are original.
How does the price structure work for a vintage Eames chair?
The cost of a quality vintage Eames rocking chair that is not upholstered and is on a reproduction rocker base starts at around £450. For this price the chair and base should be in excellent condition. Cheaper examples, which are upholstered or have slight damage, start at £300. You can expect to pay up to £750 for a rarer coloured shell, for example seafoam green, on a reproduction base. Zenith shells dating from 1951 -1953, which have the Venice label and large shock mounts but no rope edging, can cost up to £1000 when sold on reproduction bases. You can expect to pay £2000 upwards for an early rope edged all-original Eames rocking chair.
When is it worth paying a lot for an Eames chair?
Like many iconic pieces of mid-century furniture, it’s becoming harder to find excellent examples, so if you come across that perfect piece, you may well have to pay for it! Once you know what colour and specification you want, have a look at reputable dealers’ websites and ask them all the questions you need to. If you want a beautiful Modernist chair that is also a super investment then go down the all-original Zenith rope edge route. If you want an iconic vintage chair that you use day-in-day-out, then go for something cheaper. There will be no difference in quality between the two ends of the spectrum, just rarity and demand.
Do Eames chairs make good long-term investments?
Yes, whether it’s a Rocker chair or the related dining chair designs, the Eames DSW and the Eames DSR (or Eiffel chair), prices have risen dramatically over the last few years and I would expect this to continue. These beautiful chairs are constantly featured in design and style magazines and demand for them is high.
How concerned should a buyer be about the condition of an Eames chair?
Condition is everything! Make sure that, no matter which type of vintage Eames chair you are buying, the condition is good. Poor condition can compromise your long-term investment. There is nothing wrong with buying slightly damaged or worn chairs, but make sure this is reflected in the price. Always ensure that the item is free from fibreglass fractures and the base is of good quality.
What considerations and potential pitfalls should you look out for when buying an Eames chair?
This depends on how the Eames rocking chair has been catalogued: there is a difference, for example, in buying a first edition Zenith rope edge with its original base and a later shell on a reproduction base. If the item is being sold as an all-original mid century piece, and not a marriage of parts, check the shock mounts as described earlier. Assess whether the shock mounts are firmly attached, whether they are still supple, and whether they have been re-glued. Check that the fixing screws are original and that there are no cracks and fractures in the fibreglass. Look for the label. This is far more important if you are buying an early Zenith shell and less important on examples with the raised Herman Miller logo.
Useful links and information
For more information on the Eames RAR chair, check out our Buyer’s Guide in MidCentury issue 01
See Russell’s website Firefly House
To find an Eames Rocking chair, check out the dealers in our Directory