Monday, June 12, 2017

Beware of Imitations

You know how it is. Some genre-bending musician puts out a hit song that changes the pop music game, and then come all the soundalikes.

Or some fashion designer shatters the status quo with their spring collection, and next thing you know, you're seeing knockoffs of it on every rack at the mall.

That's what happened to Charles and Ray Eames.

In 1962, it had been 20 years since the interior design and architectural team had worked with furnishing manufacturer Herman Miller to perfect an approach to interior design that no one had ever seen before: by molding plywood into three-dimensional forms.

The tables, chairs, and other seating became so popular—and so synonymous with the modern movement—that copies began popping up from imitators who cared less for quality and more about capitalizing on (and cannibalizing) a trend.


Photo: Eames Office

To combat this rampant "flattery," the Eames team—perhaps the most famous design partnership in American history—even produced a full-page ad for Herman Miller that ran on the back cover of an issue of Arts & Architecture magazine



Nothing of theirs was more knocked off than The Eames Molded Plastic Chair (a.k.a. the "shell chair"), the first mass-produced plastic chair in the history of furniture.



Now, nearly 70 years later, the "Eames" chair you're sitting on may not be the real McCoy.



And much of that is because of an LA company called Modernica.



Modernica has been in business for over a quarter-century, and its founding came just 10 years after Eames and Herman Miller turned their backs on their original approach to making the plastic (a.k.a. "glass-fiber reinforced polyester resin") chairs.



And so, to some, Modernica might seem like a hero that's revitalized a lost art form (that is, of high-pressure fiberglass molding).



But the art form wasn't lost so much as it was abandoned—intentionally.



And that's not because either company went out of business. In fact, both are still going strong.



And it wasn't because the shell chairs were no longer popular, either (though it would be another 20 years before the mid-century modern craze would set in). People still love how they're molded to fit the contours of the human body—"a simple, gracious form that fits any body and every place."



No, production was shut down at Herman Miller of this particular type of chair—making its molds and preform equipment obsolete—because of environmental concerns.



And that gave Modernica the opportunity to not only buy and resell remnant stock, but also to acquire the hydraulic presses and machines that had been created specifically to produce the Eames chair—from the plastics men that created them—and start making shell chairs that, for all intents and purposes, seem like Eames chairs.



They should be identical—especially since they're made just like the Eames chairs were.



But there's a good reason why they're not sanctioned by the Eames Office, and it's clear the minute you walk into the "chair room" at Modernica's factory in Vernon, just south of Downtown LA.



Fibers of glass, which are responsible for the "snowflake" pattern of striations on those fiberglass chairs, are incredibly toxic to both the environment and the workers exposed to them.



In order to reduce its impact on the environment, Eames stopped Herman Miller from using the "vintage" process and adopted a new, more technologically advanced one—a less volatile, monomer-free, emission-free, “dry bind” process—that was more environmentally friendly (and recyclable).



But consumers complained that the finish was different. The Herman Miller chairs (and those sold by Vitra in Europe and the Middle East) no longer seemed like the real deal to modern-day furniture buyers—even though those were the ones that the Eames Office had officially licensed.



Disgruntled purists, however, aren't considering the fat that Charles Eames was never happy with the finish of his own chairs—and that these new versions are (at least, reportedly) closer to his original vision for both the side chair ("shell") and armchair ("bucket") versions.



And I'll bet nobody who prefers the Modernica version has inhaled the acrid, chemical-laden air inside the factory that uses that old process, with bits of fiberglass particulate matter swirling through the air, or seen the hazmat suits and gas masks that all the factory workers at Modernica have to wear.



I, however, have. And I could barely stand five minutes in there without getting a headache.

There's a certain modernist flair that's missing from Modernica's chairs, too. Rather than embracing the simplicity of the clean lines and the basic, flexible yet sturdy materials, the company has tagged the classic shell design with street art by the likes of Dabs Myla and Haruki Murakami.

If that's what you want, go for it. But it's not an Eames.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Eames House & Meadow
Keep Street Art on the Street