The designers who worked at Charles and Ray Eames’s office in Venice, California, called the place simply “901.” It was the address of the husband-and-wife team’s brick-walled workshop, 901 Washington Boulevard, the origin point for many groundbreaking furniture designs in the mid-20th century. However, the place where many of those concepts came to life—and still do—is 2,000 miles away, a small town in western Michigan called Zeeland.
Located 10 miles from the shores of Lake Michigan, Zeeland looks less like a modernist hot spot than a classic Main Street, USA, with two-story brick buildings lining quiet downtown streets. The town has roughly 5,500 residents, many of whom are involved with the furniture industry, whether they’re sourcing lumber, treating leather, or assembling and shipping finished pieces. Any design lover who hears the name Zeeland immediately thinks of Herman Miller, the furniture manufacturer founded nearly a century ago and made legendary largely through its collaborations with the Eameses, among a handful of other famous designers. From Herman Miller’s four West Michigan facilities come a celebrated array of midcentury modern designs—the wide, low-slung bent plywood chair; the colorful molded fiberglass seat; and, of course, the Eames lounge chair and ottoman.
While the curves of those pieces look organic, suited to fit the human form, the process of making them is industrial and became possible only through some of the technological advancements of the World War II era. In the early 1940s, the couple’s early experiments in pressing and bending plywood led them to create better field splints for injured soldiers. When the war ended, they took what they had learned back to chair design and began producing genuinely timeless American furniture. The lounge chair, in particular, with its generous proportions and softly gathered leather, has come to represent a declaration of comfort and permanence—a luxury item, yes, but also a symbol of commitment to what we now call “heirloom design,” pieces made to last for generations.
Modernism junkies make pilgrimages to seek out original pieces in local antique stores and to spot them at sites around town.
Many of their prior chairs had been made and priced to be accessible to all—what Charles Eames famously encapsulated as “the best for the most for the least”—but the lounge chair was their first “aspirational” product. It was also an answer to the perception that modern design was cold and hard. They wanted the luxurious leather upholstery to have “the warm, receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt,” Charles said: Time and wear should only deepen the owner’s love for the chair.
The couple’s influence can be found in houses around Zeeland and neighboring cities, such as Grand Rapids, and in many public spaces. Modernism junkies make pilgrimages to seek out original pieces in local antique stores and to spot them at sites around town. Travelers will find Eames seating in the Grand Rapids airport, Herman Miller benches at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, and classic molded plastic chairs at Ferris Coffee and Nut. “Here in West Michigan, my favorite thing is that people have just grown up with this stuff,” says Amy Auscherman, Herman Miller’s corporate archivist. “You saw [Herman Miller furniture] in your bakery or barber shop, and your parents had it because it was locally available or they worked for the company. You’ll see it in people’s homes where they might have an Eames lounge chair next to a coffee table with a doily on it. [The furniture] is not fancy to people here, it just is.”
Herman Miller employees—of whom there are thousands in West Michigan—receive Eames chairs as gifts when they welcome a new baby or as a retirement gift, if they’ve clocked 25 years or more at the company. Each lounge chair begins as a set of shells made by a local producer, Davidson Plyforms, that specializes in molding plywood. The shell is then transferred to second location, where dozens of workers assemble the chair by hand. Ever since the chair was first produced in the 1950s, the cushions have been tufted by hand with a massive needle, pulling thick thread through the buttons to pucker the leather, then smoothing the creases with a palm. The final green light comes from an inspector who plunks down into the seat and rocks three times to test the tension and give of the various joints.
Technology has made production more efficient. A machine now scans each hide and maps the cushion patterns onto it to maximize the usable leather. Engineers use computers to measure and cut wood for the shells. Herman Miller has also evolved environmentally. The chairs used to be made from Brazilian rosewood, but as the company became more aware of the perils of rain-forest logging, it began to use more sustainable woods grown primarily in the American Midwest and South, such as cherry, ash, walnut, white oak, maple, and beech, each of which possesses a distinct grain and hue. “More often than not, the shells are not stained,” says Ty Coon, the toolroom manager at Davidson Plyforms. “We are doing a clear coat, and the wood itself has its own little fingerprint.”
Some chair owners keep their prized pieces pristine, of course, but others celebrate how much use their chairs get. Recently, when a custom denim company ordered Eames lounge chairs for its showroom, the company requested the lightest possible leather for the upholstery, so that the dye from its unwashed denim would imprint on the chairs as people sat in them. When they’re all marked up from the interaction of the denim and leather, something completely unique will have been created, chairs that are worn but priceless. Not unlike that old baseball mitt. “If you offer any baseball player a new mitt in exchange for his old one,” Coon says, “chances are it’ll never happen.”