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O’Hare Eames Chair

When I think of the famed designer couple Charles and Ray Eames, what first comes to mind are their iconic lounge chair and ottoman, pictured below.

Two such chairs and the ottoman graced the house we moved into when I was ten, and are there still, decades later. I was unaware of the Eames at the time. (I’ll confess, once I learned of them, I imagined they were brothers. It hadn’t occurred to me that Ray was a woman and that they were, in fact, a married couple.)

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal page one feature article, Daniel Michaels reported from the Passenger Terminal Expo 2010 in Brussels on the latest in terminal seating. Pictured inside the paper were some newer options, but I was stunned when I saw on page one the drawing at right of that most familiar of all terminal seats, with the caption, “The Eames seat.”

I had no idea. Is there a chair that has been sat in by more people in history than this one? Probably not. And it’s yet another Eames chair.

It turns out, as everyone in the trade must know, that the Eames designed this chair for the opening of the expanded O’Hare Airport in 1962 (at which point O’Hare became the principal Chicago airport and Midway was relegated to minor status). The chair is still available. At the Herman Miller website, it is called Eames Tandem Sling Seating and given the following description:

Eames tandem sling seating serves millions of travelers every day and does it comfortably and reliably.

Designed for O’Hare International Airport in 1962, the sleek, contemporary design remains in style for all kinds of public transportation stations. Around the world, people find it a comfortable, inviting place to wait. And terminal operators appreciate its space-saving flexibility, durability, and easy maintenance.

I’ve never been a fan of the Eames tandem. It looks inviting enough, and I suppose it’s comfortable enough, but not when I’m about to sit on an airplane. I’ve had enough back problems over the years that the last thing I want to do before being locked into a plane seat for hours is lie way back in a chair with minimal lower back support. Often, when confronted with the tandem, I have chosen to stand, or walk around. I eventually succumb and take a seat, but after a few minutes I force myself to get up again, more out of fear of what the position I’m in might to do to me than any actual discomfort.

Eames. I still can’t get over it.

I can’t write about the Eames without mentioning my favorite of all their work, their mathematics museum exhibit. I first saw it in 1966, at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. I had always assumed it originated there, but yesterday I learned (here) that it was initially commissioned in 1961 by IBM for the new Science Wing at the California Museum of Science and Industry (now the California Science Center) in Los Angeles. A duplicate opened later that year in Chicago. The Museum of Science and Industry considers its opening sufficiently important that it is listed as one of the highlights in the museum’s history, the only highlight between 1956 and 1971.

The California Science Center re-mounted the exhibit temporarily in the summer of 2002, as explained at the time in a press release, which notes that “the exhibition . . . won the hearts of several generations of teachers and students during its tenure at the California Science Center (formerly California Museum of Science and Industry) from 1961-1997.” The New York Hall of Science installed a permanent version in 2004, and a case study of the mounting of this exhibition is provided here, along with photos. Below is one of the photos, depicting the famous history chart.

If you have a chance to see the exhibit, please do.

I’ll conclude with one more Eames production, the powers of ten documentary from 1968, which you can watch below.

Next time you’re in New York, after visiting the Hall of Science, head to the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History and see Scales of the Universe, a wonderful exhibit that shares the theme of depicting relative scales from the sub-atomic to the extra-galactic. And next time I find myself waiting for a plane in an Eames tandem, I’ll be thinking about those scales.

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Categories: Design, Math
  1. ramcduff
    May 20, 2010 at 12:01 PM

    So, since you are a mathematician, can you tell me the odds that I would have just purchased the out-of-print book “The Powers of Ten” and be reading/looking at it on our patio at the same time Leslie opened your blog and was viewing the video of the same material. It struck both of us as one of those wonderful – but fairly improbable – coincidences (particularly given the age of the material). I had remembered the book and bought it for a friend whose birthday is on 10/10 and his 30th birthday party begins at 10:10 am on 10/10/10. Seemed like a good present…

    • Ron
      May 24, 2010 at 11:11 AM

      Wonderful coincidence indeed! For the odds, I’d probably need one of those big powers of ten, like the length of the Milky Way.

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