Charles and Ray Eames originally designed their lounge chair and ottoman (model numbers 670 and 671) in 1956 as a gift to film director Billy Wilder (of Some Like It Hot and Sunset Boulevard fame). The desire was to make a chair for their friend that evoked “a well-used baseball mitt”. Sixty-six years after it was put into general production by Herman Miller with a retail price of $310 it has become the iconic Mid-century chair.
The 670 and 671 remain in production today by Herman Miller (in the US) and Vitra (Europe and the Middle East) with a price tag of around $8000 (£6000) and is copied by many other makers. But for those who prefer something a little more ‘lived in’, numerous examples appear for sale on the secondary market.
Assuming that the chair is not one of many replicas, determining when in the past seven decades a genuine Miller/Vitra 670 lounge chair was made is not an exact science. It’s probably telling that most auction houses seldom commit to dating them.
However, there are some useful general rules to remember if owning a vintage chair is a prerequisite.
Labels stating if the chair was made by Herman Miller or Vitra are the best place to start. The circular disc label was used by Hermann Miller from 1956 to the 1970s. A black horizontal label followed in 1970s, while a silver label was used from the 1990s.
Specialists will also point to more technical details that range from the relatively straightforward (the type of wood veneers or the upholstery) to smaller tell-tale construction details (the type of clips pinning the cushions to the shell or the number of screws used to secure armrests, etc).
A simple line can be drawn between those chairs made with Brazilian rosewood veneers (before the species was protected in the early 1990s) and those subsequently made in palisander or walnut. Rosewood examples should correctly be sold with a CITES Article 10 certificate.
Equally, while early production chairs were made with duck down upholstery (and those from the 1960s mix feathers and foam), chairs made after c.1970 were typically produced with man-made fillings.
Another key price determinant is condition. Most have some damage (expect some edge wear) but leather in good vintage condition is certainly a bonus. As to colour, it is typically a matter of taste. Chairs in white, brown or grey upholstery are certainly harder to find, but for most collectors it is case of ‘any colour as long as it’s black’.
Pictured here is a selection of recently sold examples of the Eames lounge chair and ottoman, including the best of four examples sold to different internet buyers for hammer prices between £1500 and £5000 at Chiswick Auctions on January 27.