Released in 1950–and still just as relevant today as it was nearly 65 years ago–the classic Eames Shell chair was the world’s first mass-produced plastic chair. While the original design has gone through countless iterations (an example of Charles and Ray’s ode to constantly refining details), the general gist of the original design still stands with us today. Herman Miller ceased production of the fiberglass-reinforced models in the 1990’s due to sustainability reasons, however the company went back in time recently for an Instagram campaign to show us just how Charles and Ray managed to produce ‘the world’s first mass-produced plastic chair’.
1. Colored resin is mixed in vats
By employing technology used mainly in the automotive and manufacturing industries to create non-cosmetic performance parts, Herman Miller’s new fiberglass resin boasts many environmental improvements. Monomer-free and processed without VOC (volatile organic compounds) or HAP (hazardous air pollutants) emissions, this resin eliminates the need for thermal oxidizers. Compared to current conventional fiberglass resin production and to the fiberglass resins used in the original chairs, the new monomer-free resin produces less ozone and air pollution and results in a safer work environment for employees.
2. Preforms are removed from the CNC machine and inspected
To create preforms for the new Shell Chairs, a “dry binder process” is used as opposed to the “wet process” used in conventional fiberglass production. In a “dry binder process”, fiberglass strands, some of which melt at a lower temperature, are blown by a CNC machine onto a screen in the shape of a shell; a vacuum ensures that loose particles are contained instead of being blown into the air and captured by the “wet glue”, like they are in conventional manufacturing. Heat is then applied and enough strands melt so that the preform’s shape remains. It is only at this point that human hands touch the preform, and all that’s needed to be done is an inspection of the preform on a light table and some trimming and scraping of the preform edges with a knife.
3. Resin is applied to preform
The fiberglass preform is set in a cradle. Workers weigh the resin to an exact amount on a scale, and then pour the resin over the fiberglass preform deftly coating and smoothing over the shell systematically with a tool by hand.
4. Resin-coated preform is placed in press
Once the resin has been evenly applied to the preform, the shell is moved on to the press, where a combination of heat and pressure are applied to the resin-coated preform. The press cuts along the contour of the chair to eliminate excess fiberglass prior to sanding.
5. Shell is inspected
Any excess preform that still clings to the chair after being cut by the press is manually removed, and the shell is taken out of the press and visually inspected and signed off on by the factory worker. The press is then cleaned after each use.
6. Shell edges are sanded
The edges of the shell are sanded manually and then finished with an electric sander. The chair is then wiped down and bagged. From here, it’s inspected one more time by a different factory worker who is searching for imperfections. After it passes inspection, it is sent to the Herman Miller Greenhouse facility.
7. Shockmounts are applied to the base of the shell
The base of every shell is systematically cleaned in order to adhere the shock mounts most effectively. Adhesive is applied to each shock mount by a machine, and a tray carrying the newly cleaned shell is set down on the shock mounts. The shock-mounted shells are set to cure on a pressurized drying rack for two days.
8. Shock mounts are torqued and tested
The shockmounted shells are taken off of the curing rack for testing and inspection. Each shock mount is manually torqued and if it passes muster, the shell is signed off on the factory floor.
9. Sewing to the hopsack pattern
Upholstery is cut from computerized “butter cutter” and then hand sewn into its appropriate patterns (either armchair or side chair format). The patterns are then sent to the chair cell.
10. Upholstery fitted onto chair
Foam padding is attached to the chair, over which the sewn and assembled upholstery is fitted and attached by the J-Channel (or edge trim). From there, it is ironed and placed in another press that applies heat and pressure.
11. Bases are attached to the shell
Each shell chair is labeled with a sticker specifying for a unique base. The bases are then selected and attached on each individual chair and secured by hand.
12. Boxing and shipment
Each fully assembled shell chair is wiped down, bagged, and packaged for shipment.
(Images via Herman Miller)