Conserving Antique & Modern Furniture

     Recently, a Modern Charles (1907-1978) and Ray (1912-1988) Eames chair and an antique Thomas Sheraton (1751-1806) style chair were brought separately to The Conservation Center, for review. Both chairs are examples of influential furniture designs. We received some interesting background information from the collectors and an explanation from our associate furniture conservator, Michael Young about the various challenges faced when conserving 18th century versus mid-20th century furniture. 

     The owner purchased the Sheraton style chair as one of a set from a local antique shop. Attracted to its timeless elegance, the mahogany chair exhibits characteristics common to Sheraton’s original 18th century designs. The antique chair was examined and minor repairs were made and the upholstery was cleaned. 18th century furniture often faces more challenges than contemporary furniture because the materials used respond differently to changes in environmental conditions. In Chicago, the dramatic changes in temperature and humidity will cause natural materials such as wood to contract and expand, which can loosen original glue joints. Michael Young used natural materials and animal glue for a small cosmetic fix on the back of this chair. Conservators use water soluble products to produce a reversible repair. Nevertheless, furniture still requires ample strength for continued use, so in this case, the chair was treated appropriately to retain its structural integrity and remain durable enough to use.   

    The more modern Eames chair required a different approach, as the piece is constructed with inert industrial materials such as fiberglass and steel. Special research by our conservators was necessary to treat the manufactured chair. Michael Young visited an industrial supply company to acquire an exact fitting that was lost. A nickel-plated bolt was made rather than exactly replicating it with the original material, steel, to ensure adequate support and functionality. Although a different material was added to distinguish the new material from the original, the chair remains visually the same except to the eye of an expert.  

    In addition to the design and conservation process, this piece also carried a story from its current owner. The Eames chair was found by our client while on his way to a formal dinner party. “I spotted a large blue dumpster with a curved arch peeking from the side. Immediately thinking Eames and fiberglass, I climbed up the dumpster’s wall and there, askew with some garbage in its bowl and dangling from its wire legs I saw it, an Eames first generation fiberglass chair like the one I knew from MoMA’s design collection display.” His courageous dumpster dive not only resulted in a great story, but also a chair with a black decal reading Zenith Plastics, one of the first experimental productions of the company.

    History informs us that in the fall of 1949, Zenith Plastics received a phone call from Charles Eames requesting to meet with a company representative to discuss a possible application for fiberglass. Unknowingly, this meeting resulted in a design that would become the subject of books, museum prizes and awards for years to come. 

    The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Merchandise Mart in Chicago both held exhibitions titled “Good Design” the following year. The Eames fiberglass shell chair was recognized as a winning design. By the 1950s, Eames had come a long way from his reported dismissal from architecture school because his designs were deemed “too modern”. Following in the footsteps of Frank Lloyd Wright, Eames continued to make major contributions to modern architecture and furniture. 

    Eames believed that the primary condition for design was recognizing the overall need. His objective was simple: Americans wanted affordable, high quality furniture to use throughout their modern home. Eames was challenged with appropriate furniture materials and their flexibility. To comfortably support the human body, Eames chose to use three-dimensional shaped surfaces instead of cushioned upholstery. These design characteristics and techniques allowed industrial production to keep up with consumer demands.

    The stories behind the objects The Center restores can be fascinating and add to the overall history of the piece. Both chairs are great examples of the exciting and versatile projects completed at The Center. 

18th century Sheraton style chair, Before and After Treatment

Mid-Century Modern Eames chair, Before and After Treatment