Treasure: Iconic mid-century chair classic, valuable
Designer Charles Eames once explained the goal for his now-iconic lounge chair he designed with his wife, Ray, in unusual terms, saying that he wanted it to have the “warm, receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt,” according to the website maintained by its manufacturer, Herman Miller (hermanmiller.com).
“The Eameses’ modern take on a nineteenth century club chair has not only endured for more than 50 years, it has become one of the most significant furniture designs of the twentieth century—instantly recognizable and enduringly fresh,” the site continues.
Doris Miller acquired a later version of the lounge chairs and matching ottoman — officially known as the #670 and #671 — in the late 1980s from the vice president of the office furniture company R.P. Lewis, where she worked. Hers is made of leather and rosewood. “I bought it from him, and he bought it directly from Herman Miller,” she told Thomczek. “They were our biggest supplier.”
“They no longer manufacturer these chairs with rosewood because of the endangered rainforest from which the wood came from, making the chair rare and more valuable,” she wrote in the email to the column. “The list price of the chair and ottoman at that time was $4,500. This chair was made famous because it appeared on the television show Frasier.”
Appraiser Brian Thomczek agreed that the chair is indeed famous, but not necessarily just because it appeared on a television show. “This has long been a very popular style and it’s still made,” he told the Millers. Originally made of leather and molded plywood with a rosewood veneer, the rosewood was discontinued in the 1990s. Today’s models use walnut, ebony, cherry and Palisander, a sustainable type of rosewood. “A new one retails for about $5,000 now. ... These types of chairs plateaued about 2012. Although they’re still very big in Chicago and Los Angeles.”
The appraiser valued the Millers’ chair between $2,000 and $3,000 at auction, partially because of its condition. “There are some issues, including some staining, and some chips on the wood,” he pointed out. “With items like this, and truly with antiques in general, condition is everything,” he told her.
Despite this, he said that the unusual wood in the Millers’ chair might drive up the price a bit, adding that they may consider selling it at an out-of-state auction house such as Wright in Chicago or Rago Arts in New Jersey, both known for selling mid-century icons and arts and crafts. Examples of the chair are in the permanent collections of museums around the world, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and, closer to home, the Henry Ford.
Thomczek agreed that the Millers’ leather color is also unusual, pointing out that they commonly came in tan or black. He also said that it’s better to leave any cleaning or repairs to qualified professionals. “We called the company, who said that it was better to not try to do anything to it,” Doris told Thomczek. “They said the best thing to do was just leave it alone and maybe use a mild cleaner.”
The Millers like the chair, but are considering selling it. They pointed out to the appraiser that while it’s considered iconic among fans of mid-century modern design, it has another desirable feature. Leather baseball glove or not, “it’s definitely really, really comfortable,” according to Doris.
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About this item
Item: Eames/Herman Miller Lounge Chair and Ottoman
Owned by: Doris and Allen Miller
Appraised by: Brian Thomczek
Estimated value: $2,000-$3,000 at auction