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How a Vintage Eames Chair Spurred My Very Own Mortal Reckoning

The Eames Lounge Chair & Ottoman is famous, expensive and beautiful. This story isn't really about that.

eames lounge
Henry Phillips

One of the great double-edged swords of pandemic life — early, middle and latter stages included — is the amount of time that needs filling. Over the past 18 months, I taught myself how to play the harmonica, tried to read Dune, made pasta from scratch and binged more Survivor seasons than I care to disclose. Mostly, though, I sat in a chair, staring at my phone, while existential dread cooked me from the inside. And though I found it all too easy to whine about the general and specific states of things, there was one specific thing that managed to escape my ire: the chair I was sitting in, an Eames Lounge Chair & Ottoman made and purchased in 1970.

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A version of this story first appeared in Gear Patrol Magazine. Subscribe today
I know the chair is that old because the manufacturer, Herman Miller (now MillerKnoll after the company acquired its equally iconic nemesis), keeps an incredible archive; plus, websites like Eames.com and MyEamesLoungeChairandOttoman.com exist and say so. Also, it once belonged to my grandfather.

I knew Charles Lathem, the son of a railroad blacksmith in Birmingham, Alabama, for the last 17 years of his life. My sister dubbed him Big Daddy, not in reference to the 1999 Adam Sandler film, but because he — like his father before him — was big. Before he lost a large percentage of his stomach fending off esophageal cancer, he was a 6-foot-3, 200-plus-pound grandpa with a gleaming bald head and bushy white beard. He was a hunter, a fisherman, a carpenter and really every other cliché of that kind of do-it-all masculinity. His skin was leathery and dark brown on account of his being outside so much. When I knew him, he was enamored with cowboy lore and had the full collection of leather-bound Louis L'Amour novellas to prove it.

I discovered the Eames lounger shortly after graduating college. It was hidden away in a studio above the garage at my grandparent's place, which is tucked away about a mile up a gravel round in Dawsonville, Georgia. It's not a big house, but the slow drive through the woods makes it feel important. I knew the provenance of the chair, or at least the basics — Charles and Ray Eames, mid-century modern, weirdly expensive nowadays. I did not, however, know why it was there. My grandparents' house was more rustic Southern chalet than anything. The Eames' slightly askew lounger, despite being one of the most famous pieces of furniture in the world, simply did not belong.

I'm somewhat ashamed to admit that stubbing my toe on an old leather chair triggered my own mortal reckoning. Asinine as it sounds, the chair served as a kind of link between then and now — proof that things happened before I gained sentience.

eames
The chair isn't in mint condition. It's riddled with scratches from a cat named Rat-Head and well-earned creases from decades of use.
Henry Phillips

In the years following my discovery of the chair, I got to know about the before. It's clear my grandparents did not fit the Alabaman caricature, a myth based on lazy thinking: my grandfather was a photographer, artist and architect; and my grandmother was a post-op nutritionist as well as the first woman in her family to earn a college degree. The pair met at Alabama Polytech (renamed to Auburn University while they were in school). Before they lived in the chalet in the woods (which my grandfather blueprinted himself), they lived in Vinings, Georgia, a hip Atlanta neighborhood that's very much a part of the city's creative milieu. I know now that their first house was modern and full of Eames pieces and other mid-century icons, like George Nelson's Bubble Lamps and Florence Knoll's tufted sofa. There were Cubist and Fauvist paintings on the walls and massive palm plants on the floor. If they weren't lost to time, grainy photos of their home would make for excellent Instagram fodder.

My grandfather was an intense person. As a kid, I'd watch him measure, remeasure, draw on and cut lumber for an hour in his basement woodshop without making a noise, and if I shuffled across the concrete floor too quickly or sneezed mid-cut, I'd start to sweat. His voice, gravelly and deep from cigar smoking and the toughening life events that come with growing up in harder circumstances, reverberated around the house like a football coach’s barking orders. As his lone grandson, I was very rarely in trouble, but as a kid, I found his intensity no less frightening. It's one of the reasons it took finding a dusty chair in his old painting studio above the garage for me to get to know him.

When I was in high school, my grandfather and I talked football. Especially in 2010, the year of Cam Newton and Auburn's undefeated run through the SEC (including a Saban-led Alabama with Julio Jones and Mark Ingram in their pomp). He became ill toward the end of the season. He lost weight and strength and eventually spent most days in a white and blue hospital bed parked by the windows overlooking the woods outside, which are beautiful that time of year. No one looks natural in that position, but him least of all — a commanding figure who I'd learned was more Hemingway than Marlboro Man. My dad and I had planned to go to Jordan-Hare to watch Auburn put their undefeated record on the line against Georgia, but we thought to cancel on account of his health. He and my grandmother asked — told us, really — to go. He passed away a day and a half after the game.

After I found the chair, I expressed interest in having it in. Years later, my grandmother had it freighted unceremoniously to my Brooklyn apartment; since most of my family's design sensibilities lean traditional, she was happy to get the thing out of the house and to someone who would appreciate it.

It's funny how some objects take on a life of their own. I never once saw my grandfather sit in the chair, though today, sitting catty-cornered in my office, it has come to represent him and help me understand the man he was. I endured much of the pandemic curled up in it, refreshing the AP news app, eyes glazed over. But eventually, that didn't seem right. That kind of submission to the moment would not do. Today, walking by the chair every day urges me to keep moving; or, at the very least, serves as a reminder to ring home.

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