Like many, I spent my isolated Easter doing housework. Or rather work for the house, in particular repairing some furniture, Eames chairs to be precise. But the work came with a conundrum that four days of dis-assembly, repair, cleaning and tinkering time couldn’t resolve. So, I’m sharing it.

First, to the Eames. Charles and Ray (his second wife) are modernist design royalty. They designed houses, furniture and teaching aides like films, cards and toys.

I’ve been in love with their work, and moreover their thinking, since architecture school, so a pilgrimage to their house in Pacific Palisades was an essential start to my first visit to Los Angeles (with a copy of Reyner Banham’s LA: City of the Four Ecologies in the backpack).

Beautifully sited amongst Australian gum trees to one side of a meadow, the story of its final design is even more inspiring than the house itself. The Eames had originally intended the house, part of a series of creative designs called the ‘Case Study Houses’ for the magazine Arts + Architecture, to be cantilevered off a cliff.

Once the materials, all industrial components normally used for warehouses, had been delivered to the site Charles and Ray re-thought the entire project, asking themselves if a more efficient spatial arrangement could be achieved using exactly the same materials (plus one small girder). In the end they created a house with twice the volume, resting on the ground rather than the more dramatic original intention.

I’ve visited on a number of occasions, even celebrating a birthday there, as it is now open to the public. But an earlier visit was not so well-mannered.

A Kiwi mate of mine and I were keen to get our own photos of the Case Study houses. We had ventured down the Eames driveway to the gate and stood looking at the house across the field, about to intrude as we had on many other sites, as one did 35 years ago.

Just as we unlatched the gate a brown Rambler station wagon pulled up beside us, the window went down, and Ray looked out and said, “if you're gonna trespass, the least you can do is help with the groceries”. We knew Charles had passed away four years earlier, but Ray still lived there, as she had done for 34 years and would do so for five more. We followed the car up to the house, helped unload paper bags of groceries, whilst she indicated her annoyance with uninvited architectural tourists. We were given five minutes to look around the house, no photographs, thanked her and were on our way.

The simplicity of the ideas, and elegance of execution, inspire me to this day. They had attitude and humanism encapsulated in Charles saying: “the role of the designer is that of a very good, thoughtful host anticipating the needs of his guests”, an idea that pervaded all their work.

This was especially evident in their furniture designs made in the years after the second world war: office and home, dining and lounge, plywood and metal, lightweight but comfortable, fibreglass and leather: a dozen or more designs, with everything so well thought out.

The designs were licensed for manufacture, initially to Herman Miller and later Vitra, and are often regarded as the best designed mass-produced modern furniture. And the success was immediate, the first chairs were sold for just over $30 in 1949, and by 1966 over 2 million had been sold.

In the last 15 years increasingly their furniture designs, as well as others by Eileen Gray, Charlotte Perriand, Le Corbusier and Arne Jacobsen (among others), have been manufactured and sold as ‘replicas’. In huge showrooms, far larger than those with the genuine licensed article, chairs (and every other design) are less than half the price.

And it is these ‘knock-offs’ that I’m seeing more and more in the throw-outs on the footpaths.

As I wrote earlier this year in this column, our enforced time at home could be put to good use in re-cycling some of our unwanted furniture. I suggested that we needed a dedicated crew, which I christened the Condo Clutter Corps, to ensure that the goods were re-used, not just disposed of. One person’s excess could be another person’s valuables. As an old Aussie Steptoe had on his sign: ‘Junk bought, Antiques sold’.

Following my own advice, I’ve been collecting some of this wayside furniture. Some of it is golden, but increasingly amongst the DIY chipboard assembled furniture heaped on the pavements I’m finding knock offs; and I’m conflicted about them. Should the chucked-out replicas be repaired, or sent to the tip? Bringing the issue into sharp focus this Easter is the repairs that I have been making to Eames replicas.

I had rescued two sets of abandoned chairs, in separate piles, both outside offices. Four replica ‘Aluminium Series Office Pad’ chairs, and six DSW (dining side wood) chairs, both calling out to rescued, or at least investigated, before they ended up at the tip.

The frames of the pad chairs very closely resembled the original and were sound, but the upholstery in vinyl, rather than leather, was very tatty. The plastic tub chairs had many broken wooden legs, but the seats were very clean, hardly used. And there were some brand-new sets of replacement legs, not yet attached, in the jumbled pile on the foot path about to be heaved into a demolishers truck.

And this is where the Schrodinger's catch 22 conundrum, comes in. Do we abandon this material that infringed copyright and was arguably immorally profited from; or do we view that as unsustainable given that the material has already been made, the energy of manufacture already consumed. Is it not part of the 5R’s if it can be repaired, reused, repurposed, recycled or replace something inferior? It's a moral dilemma wrapped up inside the enigma of sustainability.

When teaching at the Canberra CAE I encountered a similar conundrum, posed in fascinating exam question from the materials conservation course. If you are asked to conserve an artwork, say a Robert Arneson, that had several Oreos (the chocolate cookie) in it, that had gone mouldy, what do you do? Leave it? Replace them with new Oreos? Carefully remove the mould and conserve the original Oreos in the artwork? The correct answer is at the end of this column**.

In contemplating whether to repair or reject the fake Eames I looked to how well they were made. The pad chairs needed new castors, but the shiny chrome frames (a dastardly chemical process) were excellent. The pads themselves have been detached (not as originally designed) and been sent off to my favourite bespoke upholsterer, working by himself in a small workshop, needing new projects in these COVIP times.

By the time the chairs are installed around my studio table I will have spent more money than I would in buying new ‘replicas’, but the money has gone to local suppliers and artisans, and the chairs will see out a good lifetime. And less chromium in the tip.

It was remarkable how poor were the legs of the DSW. The replacement legs, still in their plastic wrapping, were there because the original was both badly designed and terribly made. The original bolts and nuts had come loose, and one chair at least had obviously collapsed, possibly dangerously so.

It appears this was known by the makers, as they had supplied a better system of bolts and lock nuts to replace the original faulty ones, but even these were poorly manufactured and inadequately secured. I replaced the broken pieces with the new parts and bought better nuts and bolts so now the chairs are sturdy and serviceable. The new nuts and bolts cost as much as the list price of one chair, but I've decided to keep them as a start for a small theatre space as part of our studio.

Originals or knock-off replicas? My solution to the conundrum would say middle path.

The Eames intended their furniture for a wide market, the ‘every-home’ or ‘every-office’. But they’ve become expensive designer / collector pieces now, way beyond the price point of ordinary buyers. The owners of the licences appear to have fine profits, but it would seem most pieces could be well made for far less cost.

On the other hand, the replicas are poor, the design is subtlety, but essentially, changed (in order to escape IP rules about replicas), but moreover the manufacture quality is very poor (or another 4-letter word rhyming with chair sit).

Why can’t we have beautifully designed modernist furniture, well-made, at a price all could afford? Why can’t the licence owners see the original intention of design for all and gear their manufacture, at high quality standards, to a value price? If nothing else, it would stop the flood of crappy replicas that I spend my Easter repairing.

**The answer to the Canberra CAE conservation course conundrum was never disclosed to me, or to the students I suspect.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Comments can be posted here or addressed to [email protected].