Charles and Ray Eames introduced their revolutionary design in 1948 with UCLA as part of MoMA's international competition for low-cost furniture design. Two years later, in 1950, Herman Miller began the first batch of production for the Molded Plastic Chair, in three zinc-plated or black steel bases: the rocker, the cat's cradle, and the cross-rod X base.
Due to growing environmental concerns over the use of fiberglass, the Michigan-based company ceased production of the chairs in 1989. In the June 2008 Letters to the Editors section, the Eameses' nephew Eames Demetrios explained the ensuing decision to start manufacturing the iconic shell chair in recyclable polypropylene: "By the end of her life, Ray Eames was convinced of the environmental damage caused by fiberglass in landfills. It was this factor that lead us (and Herman Miller and Vitra, who make our authentic Eames chairs) to stop using fiberglass and use the recyclable plastic we use today."
As of 2013, Herman Miller, which holds the original molds used to fabricate the Eames shell chair, introduced its new eco-friendlier fiberglass substitute: "Through the development of a more sustainable fiberglass material chemistry, and with a new manufacturing process first developed in the automotive industry to eliminate volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs) in production, Herman Miller is able to once again offer a design icon in the lightly textured surface of fiberglass, while honoring its commitment to environmental sustainability."
Now, the modern icon lives on in a way that its environmentally-minded designer wouldn't hate. (The price tag? We couldn't call it "low cost," though certainly not as costly as other now-collectible midcentury antiques.)
For more on the design history of the Eames Molded Plastic Chair for Herman Miller, delve into Dwell's feature on the real cost of knock-offs, and watch a behind-the-scenes video on how to make a shell chair.