I found this Eames-designed Herman Miller chair (pic above) beside a trash heap on garbage night in Park Slope a few nights ago. I recognized it as an Eames/Herman Miller chair and was so excited that I picked it up over my head and ran it home while my girlfriend waited on the curb to go to see Isaac Hayes at the opening night of Celebrate Brooklyn Summer Stage.
When I got home after the show I went online to determine what model chair it was. I quickly discovered it is the Herman Miller - Eames Aluminum Group Management Chair, but it is missing its arms (blue chair at left). It clicked that the arms might have been in the sealed box sitting on the chair seat when I found it; the heavy one I'd so quickly tossed aside in my enthusiasm to claim the chair beneath. I ran back out the door at midnight and up the block, but the box was open and empty. Whatever was in it was worth taking. Without the arms, it pretty much looks like the Herman Miller - Eames Aluminum Group Side Chair (black chair on right) but with a tilt base.
Anyway, however exciting a find it seemed at first, as soon as I began looking it over, it because apparent that it would need new upholstery. The seat was torn in several places, but most worrisome was the nasty, foul-smelling dust that fell out of the seat and the spaces between the fabric and the aluminum seat/seatback rails whenever I tugged at it.
I've seen where people have found these chairs before and written in to ApartmentTherapy.com to ask for advice on DIY reupholstery, but all anyone ever seemed to be able to contribute is that they look fairly simple to reupholster, but no one had ever tried. So, since it was a curb find and I decided nothing could be lost by trying to do it myself. This blog is about that effort. I have never taken a class in technical writing and I feel certain any directions I wrote for the proper assembly of a PB&J sandwich would result in a mess. That said, I'm going to do this step by step and provide as many photos as I think to take at critical moments. I will share whatever discoveries I make that might make it easier for the next person to try this at home as I discover them. So, here we go.
I have never reupholstered anything but I figured the first step must be to just remove the old upholstery while keeping track of what went where so that I can later reverse the process. Easier said than done.
I began by removing the four hex bolts (3/16 hex key) at the top and bottom outside edges of the seat and seatback thinking they might somehow release the top and bottom corners and the upholstered seat/seatback sling. The hex bolts came out easily (except one that required a bunch of WD40). This accomplished nothing.
Puzzled, I turned the chair over and I looked at it more carefully to get a better sense of how it works. What I could make out is this: (a) basically, the seat/seatback is a single fabric unit (the "sling") suspended between the aluminum rails on either side (I will call these the "rails"), (b) the edges of the sling are embedded in a channel in the outside edge of the rails (at right), (c) the rails in turn are affixed to the outside edges of the pivoting platform atop the rolling base unit (the "base unit") by two hex screws on each side (again, at right - note that one screw is mising in this pic), (d) then a cross-brace (the "strut") bridges the upper part of the rails behind the seatback holding the rails at a fixed distance apart (pic below). In effect, the rails are held apart from one another at the base unit and the strut in such a way as to create an enormous amount of tension across the sling which prevents sag when you sit on it.
NOTE: the arms, had they been in attendance, would have been screwed into the rails as well by three philips head screws on each side.
The big mystery though is what holds the edges of the sling in the channels in the rails and how do you get it there and then onto the chair under such great tension.
ASKING THE EXPERTS
The day after I found the chair I called Herman Miller's customer service department to ask for advice. They told me that any reupholstery or parts questions would need to be handled by my local Herman Miller dealers. I was given the names of two official Herman Miller dealers in NYC [NAMES TO BE PROVIDED] and one independent upholsterer, Sol at [NAME?] who does custom work on these chairs. Figuring the independent guy would be cheaper, I called Sol.
Sol explained to me that there is nothing at all simple about reupholstering these chairs. He told me that, because of the tension required to make the seat/seatback sling supportive, a special jig is necessary to stretch the rails apart to get it all put back together. Sol told me that he charges upwards of $1000 to do one of these because they require an awful lot of labor and are a pain to do. He agreed that this is prohibitive in most cases since the cost for a brand new one in leather is only $1350. Finally, he noted that , although he does do these chairs, he prefers not to. When I asked him if he thought I would be able to accomplish the job myself, he indicated that it would not be possible. So, that isn't good.
Next, I called [OFFICIAL HM DEALER]. I spoke to a really nice woman who spent a long time on the phone with me explaining how the chairs are assembled at the factory and how the seat is so unique in that it is entirely suspended from the two side rails. She told me basically the same stuff that Sol had told me and she even acknowledged that she has sent clients to Sol on occasion and he knows of what he speaks. I tried to get her to say that maybe I could do it myself, but she just laughed a little and wished me luck. I told her I would give her a buzz if I succeed. Oh, and I asked her about a few screws and small cosmetic parts I need and she estimated the price at around $55. Maybe I'll get in touch with her if I manage to fix the sling myself.
I'm pretty pleased with my visualization skills I don’t mind saying. What I visualized doing was basically this: the sling is rolled around the top edges of the rails and then sunk into the channels at the outside edges of the rails, so all I needed to do was unroll the rails – a task which I understood was complicated by the near 90 degree curve in the rails where the seat transitions into seatback, but I could unroll one side at a time if necessary.
I hypothesized that there must be some sort of wide, flat boning or stiffener sewn into the edge of the sling where it fit into the channel - the idea being that, since the tension on the edges of the sling is pulling up around the rolled edge of the rail and not just out, this wide edge piece, by staying rigid, kept the edges from just slipping right out of the channel under tension. Once the sling was unrolled however from around the rails, the edges of the sling should slip straight out. As you will see below, I was not wrong, but it was more complicated than that.
STEP ONE: RELEASING THE TENSION
Obviously, I can't unroll it with the sling under tension so the first step was to remove the rails from the rolling base unit. I removed the three hex screws (3/16 hex key) from underneath that hold the rails to the base unit. (There should be four screws, but one of mine was already missing.) As soon as the last screw was out, the whole seat/seatback assembly popped right off the base.
Next I turned to getting the strut bar off the back. Apparently there are two different designs for the strut securement. Older models have small hex screws holding the strut in place.
Newer models merely have two steel pins punched into a pair of holes on either side – the pins go through the outer flange of the rail, through the strut and then through the inner flange of the rail.
I used a small philips head screw driver (wrong tool) and a hammer and whacked the pins deeper into theirs holes and out the other side. Keep in mind that, when you do this you're pushing the pins into the seatback fabric. In my case I didn't care about making holes in it, but someone else might. Once I'd banged all four pins out, the strut slid right out. I saved the pins for re-use later.
With the rails off the base and the strut out, the seat sling was no longer under tension. Sadly, in its new maleable state, it began dropping tons of nasty smelling dust all over the floor. I wasn't wearing a face mask and I suddenly wished it weren't raining so I could do it all outside.