On Knowing The Price Of Everything And The Value Of Nothing, Updated


screen shot, Fast Company and Renest

Five years ago, when I was particularly upset about comments regarding the cost of a British product, I quoted Oscar Wilde's complaint, suggesting that the commenters knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Reading the comments on Suzanne LaBarre's Fast Company post about Vitra's production of the classic Eames Lounge, on our reposting of it, and Cambria Bold's post Re-Nest On... Expensive Green Furniture and Angry People, I think it is time to revisit the issue. There are in fact two questions to address:

1) Why is the Eames Lounge so expensive?
2) Is this expensive furniture we all show really green?
The discussion started with an appalling comment on Re-nest, the most civil part being "Get off my planet and take your high-priced stupid furniture with you. Mother Earth has no need of you or your crap."

It continued on TreeHugger:

This goes against most of the work the Eames family did. They designed for the masses not for some company to take over the rights to their work and charge ludicrously excessive amounts for a chair design to last and be easy to make.. I'm pretty surprised TreeHugger missed that.

That is not in fact true, Herman Miller has been making the thing since it was designed, working with Charles and Ray Eames.

On Fast Company:

It's very unfortunate that the Eames intentions of good design with economics in mind has been lost through the years elitism and design snobs. Still one of my favorite Eames pieces.

Not seeing anything in a video full of power tools that justifies the ridiculous asking price. There are some very good copies out there at a fraction of the cost.

It is a shame that Charles and Ray's designs are now priced out reach for most people. I'm sure their intent was good design for the masses not for just the privileged few, good design should be democratic it should be for everyone no matter what standing you have in society. It should be affordable and not elitist.

In fact, not everything that the Eames's designed was "good design for the masses" and built with economics in mind; this chair was always expensive. In the 1957 catalogue it lists for $ 540; using an inflation calculator, that currently represents $ 4,308, just a little cheaper than the $ 4,499 that the chair lists for at Herman Miller in walnut veneer.

As for the $ 9,000 price quoted in Fast Company, one cannot convert a European price in Euros to dollars and complain when the dollar is in the toilet; in five years it has dropped significantly.


image credit the Economist

Then there is Purchasing Power Parity; things cost more in Europe. The Economist's Big Mac index suggests that the Euro is 20% over valued. Combine the two and that $ 9,000 chair is really only about $ 6500, more than the American price but not that far out of line.

But that still is a lot of money.

Yes, and as one commenter said, " There are some very good copies out there at a fraction of the cost." But they do not pay royalties to the Eames Foundation, nor do they stick to the standards set by the designers' estate. They knock it off.


What goes into an original Eames Chair. Image credit Herman Miller

Nor do they care about using sustainably harvested woods and maximizing recycled content. The fact of the matter is, it costs a lot of money to make this thing well. If you look at my slideshow or the Vitra video at Fast Company, you see talented craftspeople working carefully. So many of the designs that we show are made by craftspeople using sustainably sourced materials, made in short production runs. They are going to be expensive, but that doesn't mean you can't call it green.

Back at ReNest, Cambria Bold summarized many of the attributes that we all admire in this stuff:

We continue to believe that great, green design should:

  • be beautiful, durable, and innovative.
  • be against throwawayism.
  • be able to improve your life and the planet without sacrificing style and comfort.
  • encourage thoughtful, careful purchasing.
  • celebrate both thrift AND aspiration.

That last point is really key: the designers and companies that are shaping our future are worth knowing about, even if their products are currently out of our price range. Our hope is that one day, they won't be--hopefully one day, their ideas, design philosophies, and production and manufacturing processes will have become standard practice, and thus more accessible.

Furniture used to be aspirational; one used your grandma's sofa until you could afford your own. Now it is cheaper to buy one at IKEA than it is to hire a mover to bring you your grandma's sofa. Also, in a lot of ways, IKEA has hurt the market for aspirational furniture because their stuff looks so good; cheap furniture used to inevitably be ugly furniture and with IKEA, it isn't. They have changed the entire marketplace.

The Changing Marketplace

I believe that the marketplace is going to change again. I have been looking for a decent dining room chair for over twenty years, and have never found one I like to go with my mid-century modern former boardroom table.


Image credit Lloyd Alter

Two years ago at ICFF I finally found a chair that I thought would work, designed by D E Sellers in Brooklyn. It is a downloadable design, that can be sent electronically and cut out with a CNC Router or shopbot anywhere in the world. Instead of a flatpack design from an unknown Swede cut out in China and purchased in a suburban big box store, I am going to talk directly to the designer, cut it out in downtown Toronto, take it home by subway and streetcar (unless I can borrow a bike trailer) and assemble it.

Just because I can't afford a classic doesn't mean I want to drown the writer who shows it on their site. I can still support a designer I admire, know the provenance of the wood my chair is made of, leave most of my money in the hands of a local craftsman cutting out the pieces, and still have something different and special.

I said it five years ago and I say it again: you get what you pay for. I can't afford an Eames lounge, but that doesn't mean I can't admire it or want it or aspire to it. Not everything has to be cheap.

More on the classics:
Watch Herman Miller Build an Eames Lounge Chair (Slideshow) : TreeHugger

Tags: Downloadable Design