If one can anthropomorphize furniture, then the above photo of our early Eames Aluminum Group chair and ottoman expresses a completely dejected state. It may even be in the midst of desperate prayer. This was one of the first vintage pieces we bought when we got the house, and a craigslist find no less. At a few hundred dollars, it seemed like a steal – until it became almost immediately clear that the Flo-tilt mechanism no longer functioned. The chair would not return from a tilt. The nubby wool fabric was in good shape, and the coating on the arms had not even yellowed. The previous owner, while testifying that she had no idea it didn’t work (!), apparently never sat in it. I decided to get over the negative feelings of being deceived by the seller, and instead I would redeem the transaction and replace the Flo-tilt mechanism.
Our house was completed in 1958, the same year the Aluminum Group debuted. I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff. But also, the design is elegant and the group doesn’t seem to be as ubiquitous as other vintage modern pieces. Original examples are not terribly expensive in relative terms – and even the new reissues, now with a lovely four-star base and available in graphite finish, are reasonable in comparison to other lounge offerings from Herman Miller and Knoll. I should mention that later examples have a more reliable and modern torsion bar if one choses the tilting/headrest option.
The Flo-tilt mechanism – essentially a cylinder of rubber – was used in countless office chairs in the 50s and 60s. Initially, I tried to contact Past Present Future, which I won’t even link to because of a lack of responsiveness. They used to have lots of NOS flo-tilt parts, but no more. I found a donor base from Jeff at Mid Century on Park Blvd from what used to be a Eames DAT. The parts were frozen, so I used WD-40 to try to loosen them to no avail. After nearly giving up, I picked up some PB Blaster, and really soaked it. A machine shop removed the bolt that secures the whole apparatus free of charge. I slowly worked on the rest of the pieces until I finally extracted the cylinder.
Without much fuss (and a little hammering), out with the old, in with the new. Now we’ve got a functional chair. With the ottoman, it takes up quite a lot of space, even though it strikes a svelte profile for a lounge group. We’ll see if we can find a place for it. Its a deep red color – brighter than our other stuff. I’d say its more ergonomic than comfy – good for reading but perhaps not the chair that will invite many naps. If I were to hunt for a vintage example again, I would almost certainly opt for a non-tilt antler to avoid the problems with the original parts. However, with the older Flo-tilt design, at least you get the elegant aluminum antler, whereas the newer and more reliable torsion bar works great but appears less integrated with the overall design.