Elegant feel, reasonable price in wooden chairs
- The San Francisco Chronicle, 08/23/2009

In a time of technological overload and economic crises, design has returned to its roots. Wood, honest and unadorned, is everywhere - from tree stump side tables sold by major retailers such as West Elm to chairs so sublimely unprocessed you feel that you could get a splinter by sitting on them.

Our historical circumstances may be unprecedented, but this back-to-basics aesthetic is a case of history repeating itself. Back in 1946, Herman Miller began selling molded plywood chairs by the husband-and-wife design team Charles and Ray Eames. The couple invented a heat-and-pressure technology to bend wood, allowing the seat a subtle curve that elegantly and comfortably accommodates the sitter's body.

The chairs quickly became icons: In 1999, Time magazine hailed them as the best design of the 20th century - "much copied but never bettered," it stated, praising their lightness, grace and simplicity.

The chair is now sold at Design Within Reach for $679 to $1,995 (other retailers are listed on the Herman Miller Web site at www.hermanmiller.com).

But for those who feel the price is, ahem, steep, there's an option at the low end of the curve. Last fall, West Elm introduced its oval back dining chair, whose handsome wooden build and upward-curling seat take a cue from the Eames original.

But the chair, which retails for $159 through the West Elm catalog and Web site (www.westelm.com), isn't just another knockoff: The hardwood back rest is slimmer and higher up; the legs, which are made of rubberwood - a fast-growing South American tree species - have a straighter line. The three color options - white, chocolate and tawny acorn - will blend nicely with most color palettes.

The West Elm alternative may not be a midcentury design. But its clean lines and natural materials certainly feel back in vogue.

Eames chair

West Elm oval back dining chair

Eames chair $679

West Elm oval back dining chair $159