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Charles & Ray Eames: A Unique Pair

Nov 15, 2018
Article by Claire Van Ryn

We’re all a little bit besotted with mid-century furniture at the moment, and Eames is the absolute pin-up for this decorated era. The sinuous lines, the sculptural shapes, the playful experimentation with materials and, importantly, design that still pulses with relevance many decades beyond its conception.

What if I were to tell you that the distinctive lines of Eames furniture as you know it were first used to splint the legs of bloodied US Navy servicemen during World War II?

Newlyweds Charles and Ray Eames had collaborated in heart as in practice, combining their creative skills and ideas from the days when they first met at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Ray’s interest began in painting (although she painted infrequently), while Charles’ was in architecture (although he dropped out of architecture school and never did get his license). In 1940, Charles collaborated with Eero Saarinen on a collection of wood furniture designs, winning them the Museum of Modern Art’s Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition. The designs included experimental plywood chairs, created as an affordable option for the home.

The experiments with molded ply continued when they moved to LA in 1941, peppered with many failures due to the complexities of shaping the industrial material for domestic use without the level of technology and machinery that we enjoy today. It wasn’t until they were contacted by the US Navy to design lightweight molded plywood leg splints for mass production to be used during the war effort (as well as stretchers and aircraft components) that things started to gel. The contract (with its accompanying perks of access to military technology and provisions) proved to be a springboard that enabled them to successfully create molded plywood items that were stable, functional and sculptural. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.

And the Eames leg splint (eBay examples of which carry pretty price tags) demonstrates those iconic fluid forms that became synonymous with all the Eames brand and couple’s future furniture designs.

The same plastic used for shock helmets during the war was engaged by the Eameses in their molded plastic chair designs also. In a Stepford Wives-esque interview with home show host Arlene Francis in 1956, the occasion for the release of the nowfamous leather and plywood lounge chair and ottoman, Charles explained the method behind their designs.

“In the case of the plastic chairs, the objective was to take a highperformance material developed during the war and try to make it available to householders at nonmilitary prices,” he said.

“The attitude in all of them is really the same. We’ve never designed with the idea of fitting into a fashion… or a market. The timing is more or less our own.”

The Eameses built their own masterpiece of a home using industrial materials and grand scale to great effect. The lion’s share of their design work, however, was based out of an old warehouse at 901 Washington boulevard in Venice Beach, California. This was their Aladdin’s Cave, the den of creativity that spat out toys, exhibition designs, photography, books, films – and furniture.

Westinghouse, Boeing, Polaroid and IBM are just to name a few of the companies that knocked on the door of the Eames studio seeking out their particular kind of design thinking to solve all manner of problems.

Charles and Ray invited play into their professional practice and the photos you see of their studio invoke a sense of wonder, of wanting to climb in and explore. Designers who once worked there describe it as a kind of Disneyland or circus. Such was play a part of their everyday work.

The couple are quoted as saying, “Toys are not really as innocent as they look. Toys and games are the prelude to serious ideas.”

And we all know that play is as much about interaction and connectedness as it is about enjoyment, which was at the heart of Charles and Ray’s foray into toy-making.

“Eventually everything connects – people, ideas, objects. The quality of the connections is the key to quality per se,” Charles once said.

Many credit the Eameses with shaping nearly every facet of American life for the four decades of their working practice. Of course, their legacy has continued and stretched far and wide, so that Eames is a household name, even here in Tassie. We all want a piece of Eames furniture or design in our home, don’t we?

Illustration by Isaac Cini

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