In many ways, humanity's ultimate creation is culture. It does not exist except in human minds, both those that are part of a given culture and those that observe it from the outside. Everything that humans do is done within a cultural context, and every innovation that we create flows back into culture, feeding its perpetual evolution. The needful questions of life, such as "where will we live?", "what will we eat?", "who is in charge?", and "what should I do?", are all answered culturally. When culture addresses the logistics of living, combining questions like "where will we sit/eat/sleep/etc.", with "what looks good?", we call it design. And when we look at the answers that other cultures in other places have found for these shared questions, we call it global design. But that can be misleading. In searching for global design we tend to look for two things: the exotic and the historical. Yet this criteria can cause us to overlook the fact that not all of history's most important moments happened centuries ago. And not all global design hails from thousands of miles away.
Design Geek: The World That Made The Iconic Eames Lounge Chair
Significantly closer to us in both space and time are the greatest innovators of twentieth century American design, the musically named Ray and Charles Eames. The guiding force behind the storied Eames Office, Charles and Ray certainly understood the deep connections between culture and design. The idea is embodied in two of Charles' most repeated mottos: "We don't make art, we solve problems (1)." and "Eventually, everything connects (2)." For more than forty years the Eames’ used design as a way to connect nearly every aspect of American life. Along the way they became everything from artists to architects, filmmakers, lecturers and more, leaving a legacy of innovation and creativity that is as inspiring in the 21st century as it was defining of the twentieth. And yet, the couple responsible for producing a myriad of furniture designs along with toys, a staggering number of exhibitions, lectures and over 88 films, is still most famously known for the sculptural chairs that continue to bear their name.
The Eames Era
The Eames era was a pivotal time, not only in American design but for the country as a whole. In 1940, when Ray, a student and Charles, a teacher, met at the Cranbrook Academy of Art near Detroit, the nation was just coming out of the Great Depression and only a few years away from entering World War II (3). Interestingly the project which would come to epitomize the couple's contribution to furniture design began before they had begun to work together.
Cranbrook Academy's 1940 Organic Design in Home Furnishings Competition
Cranbrook Academy's 1940 Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition inspired design team Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen to embark on a bold new idea. Inspired to combine a modernist aesthetic with the Industrial Age boon of mass production, the duo aspired to create a chair from a single piece of plywood that could be mass produced for the modern home. Even more importantly their chair wouldn't require cushions or upholstery, longstanding mainstays of upscale seating that were seen as both expensive and old (4). The experiment was ultimately a failure. While Charles and Eero succeeded in winning the contest, their entry, a splintering, cracked frame covered by upholstery was not the piece they had dreamed of and could not be mass produced. The fatal flaw was in the manufacturing, not the design. There was simply no process at that time for bending plywood into the shape needed for the chair to work. And, after a few more tries, Eero Saarinen scrapped the idea entirely. Charles and Ray, on the other hand, set out to create the process that they needed.
By 1941 the couple was married, living in California and continuing their efforts to mold plywood. Initially Ray worked as a graphic designer drawing cover art for California Art and Architecture Magazine while Charles worked in Hollywood (5). Though the Kazaam, a machine built by the Eames’ to bend plywood was unsuccessful in creating the curves needed to build the chair, the US Navy believed that their achievements in bending plywood could be of value to the war effort (ibid.). The contract that they were awarded called for the manufacturing of splints and stretchers as well as plywood props for airplanes (6). The splints must have held a special meaning for Charles who, using himself as a model, lost most of the hair on his legs to the process (7). Nevertheless, by conflict's end the Eames’ had created some 150,000 splints for injured sailors (8). And, seizing the opportunity for full time experimentation they finally perfected the science of bending plywood to the point that they could apply it to the art of making furniture.
The Final Product
The first generation of Eames chairs began rolling off the production lines in 1946 (9). Creating the final product meant abandoning the original ideal of forming the entire chair from a single piece of plywood. Structurally unsound and exorbitantly expensive, the one-piece idea gave way to a subtle fastening of multiple pieces that nevertheless evoked the feeling of a chair perfectly molded from a single piece of wood (10). In the same year they formed a partnership with Herman Miller, applying their molded plywood technique to folding screens and other household accessories (11).
The Master Work
After ten years of work during which they pioneered innovations in both the use of molded plastic and wire mesh frames for seating, the Eames’ returned to their roots, unveiling what would long be considered their master work: a new version of their already legendary chair. This new incarnation of the molded plywood seat would be a lounge chair, one with an accompanying ottoman to complete both the aesthetic and the feel (ibid.). And, like all Eames productions, the story behind its creation is nearly as famous as the chair itself.
For years the Eames’ had been friends with Billy Wilder. A Hollywood icon, Wilder was considered one of the best directors of the 30s, 40s and 50s (12). Charles Eames said of their friendship that he learned much about architecture and the quest for structure from watching Wilder direct (13). While visiting one of his sets, the Eames’ noticed that between the flurry of action that was each take, Wilder would set up for himself a series of ad hoc lounge chairs where he could find a momentary respite from the chaos that was much of his day. Inspired by this microcosm of a man seeking refuge from the maelstrom that is modern life (and perhaps feeling that a friend who was also a renowned filmmaker deserved a better place to sit) Ray and Charles endeavored to create their own miniature oasis in the form of a chair. The smooth curves of the molded plywood would give the chair a natural feel while combining with the soft leather to imbue the piece with, "the feel, emotion and aesthetic [of] a well-used baseball mitt (14).”
The Chair's Debut
Debuting in 1956, the chair along with its creators appeared on the Home show with early television legend Arlene Francis (15, see video here). While the episode is known for catapulting the Eames’ already famous name beyond the industry and into the lexicons of American households, it is interesting for the ways in which it highlights how a different era of American culture handled the partnership of a husband-and-wife design team. To his credit Charles never failed to give Ray equal credit for their work. Nevertheless, Ray was often known by the public as the woman behind the talented man (16). Yet, by the time Ray passed away in 1988, ten years after her husband, the country had changed immensely and her role as her husband’s collaborator and partner had begun to be seen more clearly by the public at large.
A full accounting of the Eames' accomplishments is sadly beyond the scope of these articles. Similarly the full impact of their contributions to American culture in the early 20th century would be impossible to quantify. Nevertheless, the boundless creativity and definitively modern aesthetic of the couple whose vision of design reached beyond the showroom floor to reach American classrooms, game rooms, museums, lecture halls and television screens doubtlessly reached across national boundaries influencing the ways in which American culture was viewed even as they affected the ways in which Americans saw themselves. Today as the many different chairs that they created continue to be produced, copied and used to inspire new innovations and designs, they invite us to recall, when next we find ourselves searching for the best design the world has to offer, that where we are is global too.