Recognizing the need, Charles Eames said, is the primary condition for design. Early in their careers together, Charles and Ray identified the need for affordable, yet high-quality furniture for the average consumer—furniture that could serve a variety of uses. For forty years the Eameses experimented with ways to meet this challenge, designing flexibility into their compact storage units and collapsible sofas for the home; seating for stadiums, airports, and schools; and chairs for virtually anywhere. Their chairs were designed for Herman Miller in four materials—molded plywood, fiberglass-reinforced plastic, bent and welded wire mesh, and cast aluminum. The conceptual backbone of this diverse work was the search for seat and back forms that comfortably support the human body, using three dimensionally shaped surfaces or flexible materials instead of cushioned upholstery. An ethos of functionalism informed all of their furniture designs. “What works is better than what looks good,” Ray said. “The looks good can change, but what works, works.”
The Eameses’ molded-plywood chair was their first attempt to create a single shell that would be comfortable without padding and could be quickly mass-produced. Throughout the early 1940s, the Eameses and their colleagues experimented with this concept. Discovering that plywood did not withstand the stresses produced at the intersection of the chair’s seat and back, they abandoned the single-shell idea in favor of a two-piece chair with separate molded-plywood panels for the back and seat. The chairs—plus molded-plywood tables and wall screens—were unveiled to the public in 1946. Variations of these designs are still in production.
This device (below left) used molds and weights to stamp metal chair shells. The expensive metal-stamped chair was replaced by a low -cost fiberglass reinforced plastic chair.
La Chaise (above right) was created for the 1948 “International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design.” The name “La Chaise” was both a reference to sculptor Gaston Lachaise and a pun on his name. Vitra AG has produced the chair since 1990.
The Eameses’ 1946 molded-plywood chair (below left) of developed from the chairs Charles and Saarinen entered in The Museum of Modern Art’s 1940 “Organic Design” competition in which they took first place.
Plywood tends to splinter when bent into acute angles. To solve this problem, the Eameses and their colleagues cut slits and holes into these experimental chair shells (Above right.)
In 1943 the Plyformed Wood Company became the Molded Plywood Division of the Evans Products Company, whose activities were later taken over by Herman Miller.
The Eames Office fabricated two versions of the minimum chair (below left): one with a seat and back of sheet metal and another using metal mesh.
The Eameses’ fiberglass chair (above right) solved the problem of how to make a seat out of a single body-fitting shell. The progressive quality and moldability of plastic made it even more alluring to the Eameses than plywood or stamped metal. Fiberglass had been used during the war by Zenith Plastics to reinforce plastic on airplane radar domes. Working together, Zenith and the Eameses re-conceptualized the use of the material, creating one of the first one-piece plastic chairs with an exposed rather than an upholstered surface. Zenith began mass-producing fiberglass armchairs in 1950 for the Herman Miller Furniture Company (today Herman Miller, Inc.). The chairs have only recently gone out of production.
Inspired by trays, dress forms, baskets, and animal traps, the Eames Office investigated bent and welded wire mesh as the basis for furniture designs. The wire-mesh chair, like the fiberglass chair, was a uni-shell design. The shell could be adapted to various base configurations and upholstery types. Ingenious techniques were developed to mass-produce suitable upholstery, and special molds were created as forms over which to weld the wire shells. The office adapted a resistance-welding technique used for making drawers and developed an innovative method for reinforcing the shell’s rim with a double band of wire. The wire chairs are still in production.
During World War II, the Eameses and a group of inventive collaborators designed leg splints, aircraft parts, and stretchers made of molded plywood for the federal government and the local aviation industry. Shortly afterward, the Eameses used the expertise to create their first commercially produced, molded-plywood furniture.
Made by the Eames Office to demonstrate the durability of their molded-plywood chairs, the drum (below left) was displayed in the 1946 exhibition New Furniture Designed by Charles Eames at The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The office made this jig (above right) to determine the seat and back angles of the molded-plywood chairs.
The aluminum chair’s concept formed the basis of the office’s 1962 Eames Tandem Sling Seating (below left), an institutional multiple-seating system designed for Washington’s Dulles International Airport.
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Information about Eames furniture from Library of Congress