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How Charles and Ray Eames Made Artful Design from Industrial Materials

by Don Schmaltz, Senior Specialist, Modern Design


The creative partnership of Charles and Ray Eames was one of the most innovative and influential in the world of mid-century American design. With many now readily recognizable, and often copied, lines of furniture, pieces by the Eameses retain their cutting-edge appeal while presenting an accessible entry point for modern collectors at any level.

Ray and Charles Eames

Charles Eames (left) and Ray Eames (right), circa 1940s. Courtesy of Eames Office, LLC

Overview

 

In our Art & Design auction on September 15, 2019, Toomey & Co. Auctioneers will offer a wide selection of American post-war designed objects, including several items by Charles and Ray Eames reflecting their innovative use of molded plywood and other materials that were previously thought of solely as elements of industrial design.

Repurposing Plywood and Other Materials

 

The upcoming sale features a rare example of an Eames FSW-6 folding half screen, which was designed in 1952 and only produced for two years. The Eameses worked with Evans Products in Venice, California to produce this and many other molded plywood products, fully utilizing various technologies and materials that had been developed for World War II.

Charles Eames (1907–1978) & Ray Eames (1912–1988) for Herman Miller
FSW-6 half screen
Zeeland, Michigan, circa 1952
ash plywood, canvas
unmarked
produced for only two years (1952-1954)
58 1/2″w x 2 1/4″d × 33″h
Toomey & Co. Auctioneers
Art & Design
Sale 120 Lot 585
September 15, 2019
Estimate $3,000-5,000
Sold for $2,500

During the war, the Eames duo designed leg splints, aircraft parts, and stretchers made of molded plywood for the federal government and the aviation industry. Shortly afterward, the Eameses used this expertise to create their first commercially produced, molded-plywood furniture. Experiments with molded plywood led to the development of chairs from industrial molded plywood and fiberglass with various modular bases that emulated modern architectural structures.

Eames leg splints made from wood, 1943. Courtesy of Eames Office, LLC

Eames chairs were designed for Herman Miller in four materials: molded plywood, bent and welded wire mesh, fiberglass-reinforced plastic, and cast aluminum. The concept behind this diverse work was to search for seat and back forms that comfortably support the human body, using three-dimensionally shaped surfaces or flexible materials instead of cushioned upholstery, all while keeping costs as reasonable as possible.

670 Lounge Chair and 671 Ottoman

 

One of the most iconic pairings in mid-century American design, the Eames 670 lounge chair and 671 ottoman designed for Herman Miller in 1956, is easily incorporated into any interior, domestic or professional.

Known for its comfort and beauty, the 670 is an example of artful hand-craftsmanship combined with industrial components, blending the best of both worlds. The 670 lounge chair with 671 ottoman was originally developed as an experimental chair design for the famed 1940 Museum of Modern Art Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition. The chair’s molded plywood material brought together the warmth and familiarity of wood with an innovative industrial processes.

Charles Eames (1907–1978) & Ray Eames (1912–1988) for Herman Miller
670 / 671 lounge chair and ottoman
Zeeland, Michigan, 1960s
rosewood, leather, aluminum, rubber
label to chair
chair: 33”w x 36”d x 32 1/2”h; ottoman: 26 1/2”w x 22”d x 18″h
Toomey & Co. Auctioneers
Art & Design
Sale 120 Lot 595
September 15, 2019
Estimate $2,500-3,500
Sold for $3,770

Case Study House No. 8

 

Built in 1947, the Eames Case Study House No. 8 was constructed of pre-fabricated steel parts located upon a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the residence is considered one of the most important sites of modern architecture. The Eames House was part of a case study of 25 homes built and furnished using materials and techniques derived from World War II.

Case Study House No. 8: The Eames House, Pacific Palisades, California. Courtesy of Eames Office, LLC

Furniture Design Imitates Architecture

 

The influence of architectural design is unmistakable in Charles and Ray Eames’ early ESU unit, their use of lightweight Eiffel, Cat’s Cradle, and LTR base supports, and in the distinctive undulation of the molded Eames screen. In particular, ESU storage units were constructed of plastic-coated plywood, lacquered masonite, and chrome-plated steel framing. The cabinets represent an effort to produce economical furniture using industrial production techniques. Designed with standardized parts that are interchangeable and stackable, Eames ESU cabinets are intended to be adaptable for many uses and completely knock-down for shipping purposes.

Charles Eames (1907–1978) & Ray Eames (1912–1988) for Herman Miller
ESU 200
Zeeland, Michigan, 1950s
zinc-plated steel, birch plywood, laminate
unmarked
47″w x 16″d x 32 3/4″h
Toomey & Co. Auctioneers
Art & Design
Sale 120 Lot 581
September 15, 2019
Estimate $3,000-5,000
Sold for $4,875

Selected Eames Lots in Art & Design on September 15, 2019

 
There were 23 separate Eames lots in our Art & Design auction on Sunday, September 15. Below are selected highlights from the sale. Click on any lot image to view its catalog page.

View All Eames Lots
 

Charles Eames (1907–1978) & Ray Eames (1912–1988) for Evans Products / Herman Miller
DCW chair
Zeeland, Michigan, 1945
walnut, rubber
signed with decal manufacturer’s label to underside
19 1/4″w x 22″d x 29″h
Toomey & Co. Auctioneers
Art & Design
Sale 120 Lot 588
September 15, 2019
Estimate $500-700
Sold for $975

Charles Eames (1907–1978) & Ray Eames (1912–1988) for Herman Miller
rare checkerboard DTM-20 table
Zeeland, Michigan, 1940s
laminate, plywood, chrome-plated steel
unmarked
34″sq x 29″h
Toomey & Co. Auctioneers
Art & Design
Sale 120 Lot 592
September 15, 2019
Estimate $500-700
Sold for $455

Charles Eames (1907–1978) & Ray Eames (1912–1988) for Herman Miller Zenith Plastics
DAX rope-edge shell chair in salmon
Zeeland, Michigan, circa 1952
fiberglass, metal, large rubber shock mounts
early checker label
24 3/4″w x 24″d x 31 1/2″h
Toomey & Co. Auctioneers
Art & Design
Sale 120 Lot 590
September 15, 2019
Estimate $700-900
Sold for $625

 

Charles Eames (1907-1978) & Ray Eames (1912-1988) for Herman Miller
CTW-3 table
Zeeland, Michigan, 1953
birch plywood
date stamp to underside
34″dia x 15 1/2″h
Toomey & Co. Auctioneers
Art & Design
Sale 120 Lot 584
September 15, 2019
Estimate $500-700
Sold for $845

Charles Eames (1907–1978) & Ray Eames (1912–1988) for Herman Miller
LKR-2 chair
Zeeland, Michigan, 1951
enameled steel, vinyl
Herman Miller label
18 1/2″w x 15″d x 25″h
Toomey & Co. Auctioneers
Art & Design
Sale 120 Lot 593
September 15, 2019
Estimate $500-700
Sold for $687

Charles Eames (1907–1978) & Ray Eames (1912–1988) for Herman Miller
LTR tables, pair
Zeeland, Michigan, 1960s
birch, laminate, zinc
circular disc labels
15 1/2″w x 13″d x 10″h
Toomey & Co. Auctioneers
Art & Design
Sale 120 Lot 599
September 15, 2019
Estimate $600-800
Sold for $715

 

Charles Eames (1907-1978) & Ray Eames (1912-1988) for Herman Miller
early ETR “surfboard” coffee table
Zeeland, Michigan, 1950s
plywood, laminate, steel
partial Michigan address stamped to underside
89″w x 29″d x 10″h
Toomey & Co. Auctioneers
Art & Design
Sale 120 Lot 602
September 15, 2019
Estimate $1,500-2,000
Sold for $1,300

 

References

Neuhaut, John, Marilyn Neuhaut, and Ray Eames. Eames Design, Abrahms, 1989.