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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Selected Eames Lots in Art & Design on September 15, 2019
Neuhaut, John, Marilyn Neuhaut, and Ray Eames. Eames Design, Abrahms, 1989.