The Kazam! Machine Posted February 3, 2016 by Ross Atwood
Molded plywood played a key role in the careers of Charles and Ray Eames. With it, they produced many ground breaking products ranging from military splints to the classic LCW—and it all began with a magical box called the “Kazam! machine.”
On January 8, 1942, Elliot Noyes wrote Charles Eames in frustration, explaining that “the whole project seems to be dribbling off into nothing because of war priority pressure; no more rubber, no more plywood.” The project he referenced was the 1941 Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition held by the Museum of Modern Art. While Charles and Eero Saarinen won first place in Seating for their Organic Chair, they still hadn’t achieved their goal of mass production, and US involvement in World War II put their project on the back shelf.
At the time Noyes wrote, Charles and Ray, who met while working on the Organic Chair, were newlyweds who had recently moved to Los Angeles. They were just starting their life and work together, and hadn’t given up on the dream of mass production.
As Eames Demetrios says in his book An Eames Primer, “Charles and Ray’s move to Los Angeles meant not only a new city and a new life, but also a new way of understanding design and creation. This time, Charles would learn how to make it before he decided what it looked like.” This experimentation, along with the experience gained in the Competition, would be critical to their future accomplishments in molded plywood furniture.
Not far from the UCLA campus, in an apartment complex designed by Richard Neutra, Charles and Ray went to work figuring out how they could mass-produce molded plywood furniture with complex curves. They began by creating a device that could help them achieve just that. They called it the “Kazam! machine.”
“It had a curving plaster mold with energy-guzzling electrical coils running through it. Charles long remembered the terror of climbing a power pole by their apartment to poach enough electricity from the transformer to run the Kazam! machine, and the growing conviction he would electrocute himself,” wrote Demetrios.
Here is how their magical machine worked: They started the process by placing a sheet of veneer into the Kazam! machine mold and then they added a layer of glue on top of it. They repeated this process five to eleven times. Then, they used a bicycle pump to inflate a rubber balloon after the machine had been clamped shut, and the balloon pushed the wood against the form. Once the glue was set, Charles and Ray released the pressure and removed the seat from the mold, “ala Kazam!—like magic.” (Hence the name.) Finally, they used a handsaw to obtain the finished shape and hand-sanded the edges to make them smooth.
The Eameses’ journey to discover the most honest use of molded plywood took several years of trial and error, but the knowledge gained from the Kazam! machine readied them for many future design challenges. Five years of hard work eventually led to their Eames LCW, hailed by Time Magazine as “The Chair of the Century;” however, in that time period, their learning-by-doing process also brought many other creations to life, from body splints to airplane stabilizer tails, to plywood sculptures. The wealth of experience gained and products developed from the Kazam! machine is truly remarkable.
So, the next time you’re enjoying an Eames LCW, just think: Without that magical Kazam! machine in the guest bedroom of the newlywed’s apartment, the “Chair of the Century,” might not exist!
Find out more about the Kazam! machine by reading An Eames Primer.