War-Plane Materials Applied to Post-War Housing Posted April 13, 2016 by Daniel Ostroff
The goal of the Case Study House program was to provide low-cost housing for the “ninety-nine” percent, especially for the millions of G.I.’s returning to civilian life after World War II. Charles and Ray Eames took this objective very seriously.
The Case Study House Program announcement explained that: “Architects will be responsible to no one but the magazine, which having put on a long white beard, will pose as ‘client.’ It is to be clearly understood that every consideration will be given to new materials and new techniques in home construction. And we must repeat again that these materials will be selected on a purely merit basis by the architects themselves. . .No attempt will be made to use a material merely because it is new and tricky. On the other hand, neither will there be any hesitation in discarding old materials and techniques if their only value is that they have generally been regarded as ‘safe.'”
When Charles and Ray designed their own home, Case Study House #8, they sourced many of the parts from catalogs of industrially produced materials.
As Charles wrote in 1953, “Potentially mass production has the possibility of bringing more concern, more sweat, blood and tears to the service of the individual consumer than the craft era could ever dream of, and in many areas today, it is already being done.” (Read more of his notes on page 114 of An Eames Anthology.)
The Eames House incorporates pre-fabricated steel windows, Cemestos panels, Truscon steel beams and joists, chicken-wire, factory-standard glass, and parts from a marine catalog to create the stairway. These elements account for most of the home’s structural components.
They also added industrial elements to the inside of the building, including materials from military aircraft. Built-in cabinets line the walls of the house, including the back of the seating alcove in the living room (see image above); the sliding doors over those cabinets are made of Plyon. Some of the windows are also outfitted with Plyon panels on the inside.
This material was marketed as fuel-cell liners by Swedlow Plastics, the original manufacturer, located just south of Los Angeles in Gardena, California. As a fuel-cell liner, the material was thin, strong, lightweight, and it resisted degradation. In addition, the Plyon proved to be translucent, durable, and capable of holding its shape. Those very same qualities made it useful as an interior finish.
Consider the alternatives to plyon that were available: Thin wood doors can warp or crack, and paper screens, like those used in Japan, have a tendency to tear. Sixty-six years have passed since Charles and Ray built the House, and none of the original Plyon panels have needed replacement. Durability was a key factor in everything the Eameses designed; in using Plyon, Charles and Ray were able to meet that standard. For the cabinets, they used Plyon panels in opaque white, and they chose a translucent version of the material for some of the windows.
The handsome Plyon details of the Eames House illustrate one of the many ways in which Charles and Ray fulfilled The Case Study House Program‘s values and objectives. It is a tribute to their ingenuity that they could take a material originally used for war planes and find a practical way to use it in post-war housing.
Learn more about The Case Study House Program by viewing the announcement designed for the initiative.
Thanks to the Eames House docents John and Lynne Kishel for their insight, scholarship, and the Swedlow Plastics scans from their personal collection of Eames House materials.