Design’s Best Kept Secret: Eames RadiosPosted June 4, 2015
In May 2015, Wall Street Journal reporter James Gaddy wrote the article, “Design’s Best Kept Secret,” about Eames radios.
Gaddy writes that “These little-known artifacts, which date from the mid- to late-1940s, are among the Eameses’ earliest experiments with their plywood-molding process. During World War II, the U.S. Navy had commissioned the couple to develop leg splints, a task which led to a breakthrough: a method of creating multiple curves in wood to better fit the human form. ‘Alvar Aalto and Marcel Breuer were both able to bend wood in two directions, but Charles and Ray figured out how to do it using compound curves,’ explained Daniel Ostroff, editor of the new book An Eames Anthology (Yale University Press), a trove of rarely seen photographs, correspondence, notes and articles. After the release of Eameses’ then-radical LCW chair, electronics manufacturers such as Emerson, Magnavox, and Bendix, among others, realized the process could be adapted to make radio housings that were more durable, affordable and lighter than the plastic ones widely in use.”
You can read Gaddy’s entire article here.
There is one aspect of Eames Radios on which we’d like to elaborate in order to place them into the larger context of the couple’s entire body of work. Charles and Ray were remarkably consistent and true to their principle of “getting the best to the most for the least amount of money.” These radios are no exception.
The design duo first worked together with molded plywood from 1940-1941, which led to the prize-winning chairs and cabinets by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen in the Museum of Modern Art’s Organic Design Competition. Ray worked on the drawings for the competition.
Charles and Eero chose plywood because it was plentiful and had a great strength-to-weight ratio. The material had been used in furniture before, but they felt they could do even more with it than had already been attempted in the past. They took on the task of molding plywood with compound curves, which provided for a more comfortable seat.
During World War II, Charles and Ray developed and produced the first mass-produced design made of plywood with compound curves: the Eames Leg Splint. As soon as the war ended, they turned what they originally called “the Eames Process” (almost every splint was stamped with that phrase) back to furniture again.
“The Eames process” referred to the way the couple created compound curves by gluing together sheets of wood plies. In their early years, they ran the Molded Plywood Products division of Evans Wood Products. With this collaboration, Evans had a license on the patented Eames process, and the sales staff often promoted it to other manufacturers.
Soon after the war ended, many radio companies asked Charles and Ray to supply them with molded plywood cabinets based on designs submitted by the radio companies. They were interested because the Eameses’ molded wood cabinets were durable, attractive, and less expensive than the heavy plastic radio cabinets used at that time. In some instances, such as the Zenith radio cabinets, the Eames Plywood Cabinet was modeled on existing Zenith plastic radios.
With radios, as with molded plywood chairs, it was an example of “the best for the most for the least amount of money.”
Below, you can see some examples of model radio cabinets designed by Charles and Ray. While these designs were not put into production, in 1946 Charles submitted photographs of them to Interiors magazine, in hopes that manufacturers would be interested.
Eventually, Herman Miller took over the Eames patents from Evans, and Charles and Ray dedicated themselves to this exclusive relationship. Shortly after selling the Eames plywood molding machinery to Herman Miller, Evans got out of the radio cabinet business entirely.