Eames by Elliot Noyes

Posted May 27, 2014
This is an excerpt from the article by Eliot Noyes, in the September 1946 issue of ARTS & ARCHITECTURE magazine.

 

At the time he wrote this article, Noyes was employed by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as Director of Industrial Design, a position he held from 1939 to 1946.

This is the Herbert Matter designed cover of the issue, featuring the Eames molded plywood.

EAMES-AA+Sep+46-1-562x800

“It will be useful to review the circumstances which led Eames into making furniture. Eames is basically an architect. His first excursion into furniture design was with Eero Saarinen when they jointly entered the Organic Design Competition conducted by MOMA in 1940-1941, receiving two first prizes. Their designs proposed for the first time the use of molded plywood forms for chairs to fit the human body. The jury, in awarding the prizes, decided that these designs were possible to construct, although nobody, including the technical experts present, had any very exact idea of just how it might be done. By the terms of the competition, the winning designs were to be produced and offered for sale.

The next step, therefore, was to search out the means for producing actual pieces from these drawings. It was at this point that great gaps in established processes of furniture manufacture began to appear. Since no furniture plant could be found which had ever considered the use of molded plywood, exploration started in other industries, and a firm was found which undertook the job. A basic reason for the wood shell idea was the belief that it would be very easy and very cheap to stamp or press them out in quantity. In actuality, it turned out that there was no economical way of doing this, and no chance to experiment.

Despite the difficulties, a small number of plywood shells for several types of chairs were actually made, but at great expense. This was in no way a solution in terms of mass production as intended. Each shape required an expensive mold, and the plywood shells which emerged were often imperfect so that some had to be rejected; on others the wood surface had to be covered with fabric. It was not only that really advanced technical problems like molding plywood that the difficulties appeared, however. Various designs called for upholstery fabric to be applied to the plywood shell without hiding the joint and without getting involved in such clumsy details as the use of upholstery tacks. As Eames said, he assumed that for such details there must be at least ten simple standard techniques which the furniture industry must have developed years ago, and which could be found on page 793 of some Furniture Makers’ handbook of Standard Practice.

As the effort to manufacture the furniture progressed, it became painfully apparent that the industry not only had no ready solution for such details, but couldn’t work one out satisfactorily and was not very much concerned about trying. There had always been ways of avoiding such embarrassing issues. Furthermore, as the whole question of joints, connections, and meetings of different materials came up, it became clear how extremely little thought had gone into these important elements of furniture design. Preoccupied with minor adjustments of exterior appearance and “styling,” manufacturers were using essentially the same joints and structures that had been standard for centuries. If you doubt this, go to a department store and look at the underside of some tables and chairs built in 1946. You will see what clumsy antiquarian techniques are hidden under the slick surfaces. Structural ineptitude has been all too easy to cover up.

The result of the competition effort was that a new conception had been established, a few expensive pieces had been made and some excellent ideas set in motion. The effort to find a way of producing such furniture cheaply and in quantity had failed for the time being. What had been accomplished was not a hundredth part of what Eames has achieved between that time and the present.

It was at this point that Eames moved to the west coast and started to work for a movie company. Convinced that the problems of the furniture program were actually solvable, he decided to experiment. Furtively and at night, to avoid the landlord’s wrath, Charles Eames and his wife, Ray Eames, began smuggling structural lumber into their hillside apartment. From their nocturnal hammering and sawing, and the puffing of the bicycle pump, Eames found that he could make very clean-surfaced three dimensional forms using thin sheets of wood veneer laid up in thicknesses the variation of which he also could control.

By this time the United States was at war, and Eames turned his attention to developing traction splints by his new system. This was an interesting problem, and related to the chairs as a problem of making a three dimension form to fit the human body. The traction splint which he developed was light, strong, easily stacked for shipping, and simple to apply under field conditions. Thousands of them were used by the Navy.

As his skill increased, he began making other items for wartime use, including molded leading edge sections for training planes and parts for army gliders. In this way, learning as he worked, and inventing as he went along, he developed the tools which made his molds possible, and he evolved his own techniques for doing economically what had been impossible before. In the making of furniture from the competition designs, the factory had used precision tools, but had produced results which were far from precise. Now, as Eames puts it, he had devised a way of doing precision work without precision tools.

The difference, he explained, was like this: If you have an ordinary tumbler and wish to close the open top, one way is to make a very accurate measurement of the interior size of the opening, and to machine a part which will exactly fit it, thus sealing the opening. This would be somewhat expensive, and there still might be leaks. Another way to do the same job is to hold your hand over the tumbler’s mouth. Eames’ process for making molded plywood has this basically simple approach.”

Some captions from the same article:

“THE BONDING RESINS EMPLOYED ARE THE SAME AS THOSE USED IN ARMY AIRCRAFT MOLDED WOOD STRUCTURES WHICH ARE SUBJECT TO A RIGID THREE HOUR BOIL TEST.”

“THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF SHOCK MOUNTS USED ARE TESTED THROUGH HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF VIBRATIONS.”

Very few designers create the machinery on which their designs are produced. Charles + Ray Eames developed the techniques and machinery for the mass production of their designs because it was the only way they could achieve their objective of producing affordable, useful and beautiful furniture for the public at large. When asked “What do you feel is the primary condition for the practice of design and its propagation?” Charles Eames replied simply, “Recognition of the need.”

The technology they developed in the 1940s is still in use today.