Never Delegate Understanding

1950

In this excerpt from the book, An Eames Primer, Eames Demetrios discusses one of the most important Eames tenets: “Never delegate understanding.”

“In the mid-1990s, as Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung were developing their design of the exhibition Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention, Hodgetts walked into the shop of John Wills, a noted fiberglass fabricator and boat builder.  There, sitting on—not in—a trashcan kind of structure was something that looked a lot like an Eames fiberglass shell, and, of course, it was one.  And the story behind it relates to that ability Charles had to be aware of the right things, the useful things.  In 1947, John Wills had developed a way to cure fiberglass at room temperature.  This was an important development for the material, because it meant that heat and pressure were not necessary to create a fiberglass object (the radio domes that Zenith Plastics made in World War II used a solar cure that was not as reliable as one would hope).  In fact, one of the first products Wills made this way was a prototype for the Skorpion Crosley car.

“He recalled how Charles arrived ‘out of the blue’ in a beat-up Ford at his (Wills’s) workshop in Arcadia, California in 1948 or 1949.  Charles had with him a craft paper mockup of the armshell and asked Wills to make a fiberglass shell of it.  At that time, fiberglass technology did not permit making a female mold, only a male mold.  In this process, the paper version would be destroyed in the process of creating the fiberglass shell.  One side, the outside, would be pretty crude, but the inside would be smooth.  The charge: $25.  Wills made two just in case.  When Charles came back a week or so later, Charles looked at the fiberglass shells very carefully, circling them, sitting in them, taking them in.  When he sat in it, the improvised base was a circular piece of corrugated metal from an agricultural feeder.  When it came time to pay, Wills asked if he wanted both.  Charles replied, ‘I can’t really afford it—maybe some other time.’  The one left behind remained there for almost half a century.  After Hodgetts and Fung saw it, Wills donated it to the Henry Ford Museum.

“A prototype is a piece that has the features of the final production piece—prototypes are the final stepping stones.  In that sense, the Wills chair is not even really a prototype; it is, more accurately, a model of the idea of making the chair in fiberglass.  It is a model in the ‘feeling-your-way sense.’  The hands-on process.  Is it the right material?  What happens if it is honest?  No one else I spoke with from that era knew of Charles’s trip to John Wills’s shop (though quite possibly someone did).  But either way, it is a nice documentation of something that often happened behind the scenes at the office: Charles seeking out his own understanding of a material or a project or an idea before delegating implementation of certain aspects of it.  A theme throughout the Eames work is this sense that Charles and Ray never delegated understanding.

“Though the Wills chair is important, it was but one small step in the journey of actual production.  Wills was not equipped for mass production in any event.  But Charles now knew the questions to ask.  Sol Fingerhut and Irv Green had really impressed Charles and he soon put them together with Herman Miller.  Fingerhut and Green, in turn, persuaded their company to share the cost of the tooling with Herman Miller.  Another revealing but important decision was made early on, which was to try to manufacture the arm chair first.  Herman Miller, Zenith, and the Eames Office all agreed that if one could make the more complicated armchair, the side shell would be a picnic.”