The Best for the Most for the Least

1941

Charles and Ray famously said, “We wanted to make the best for the most for the least.”  Learn more about how the Eameses began mass producing furniture and how they came to this design philosophy by reading the excerpt below from the book, An Eames Primer:

“The Organic Furniture exhibition opened at MoMA in September 1941.  A limited number of chairs had been successfully produced through the combined efforts of Charles, Eero, MoMA and the manufacturer.  Tight on money, Charles and Ray missed the opening—’the fireworks’ as Charles wrote in a letter.  The verdict on the program was a mixed positive: on the one hand, good works were created and new designers were discovered and given meaningful experience with manufacturers; on the other hand, mass production was not achieved in any meaningful sense for the Eames-Saarinen shell chairs.  The exhibition itself offered an interesting allegory.  Noyes exhibited a traditional easy chair in a barred cage like King Kong (there was a Gargantua poster behind it).  The label, like one found at a zoo or natural history museum, read, ‘Cathedra Gargantua, genus Americanus.  Weight when fully matured, 60 pounds.  Habitat, the American Home.  Devours little children, pencils, fountain pens,  bracelets, clips, earrings, scissors, hairpins and other small flora and fauna of the domestic jungle.  Is rapidly becoming extinct.’

“If extinction of traditional furniture was imminent, it would not be at the hands of the modern chairs in the exhibition room, but it might come through their descendants.  Charles had clearly learned that if you were designing for mass production, you had to discover how to make the tooling—not just the end product—yourself.  This was a profound realization, one that dovetailed naturally with his gift for hands-on design and engineering.  But it was deeper than that, because Charles must have recognized that design for mass production was a new animal.  All of the dissatisfactions of the finished chairs were a result of not understanding the limitations of the process when he and Eero had designed the chairs. Charles later recalled, ‘We were setting out to, really, I would say [put] the Frank Lloyd Wright theory, at least my own version of it, to work—and it may have turned out looking more Miesian than Frank Lloyd Wright, but nevertheless it’s one’s own interpretation.’  He continued, ‘The Organic show was more a kind of a statement of principle.’  From a design standpoint, their key conceptual breakthrough was that they moved the plywood material away from the Aaltoesque slab in the Kleinhans to a shell concept.  Charles and Ray would now have to find a way for this material to make a complex curve.  As he said later of all the furniture on this path, ‘We wanted to make the best for the most for the least.  It sounds a little pompous now, but at the time it was a perfectly legitimate way to approach things’ [Emphasis added].  If the Organic chairs turned out to be essentially a statement of principle, it would take Charles and Ray five years to make the first pragmatic statement about production, and a full ten years to make it completely.”