Charles and Ray Eames: Tradesman Who Made Models Posted March 24, 2020 by Marlow Hoffman

If you think of Charles and Ray Eames as one of the most dynamic design teams of the 20th century, you’re not alone; however, the couple saw themselves more as tradesmen who made models.

Looking at the couple’s expansive body of work that includes everything from furniture and films to exhibitions and architecture, we have ample opportunity to reflect on their oeuvre through a model-making lens. Charles once said, “The solution is the model of the problem.” He was speaking of his friend Eero Saarinen’s work, but the phrase applies to the Eameses’ as well.

Consider the LCW, a classic design with elegant curves that gently hug the sitter’s body. TIME Magazine deemed it “the chair of the century.” In 1947, The Museum of Modern Art bulletin asserted that Eames plywood furniture “comes closer to using the advantages of modern American production techniques for the benefit of the purchaser—in regard to comfort, quality and price—than any design thus far shown publicly.”

No doubt, both publications were right; yet, in a 2017 interview, Eames Office director Eames Demetrios offered an additional and intriguing way to view the esteemed form. He said, “One could argue that the Eames LCW is a model of the problem of the limitations of molding plywood.” In other words, the chair demonstrates how far one can push this particular material to bend. Charles and Ray wanted to form plywood into one seamless shape, but the wood consistently splintered at the curve where the seat and back met, leading them to create the famous chair we still revere today.

If one can argue the LCW is a model of the limitation of molding plywood, then by extension, one can look at the Eames Molded Fiberglass Chair as a model, too: one that showcases an appropriate material for making a single-shell form. After all, the fiberglass chair is the very same form that Charles and Ray had previously tried to make from plywood.

The negative environmental impacts of fiberglass came to light in the 1980s, decades after its creation, and not long before Ray passed away. The information prompted her to discontinue the design*. Roughly 20 years later, the Eames Office collaborated with Herman Miller to create Molded Plastic Chairs from 100% recyclable polypropylene. It was an excellent alternative to fiberglass. In fact, one could say that it serves as a model of environmentally sustainable seating. The chairs are still manufactured today by our partners Herman Miller and Vitra.

Looking beyond Charles and Ray’s furniture, we can see models in their other projects as well. They designed their first exhibition, Mathematica: A World of Numbers . . . and Beyondin 1961. It marks the first interactive exhibition ever created and has been on continuous display since it first opened. It serves as a model for how to “let the fun [of math and science] out of the bag.”

And, what about Charles and Ray’s architecture? Their most famous structure is Case Study House No. 8, also known as the Eames House. The couple moved in on Christmas Eve, 1941, and lived there for the rest of their lives. Without a doubt, it’s a model of how to create a home with inexpensive, off-the-shelf industrial parts. No one had ever heard of such a concept before the inception of the Case Study House Program sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine. The program encouraged participates to design affordable houses for post-World War II families using “new materials and new techniques in house construction.”

Exploration and problem-solving sat at the heart of every one of Charles and Ray’s endeavors. They identified the need, analyzed the problem, and created endless models to explore the best solution. Their process rarely had a final ending point. Even after the Eameses “completed” a design, they almost always went on to tweak it and make it better. They updated their chair glides to improve functionality, rethought upholstery to increase durability, and created various versions of films to more aptly express their ideas. As former Eames Office staff member, Bob Staples, eloquently put it: “I don’t think Charles ever thought the process should end. . . . Because he always thought something better was just around the edge.”

In recent years, the Eames Office has collaborated with our partners Herman Miller and Vitra to release fiberglass chairs once again. Thanks to a new proprietary process, they are eco-friendly and made with a safe, monomer-free “dry bind” technique. 

Images: Powers of Ten film still © Eames Office, LLC. Eames LCW courtesy of Herman Miller, Inc. Eames Molded Fiberglass and Molded Plastic Chairs courtesy of Vitra. Eames House courtesy of Brent Peters.

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