Charles Eames on the function of a jukebox Posted July 17, 2019 by Daniel Ostroff

In Kansas City, Missouri, October 1952, Charles Eames gave a speech at the American Institute of Architects’ annual gathering. He talked about function with regard to architecture and design and concluded with a surprising example.

Here are two excerpts, the first from Charles’s speech:

“Yesterday afternoon, there was quite a bit said about, you know, ‘function is all right, but. . .’ It seems to me, not so long ago, that function was admitted to be respectable; and in a way, I suspect that it’s a little too soon to start ‘butting’ it out of its existence.

“If the ultimate performance of a building or product is a measure of the way it has functioned, how could we damn a work because it has served mankind too well? If the telephone on our desk is a pleasure to look at and if it feels good and if it smells good and if it tastes good, and when you put it down on the receiver it sounds good, if it adds to the sort of enrichment of our life, isn’t that the way in which it is functioning for us? Isn’t it serving us better; isn’t it functioning a little better? Then is there any possible way it could serve us better if it would function less?

“I feel there are still many aspects of architecture that are calculable, but very much neglected. In the Mies house that we saw yesterday . . . there may be something wrong about that house, but if there’s something wrong about it, I’m sure Mies would agree, that it’s not that it functions too much. I think that any negative thing within it would be that it didn’t function quite enough; and Mies would agree to that. Mies is a sensitive man.”

Charles continued to talk about this theme at a seminar the following day:

“Nor, is it embarrassing to say, to say that a thing has to attract a kind of attention. There’s nothing phony about it if the thing functions by virtue of the attention that is attracted. If you could get the client to really set down his objectives as they really are, so as to get them to include attracting people and sort of lay his cards really out on the table.

“You see we’ve always talked about ‘Ha, Ha . . . the jukebox, it’s a lousy piece of design.’ I don’t know that a jukebox is a lousy piece of design because if any of the more sensitive type people would design a jukebox, the thing would fade away in the corner, nobody would see it, and it would get no nickels. Its function is to get nickels and play music. . . . Now, whether you agree with the function it performs or not is beside the point, but it would be a bad jukebox design if it disappeared into the surroundings. . . .”

For Charles and Ray Eames, the varieties of functions that a designer could address were unlimited, and the results should accordingly address many human needs.

Smitty’s Jukebox Museum in tiny Pharr in the Rio Grande Valley. The exhibits include a Wurlitzer machine from 1934 and a rare 1942 “bubbler.” Photo credit: The Lyda Hill Texas Collection of Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Both Charles’s handwritten notes and a typed version are in the Eames archives in the Library of Congress. In the gallery below, see the first page of his handwritten notes for the speech. To read the complete text of his speech and seminar remarks, see the book  An Eames Anthology.