What Kind of a Nothing? Posted August 31, 2020 by Daniel Ostroff

For the first issue of the Alcoa corporate magazine FORECAST in 1959 journalist Oscar Schefler published an article and Eames interview on the Eames Solar Toy entitled “What Kind of a Nothing?”

In his conversation with Schefler, Charles used the phrase “do nothing” to characterize the device because even though it has many moving parts, it does not produce a physical product.   The fact is, the Eames Solar Toy as whimsical as it may seem, is very purposeful.  It turns out that this is a machine that “produces” awareness.

When Charles and Ray were asked by Alcoa to build an aluminum toy, first they wondered whether to take on the problem at all. “Life,” said Eames, “is too full of real problems to permit introducing hypothetical ones.” They only took on the assignment when they realized that the toy could be useful and educational. They began outlining what an ideal hypothetical (or promotional) problem would be. They decided that it would have to do with natural resources. They realized it could be a means of teaching the younger generation about the potential of solar energy. And when they realized this, they found that they had an outline for a design problem they agreed to carry it to a conclusion.


Schefler: “To make a device that has no “productive” function requires an unremitting discipline. There is the temptation to harness the new and general to the old and specific. It could have been designed so that it would propel a conventional train about a conventional track. The instant that was done, though, the device would have become something altogether different. It would have stopped being a big, broad idea and would have become a limited, narrow application.”

Eames: “And so we decide to make a device that will do nothing. But the answer is not as simple as that. What kind of a nothing? You can do nothing in a baroque way. You can do it in a Gothic way. If you are not careful, you will wind up with a kind of hodge-podge nothing, a big splatter of schmaltz. I have no objection to schmaltz per se, so long as it is not derivative schmaltz.”

“We now have a moment in time which is very precious,” says Eames, “but this is valid only if the toy does nothing.”

Schefler:  “We say that we will do something in a manner that is not ordinary to the vocabulary of our times. It is what we look for in the greatest of poetry, an idea so universal that we have known it all our lives, expressed in such a lift of language that it is new. Good poetry does more than elicit agreement. It should startle us into thought. If it fails to do this, nothing has been gained.”

Eames: “And this, I would say, would be a good test for any design. Does it make somebody aware of something that is important for him to be aware of? And does it do it in a manner that is delightful (which is the opposite of pedantic)? In fact, this could be a good starting point for somebody wanting to make a design: to think first about what he wanted to make people aware of, and then to move toward the most effective and pleasing way of bringing this about.”

There are machines that mold chairs, that bend aluminum or form glass bottles, in other words, they do “something.” The objective of the Solar Toy is to enlighten those who see it with regard to the virtues of sustainable, renewable, solar power.