The Museum of Modern Art and the Eameses: A Longer-than-Life Partnership

Written by Marianela D’Aprile

In 1941, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City held one of its earliest major shows, Indian Art of the United States. The show, curated by Frederic Huntington Douglas and Rene d’Harnoncourt (who would go on to become the museum’s director in 1949 and hold that role until 1967), was groundbreaking. It represented the first time that an institution run according to European and American standards for valuing art had taken seriously the question of Native American art. MoMA had, in fact, dedicated its entire gallery space to the exhibition, showing more than one thousand artifacts. 

By the time of Indian Art, MoMA was still in its infancy. It had been founded in 1929 but only found itself in a more permanent building (the one where the museum remains to this day, on 53rd Street between 5th and 6th) in 1939, having moved around several gallery spaces throughout the city before landing there. The museum was starting to become somewhat of a well-known entity in the art world—a large Picasso exhibit held in 1939 and 1940 brought it some international renown—but it was still decidedly new. Their early exhibitions and competitions set the tone for what the institution of MoMA would eventually become. A key part of that early history were Charles and Ray Eames.

Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames while at Cranbrook. © Eames Office, LLC.

As MoMA was mounting its Picasso and Native American art exhibitions, Charles and Ray were at Cranbrook Academy of Art, landing there after living in St. Louis and New York City, respectively. Charles had gone there to study architecture with Eliel Saarinen and eventually became the head of Cranbrook’s industrial design department. Meanwhile, Ray, having studied painting with Lu Duble at the May Friend Bennett Women’s College in Millbrook, New York and later with Hans Hofmann in New York City, had gone to Cranbrook to expand her artistic training beyond painting. They were brought together by a competition held by, crucially, the Museum of Modern Art.

The First Two Decades: Competitions and Exhibitions 

In 1941, MoMA held an exhibition titled “Organic Design in Home Furnishings.” The show displayed the winners of a competition that MoMA had held the previous year, which challenged designers of all types to submit furniture, lamps, and textiles that were “organic” in their design. The exhibition’s curator, Eliot Noyes, with whom the Eames would come to have a long and fruitful relationship, characterized organic designs as those which had a “harmonious organization of the parts within the whole, according to structure, material, and purpose.” Ray assisted Charles and Eero Saarinen in putting together the submission materials for the competition. The chairs that Charles and Eero submitted, and which won them the competition, bear some of the now iconic forms that have made Eames-designed furniture so recognizable: thin, splayed legs; metal used in combination with wood; curved forms achieved by bending. The competition was Charles and Ray’s first collaboration and the precursor to the Eames Office they started a few months later in Los Angeles. 

Organic Design in Home Furnishings at the Museum off Modern Art. © Eames Office, LLC.

According to Paul Galloway, the collection specialist for the architecture and design department at MoMA, the early years of the museum were “kind of legendary.” “It was a time,” he says, “when an art museum could have a direct impact on the world. Now there are so many more avenues for creation, and so many more voices, that I don’t know if any museum would be able to have as much of an impact as MoMA was able to have.”

MoMA took advantage of its unique position in the world of art institutions to engage the public with advancements in architecture and design. “The whole point of the museum was to create a dialogue and engage the public,” says Galloway. “Architecture and design were so allied, but there was no architecture collection. The whole point was to put on these polemical exhibitions to push the public to embrace the Modern style.” In order to do that, the museum held competitions—“there were competitions right and left, in the 1930s and 1940s,” quips Galloway—which provided incentive for up-and-coming designers to create new products by offering not only the opportunity to be exhibited, but also the chance at a contract with major manufacturers that would allow their products to be produced, distributed, and sold to people all over the country. 

With MoMA as an institution providing encouragement and a framework for experimentation, Charles and Ray took advantage of the opportunities created by these competitions to produce new designs and further their material and formal explorations. And, in turn, MoMA took notice. Between 1941 and 1959, the Eames Office’s work was featured in twenty-four different shows at MoMA, ranging from competitions for furniture designs to photography exhibitions. Some of them were dedicated to their work completely: the 1946 exhibition, though credited only to Charles in its title (New Furniture Designed by Charles Eames), featured a series of new designs, mostly in molded plywood and bent metal, by both Charles and Ray. One of the couple’s most iconic pieces—the Eames Molded Plywood Lounge Chair with Wood Base—made its first appearance in this show. It was there, also, that designer George Nelson introduced the Eameses to the American furniture manufacturing company Herman Miller, which since then has produced Eames Office furniture, including the famous Eames Lounge Chair and the Eames Molded Plastic Chair. 

New Furniture by Charles Eames exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. © Eames Office, LLC.

The 1940s saw a true collaboration between MoMA and Eames Office blossom and flourish. As the museum fostered Modern design—“MoMA had almost a missionary, spread-the-gospel-of-Modernism, messianic zeal,” says Galloway—the inventive and practically minded Eameses proved productive partners. Their holistic, pragmatic thinking about design yielded everything from patterns for printed textiles (exhibited at MoMA in 1947, in a show titled Printed Textiles for the Home), to a dining table that retailed for less than $100 (100 Useful Objects of Fine Design (available under $100), 1947–1948), to a small molded plywood chair with a tiny heart cutout in the backrest (Designed for Children, 1946). By the time the 1950s rolled around, Eames Office was practically a MoMA institution. Its 1950 show featuring the winners of the 1948 International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design showed Charles and Ray’s Eames Molded Fiberglass Armchair; a photograph by Charles was featured in the 1950–1951 show, Abstraction in Photography; and the 1950–1951 exhibition, Good Design, which was designed by Charles and Ray, featured more works by Eames Office than by any other individual furniture designer. When the museum reprised the show in 1952, 1953, and 1955, Eames Office still featured prominently. By the end of that decade, Eames Office had become a mainstay for MoMA, featuring frequently in exhibitions that drew from the museum’s collections. Charles and Ray’s designs had become a shorthand for Modernism and an entryway for museumgoers to understand not just Modern design, but MoMA itself.

Beyond the Mid-Century

As the 1960s rolled around, both Eames Office and MoMA were reaching maturity. Having finished their case study house in the Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles in 1949 and designed a wide range of furniture, toys, and accessories for the home throughout the 1940s and 50s, Charles and Ray were beginning to deepen the experiments in film they had started in the early 40s. Between 1950 and 1979, they made hundreds of films, including 1977’s Powers of Ten, whose guiding principle—every ten seconds the viewer’s distance from the initial scene increases tenfold—has served as inspiration for countless shots in contemporary film. Their way of looking at design—holistically, with the way that real people lived in mind—was expanding outward and becoming a way of looking at the entire world.

Meanwhile, MoMA had become a veritable New York institution, solidifying its status as the place to go to see the latest developments in the art world by hosting solo shows for artists like Henri Matisse, Mark Rothko, and Jean Dubuffet, as well as more provocative exhibitions, like 1965’s Architecture without Architects and 1968’s In Honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., organized in the months after King’s assassination in April of that year. Its pieces, donated by sixty American artists, were all for sale—the proceeds would go to support the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, one of the first instances of the museum holding a benefit for another organization.

A Molded Plywood Splint, designed by Charles and Ray. © Eames Office, LLC.

In 1973, the museum organized a major retrospective of Eames furniture from its collection, and when Charles died in 1978, MoMA exhibited three iconic items in his honor: the Molded-Plywood Leg Splint designed for the Navy in 1942, the metal and redwood three-legged side chair designed in 1944, and the six-panel calico ash Eames Molded Plywood Folding Screen, designed in 1946. MoMA curators were, of course, familiar with everything that Charles and Ray had ever made; these very items had been shown at MoMA before and been in the collection since their creation.

Century 21

Today, MoMA is a world-renowned institution, one of the most well-regarded and influential museums of modern art anywhere. The Eameses, for their part, have become synonymous not only with mid-century modern design, but with American design as a whole. The average person might not be able to tell you why, but they will recognize the Eames Lounge Chair, the Dot pattern designed by Ray, or the Eames Molded Plastic Chairs. 

In recent years, MoMA has used the Eameses’ designs didactically, as in the 2011–2013 exhibition, Plywood: Material, Process, Form, which taught museum-goers about the history of plywood usage in furniture design using examples in the museum’s collection from the 1930s through the 1950s. The 2019 show The Value of Good Design—which served as a sort of primer on MoMA’s philosophy that design is art that you can take home with you—featured a number of Eames Office items: among others, the Eames Hang-it-All wall hooks, the Eames La Chaise designed for the 1948 low-cost furniture competition, and the plastic-coated plywood, lacquered masonite, and chrome-plated steel Eames Storage Unit. 

The latest iteration of the Eames Office-MoMA partnership was the 2023 Eames Office pop-up shop at the MoMA Design Store. Digging into the archives, Eames Office and its manufacturing partners edited a variety of designs that honor the history of the relationship with MoMA and bring it into the 21st century. The Eames LCW, produced by Herman Miller with an opaque yellow stain, harkens back to that first big MoMA show in 1946, where it was shown there in a similar vibrant yellow. According to Eames Demetrios, grandson of Charles and Ray, the pair “had this idea that aesthetics could be a part of function, and that includes color.” 

That philosophy extended to other items in the shop. A new version of the Hang-it-All has cherry-red balls on the ends of sky-blue metal stems, just as depicted in an early sketch by Ray. The Little Toy, manufactured by Eames Office, is composed of triangular and square fields of color and pattern, and it’s as much a children’s toy as it is a decoration for any home, representing, in Demetrios’s words, the idea that “toys aren’t as innocent as they appear.”

Other items in the pop-up, like the limited-edition print of the original entry panels for the low-cost furniture competition, make explicit reference to Eames Office’s history with MoMA. Items like the Eames House Bird and the Molded Plywood Elephant give customers unique access to the Eameses many experiments in sculpture. Yet others, like the Eames Plywood Mobile and the set of cards, bring to life the Eameses’ ideas in ways that had not yet before been realized. It’s in these items that the connection between MoMA and Eames Office seems to come full circle. The Eameses, in Demetrios’s words, “were entrepreneurs. They liked engaging with the market.” Their designs were made with users as a priority; they wanted people to be able to acquire them, use them, and enjoy them. MoMA’s 1950 Good Design show was accompanied by a catalog that listed the New York stores where the featured items could be purchased. In other words, retail has always been baked into the project of exhibiting Modern furniture design at MoMA. 

If in 1941 a competition for organic furniture designs spurred Charles and Ray to the drawing board, then in 2023 the pop-up shop served a similar role for Eames Office. It was a platform for classic and new Eames designs, where Eames Office engaged the public with ideas and designs that have been around now for four generations and which, thanks to the inventiveness of Charles and Ray, will likely be around for many more.

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