Plywood Sculpture




Eight to twelve ply laminated woods, walnut-faced 37½ inches (95.3 cm) high, 27 inches (68.6 cm) wide, 13 inches (33 cm) deep, plywood laminate variable from 7/16 inches (11 mm) to 5/16 inches (8 mm)

A Highly Important and Unique Plywood Sculpture, 1943, by Charles and Ray Eames

Photographs and Catalog text courtesy of Christie’s:

History has confirmed Charles & Ray Eames as amongst the most influential creative partnerships of the twentieth century, their rational yet playfully eloquent designs emblematic of post-war optimism, yet robustly grounded in democratic pragmatism. Crucial to their evolution as designers were the experimental plywood sculptures and objects developed at their Venice, California, workshop in the early 1940s, of which the present sculpture, created in 1943 and exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art the following year, is the definitive representation. Of biomorphic form and choreographed profile, the sculpture unites the parallel narratives of fine art, sculpture and industrial design. Ray Eames, a painter and sculptress, trained under Hans Hofmann, and her husband Charles, who during this period was developing plywood structures and components for the U.S. Navy and the military aviation industry, were here able to synthesise their talents to create a work of outstanding technological and aesthetic importance.

As with any creative partnership, it is difficult to segregate the contributions offered by the individual contributors, however the playfully serpentine outline of the structure is clearly related to the mobiles, sculptures and graphics of Ray, and in particular to the covers that she designed for the magazine ‘Art & Architecture’ that same year, 1943. Recalling the biomorphic massing characteristic of Jean Arp, or the meandering calligraphy of Joan Miró, Ray Eames’ drawings delivered the informal aesthetic that would soon translate into the experimental DCM and DCW chairs of 1945. By 1943 Charles already had over a decade’s experience in architecture and design, including the exposure of furniture created together with Ray and Eero Saarinen at the Museum of Modern Art’s ‘Organic Design in Home Furnishings’ exhibition of 1940. Despite their furnishings being successfully received, Charles remained frustrated at the absence of suitable plywood molding technology–a situation that was to alter when, in early 1943, the Eames’ received a commission from the U.S. Navy to produce lightweight plywood leg splints — the first ever fully three-dimensionally molded plywood structure. Embracing the opportunity to experiment with professional industrial molding equipment and high-strength waterproof adhesives, the Eames’ created a series of hand-guided machine-made forms, structures and sculptures, including the present example, that must be regarded not solely as experimental industrial products, but as resolved artistic expressions that were to define the identity of post-war design.

The present sculpture, whilst superficially appearing to have been constructed from a single sheet of plywood that simply was cut and molded, was in fact the consequence of an extensively laborious hand-crafted process. This commenced with the cross-layering of extremely thin plies of wood, glued and heat-sealed utilizing the Eames’ self-built molds to ensure that sufficient and even pressure was maintained throughout the four-to-six hour molding process. Careful examination of the edges of this sculpture reveal that the laminate thickness varies from twelve to eight laminations, corresponding with the regions of the sculpture that were to either remain rigid and robust, such as the legs, or were to be subject to more complex curvature. The careful and specific layering of these laminates would have to have been identified at the start of the design process, confirming that the undulations, curves and planes of the sculpture were predicted and mathematically calculated in advance of construction. Once formed and sealed, the sculpture was delivered from the mold, the edges trimmed with a hand-saw to the desired finished shape, and the surfaces sanded by hand. Included in the seminal exhibition ‘Design for Use’, Museum of Modern Art, 1944, this wholly hand-crafted work endures as the perfected synthesis of aesthetic intuition allied to experimental yet rigorous technical expertise.


S. Chermayeff and R. D’Harnoncourt, ‘Design for Use,’ Art in Progress, 1944, p. 200;

J. Neuhart, M. Neuhart, R. Eames, Eames Design: The Work of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames, New York, 1989, p. 40;

P. Kirkham, Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, 1996, p. 215 for an illustration of the sculpture in situ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Design for Use, 1944. This black and white photo is reproduced below in Additional Notes and Images.

New York, Museum of Modern Art, Design for Use, 1944.

We congratulate Christie’s on their excellent work in documenting and presenting this work.

Provenance: formerly in the collection of Serge Chermayeff, Former Curator at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

By auction at Christie’s East, New York, Important Design , 27 November 1999, lot 69 to a gentleman in Europe.