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 Take your pleasure seriously.”

 Charles Eames

Collector’s Item:
The Story of Eames Furniture

 

 

 

“Poverty of goods is easily cured; poverty of soul, impossible.”

 

 

 

 

 

Michel de Montaigne

                  Is there a word that has been in use more frequently in the past years in furniture departments and interior design magazines than mid-century-modern? The term itself is a chimera – suggesting that modern is a timescale that comes in periods, and century is all of a sudden something of which there is only one. Lucky for us, there is a design-history icon that symbols mid-century-modern like no other object does: the Eames chair. If you now ask “Which?”, rather than “What”, that’s already an indication of connoisseurship. But in a world where every shopping-page is ‘curated’, and every latte is ‘artisanal’, you should not leave it there. 

You might already know this, but it never hurts to quickly rehearse the absolute basics, which, in this case is to say that Eames is a word that references two, rather than just one person: Charles and Ray Eames. (Much like modernity itself is today something that we think of in terms of multiple rather than just one. But first things first.) The husband-and-wife design team were the American answer to the Bauhaus vision of making affordable design for every home. ‘The best for the most for the least’ as the slogan went that spelled out the somewhat more abstract Bauhaus original of ’Art into Industry’ for the American mass consumer. Charles brought along the expertise in industrial design, and Ray, with her studies of painting under the German-born pioneer of Abstract Expressionism Hans Hofmann, the sense of form and vision to sculpt it.

What made the project so American was that it arose from a culture of thought that was, ultimately, fuelled by oil. The idea of producing furniture from poured forms – which is what the Eameses did when they designed the polypropylene shells of their Plastic Armchair and Plastic Side Chair in 1950 – was driven by a material culture that was built on the fact that mineral oil comes in liquid form. (When we say of polypropylene, we are speaking of a thermoplastic polymer; a malleable crystalline structure, whose molecules – given the right temperature – can be extended into any amorphous form at will, if you must know.)

 

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The genius of the Eameses was to think their chairs as an answer to a catalogue of favourable sitting positions – and use the new material freedom gained from polypropylene to produce hard-plastic shells that transformed these answers into forms. The old form-follows-function principle, proposed already by Louis Sullivan, the mentor of Frank Lloyd Wright at the Chicago School, enhanced by the objective to lend a conspicuously cool structural support to the slouching mid-century modernist. (If you still wonder what exactly it was that made the image of Jacob Rees-Mogg reclining on the benches of Parliament so lingeringly awkward, ask yourself why the image of Queen Victoria sitting in her chair just does not want to go together with the definition of cool.)

The history of the furniture that Charles and Ray Eames designed is so iconic not only because of the innovations that found form in their manifold objects for the modern American home, but because it stands symbolic for what made mid-century modern different from the other, usually called ‘classical modern’ of the twentieth century. The ‘modern’ that invokes the avant-gardes of early twentieth-century Paris where things were very much still metal and wood. Both found their ’Others’ all over the world, and still only represented only a fraction of the multiple modernities that were around at the time.

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If you want to dive deeper into the design history of Eames furniture, the two-volume Story of Eames Furniture published by gestalten, a Berlin based publisher that has expanded its focus from graphic design to documenting the field of contemporary visual and aesthetic culture, is something you want to invest in. Maybe it is because its authors, Marylin and John Neuhart, both worked with Charles Eames from the 1950s onward, or maybe it is the fact that the two volumes come with 2,500 images that illustrate the history of the design company and the team that worked with Charles and Ray Eames which makes The Story of Eames Furniture a little monument. In unknown depth, the first volume documents Charles Eames’ early experiments with moulding plywood, while the second, covers the aftermath of the second world war and the years up until the death of Charles Eames. For some reason, Ray Eames has not made it on the cover – making the two volumes only the pen-ultimate history of the Eames story. While there is thus room left for future monuments, filling some of the space on your bookshelf with this beautiful box is a must for Eames aficionados.

Marylin Neuhart with John Neuhart,

The Story of Eames Furniture,

gestalten, 2015

Post Title Credit: Dillon Mangum

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