Charles and Ray Eames: Icons of Mid-Century Modern Design

Charles and Ray Eames: Icons of Mid-Century Modern Design

By Annabel Keenan

Often when discussing design, scholars and collectors alike describe objects and their makers as influential. While there are undeniably certain designs that impact trends in taste, there is arguably no couple with a wider and more diverse range of influence than Charles and Ray Eames. From their iconic and ever-pervasive molded plywood and fiberglass chairs to their sleek lounge chair and ottoman, Eames furniture has become a symbol of good taste and status. “Time” magazine named the Eames’ molded
plywood chair, first created in 1946, the “Best Design of the 20th Century” in 2001. To this day, there are Eames-inspired objects being created for every market point. A quick search of auction house databases leaves little doubt of the ubiquity and the long-lasting value of authentic Eames products.

While today we think of the Eames designs as iconic, there was a time when the designers were unknown and their ideas were out of the ordinary. Before meeting Ray and moving into the world of furniture design, Charles worked as an architect, building in the colonial revival style in the St. Louis area. Ray, born Ray Kaiser, developed a name for herself as an artist and graphic designer working under the tutelage of the well-known German-born American abstract artist Hans Hoffman.

Charles and Ray met in 1941 at the Cranbrook Academy of Arts, the American counterpart to European design schools like the Bauhaus and the Wiener Werkstätte. Teaching specific crafts and using a learning-by-doing method, Cranbrook sought to improve industrial production and provide affordable products for everyday use. Charles was an instructor of design and head of the Department of Industrial Design at Cranbrook while Ray was a student. Also at the school at the time were Eero Saarinen and Harry Bertoia, both of whom created furniture designs that are still reproduced and widely revered today.

When Charles Eames was working at MGM studios creating set designs, he and Ray were also experimenting with wood-molding techniques that would prove essential when they moved into the furniture design arena. Their discovery of these techniques resulted in a comission from the U.S. Navy to develop plywood splints, stretchers, and glider shells. These were molded under heat and pressure and took into consideration the shape of the human body for comfort and stability. They were used very successfully during World War II.

The cultural and political climate of the country following World War II drove the Eames to re-define design and, following in the Cranbrook Academy mission, create furniture that would be available to the masses. A rebirth of building homes for new families and a rise in social activities as an active way of life impacted the flow and structure of not only the design of these houses, but the interiors as well.

Smaller houses required versatile objects that could serve multiple purposes and even be used both indoors and outdoors. New mass produced materials introduced during the war were being adapted for use in the domestic setting with durable, easy-to-clean surfaces for low maintenance. Responding to these changes, the Eameses emerged into the design world with objects to suit both the taste and social activities of this modern generation. They focused on creating furniture that was affordable and durable so as to fit the average man’s budget. They used modern materials and technologies, introducing new colors and surfaces to the domestic setting.

Their friendship with Eero Saarinen perhaps solidified the Eames’ entry into the world of furniture design. Back in 1940, Charles and Eero collaborated on entries for the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition. The team submitted several designs for the furniture categories, including designs  for an armchair, coffee table, lounge chair, and sofa. They won in the ‘seating for a living room’ and the ‘other furniture for a living room’ categories. It was in their seating entry that Eames and Saarinen introduced two features that would eventually launch Eames designs: molded wood and cycle-welded shocks to connect rubber to wood. In 1941, Charles and Ray married and moved to Los Angeles, taking the lessons learned from the competition with MoMA to begin experimenting with molded plywood.

After World War II, the couple was able to shift their design efforts to making furniture. First using their own innovative device called the “Kazam! machine” to heat and bend the wood, Charles and Ray soon turned to the Molded Plywood Division of Evans Products to manufacture their molded wood furniture. Over the next few years, Charles and Ray experimented with subtle variations in the shape of the chair components to include shapes to support the body, and the number and material of the legs. The rare prototypes and chair parts eventually combined to become the iconic versions of Eames plywood furniture that we see today. Many results of these experiments were displayed in 1946 in the exhibition “New Furniture Designed by Charles Eames” held first at the Barclay Hotel in New York City and then at MoMA.

The show featured fifteen examples of the new plywood furniture with different types of wood and styles of the metal bases, including cow hide and padded upholstery. These designs continued to be reworked and perfected over the years, resulting in several different iterations, some that became more popular than others. Examples of later pieces whose prototypes were seen in the MoMA show include the dining chair wood, or DCW, and the cow hide DCW.

Shortly after creating the molded wood designs, Charles and Ray moved into the world of fiberglass and plastic in 1950. Like their experimentations with wood, the Eameses approached the new fiberglass material by playing with shape, color, and the product’s best applications. The fiberglass armchairs in ‘greige,’ ‘elephant-hide gray,’ and ‘parchment’ were the first to be introduced, followed quickly by the extremely popular side chair, originally produced only in natural fiberglass and later in a variety of colors. Manufacturing with Zenith Plastics, the Eameses introduced these new fiberglass designs with metal and wood bases in a variety of styles, including four legs in either an “X” or “H” when viewed from the bottom, and the now famous Eiffel tower cross-legged version. They even designed a taller incarnation and added the option of a swivel base. The rocking chair version, which has a wooden rocker with wire Eiffel tower base, was introduced to the commercial market in 1968.

The influence of Charles and Ray Eames extends way beyond their ubiquitous fiberglass and molded wood chairs. They designed objects that quickly pervaded American homes and offices. They made films, toys for children, and even created seating solutions for public places like O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. Known as the Tandem Sling Seating, the aluminum seats were originally designed in 1962 to provide comfortable, attractive seating that stands up to a lot of traffic. Aluminum bases that connect to form a line of two to seven chairs, the seats serve thousands of visitors everyday and provide the airport with the flexibility to easily detach and move each chair. Even more forward-thinking are the seat and back pads that are manufactured without any stitches to avoid the accumulation of dust and dirt.

The market for original Eames designs has maintained its strength on both a national and international platform for decades, and the resurgence of Mid-Century Modern influences in current design has added to the popularity of the Eames aesthetic. Tracing the price trends for specific designs is a fascinating activity. Take, for example, the lounge chair and ottoman that has become such a status symbol in design and popular culture alike. Originally designed in 1956, the chair and ottoman were intended to welcome the sitter into its plush, comfortable leather just like, as Charles put it, a well-used baseball mitt. Auction houses and dealers have reported strong sales of the lounge chair and ottoman for decades.  At a September 18, 1991 sale at Christie’s London, for example, a black leather lounge chair and ottoman sold for $762 ($1,347 today). Only one year later, they sold another set for $1,214, ($2,084 today) nearly double the year before.

Jumping ahead a few decades, prices for the lounge chair and ottoman have increased dramatically. Today you can purchase a new reproduction from Herman Miller for $4935, or you can try your luck at an auction house for an older version. Prices start as low as a $800 for a Naugahyde upholstered walnut-laminated swivel version with ottoman to $4,500 for a leather upholstered Brazilian rosewood swivel chair and ottoman at auction houses like Christie’s, Rago Arts, and Skinners.

Knowing a true, completely unchanged Eames design is difficult and takes careful consideration of every detail. Each type of object has its own particular characteristics that changed over time. Take for example the lounge chair wood or LCW. Early LCWs are slightly lower than later versions and the spine, the bent wood that connects the back to the seat, has a square end in the early examples compared to a more rounded end used later. Further subtleties include the cycle-welded shock mounts used in the early designs to connect the back and seat to the spine. For greater durability, the cycle-welding technique was replaced with stronger screws in later LCWs.

Auction houses and furniture dealers are great resources for buying and selling Eames products with information to back up its authenticity. Additionally, it helps determine the materials and how rare or common the particular design is. Lacewood, for example, is a rather decorative wood that is rarely seen in Eames chairs, so pieces with of this material command much higher prices. More commonly used in Eames chairs are ash, birch, rosewood and walnut.

For those seeking a bargain and shopping adventure, never underestimate the potential finds at a local estate sale. I have heard countless stories of people selling their Eames furniture for less than it is worth, giving it to friends or thrift stores, or, worst of all, simply throwing it away. I have also heard the Eames success stories – people fortunate enough to be on the positive end of these aforementioned blunders. My favorite is the story of a friend who stumbled upon a stack of Eames fiberglass side chairs in a dumpster outside of a recently renovated elementary school.

From dining rooms to boardrooms, the likelihood of encountering an Eames design or one with Eamesian influence is undeniably high. They created a series of objects whose international popularity has yet to stop influencing modern design.

Annabel Keenan is an LA based design historian and independent curator.

Charles and Ray Eames: Icons of Mid-Century Modern Design