You’ve definitely seen this lounge chair before. A slightly reclined chair and a matching ottoman, both upholstered in leather and encased in a molded plywood shell. A chair that invites, even encourages, you to feel at ease.
The makers of the now iconic Lounge Chair from 1956 are the husband-and-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames. After meeting at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, they married in 1941, crystalizing a lifelong design partnership. Ray Eames once said, “What works is better than what looks good. The ‘looks good’ can change, but what works, works.” The Eameses have played a foundational role in determining what “works” and what looks good, not only in furniture, but also in architecture, toys, and multimedia educational materials.
So what is it about Eames-designed furniture that has made it work for so many for so long? Staff from the MoMA Design Store, the Museum’s Department of Architecture and Design, and the Eames Office share what makes an Eames an Eames.
Innovation with molded materials.
Before there was a Lounge Chair there was a leg splint. Upon moving to Los Angeles in 1941, the Eameses began experimenting with bent plywood, trying to exceed the innovations of their prize-winning design with Eero Saarinean for MoMA’s 1940 exhibition Organic Design in Home Furnishings. (Ray was not credited as an equal partner at this point in their careers.) The Eameses inventively put together slats of wood and a bicycle pump to create the “Kazaam! Machine”—a kind of curing oven that allowed them to form curved plywood shells in their apartment.1 Chay Costello, MoMA’s associate director of retail merchandising, likes the machine’s name for the way it “evokes the magician-like alakazam.”
They further refined their plywood-bending techniques when given the opportunity to make splints for wounded US Navy servicemen during World War II. The wood material was lighter and vibrated less than metal; it also didn’t transmit external temperatures to the wearer’s flesh. The splints led to stretchers and the nose cone of a plane. But Costello emphasizes that the real magic trick came later, as the splints foreshadowed furniture pieces like the LCW Chair in 1946. “You see the wood and you see the complex curves and the shape,” she said. “It’s so much nitty gritty, trial and error, but the end result is poetic.”
Banner Image: Eames Iconic Lounge Chair. Image Credit – MoMA