A Timeless Design

June 24, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — In 1945 the newly married Charles and Ray Eames faced an enviable dilemma. That year their molded plywood furniture had debuted to favorable reviews at the Museum of Modern Art, (MOMA) establishing them as modern designers of note. The molded plywood chair in that furniture group would someday be regarded as an icon of 20th century design. Now two furniture companies were showing an interest in taking over the manufacturing of the Eames’ designs: Knoll Associates and Herman Miller. The former company had the advantage of being owned by an old art school classmate of the Eames, Florence Schust Knoll, and her new husband, Hans Knoll; their Knoll Associates, with its international style cachet, might seem like the logical choice for the Eames. Herman Miller, by contrast, was a small, family-owned company, established by D.J. DePree in obscure Zeeland, Michigan. The Eames went with Herman Miller.

The reason they did says a lot about how Charles and Ray Eames viewed design, explained their grandson, Eames Demetrios, in his new book, “An Eames Primer” (Universe Publishing). Demetrios, Charles’ and Ray’s grandson and principal of the Eames Office, cited his grandparents’ design credo that “what works good is better than what looks good because what works good lasts” He explained: “In other words, the people who had just designed the most revolutionary chair of the 20th century felt that they were better off with a company that took that approach as a given and put it in the marketplace as simply a good chair. They felt uncomfortable asking people to buy the chair as a landmark of international design or ‘design style,’ they wanted them to buy it because it was comfortable and worked.”

“What’s interesting is the way D.J. (DePree) thought of that,” Demetrios said in a recent interview. “He thought of modern design as something that was good for the consumer and not just stylish and cool. You know, he really plugged into that on an almost ethical level. And I think that was something that Charles could relate to, the idea ‘We’re giving something good to the consumer,’ not that we fore-say to them that this is the cool thing.”

In “An Eames Primer” Demetrios, a filmmaker and the principal of the Eames Office in Los Angeles, viewed his grandparents renowned work through a unique philosophical lens — theirs. “There have been a lot of books that discuss Charles and Ray’s work and refer to it, but there hasn’t really been anything that pulled it together philosophically. And that was my intention. That was why I called it the primer,” he said. The Eameses’ many projects —their well-known furniture collections for the home and office, their films, their educational exhibits and multi-screen slide shows, their books and toys — were not a random series of endeavors based on the designers’ whims, he maintained. Rather, each thing the Eameses made reflected a very pragmatic philosophy of design. “What you worried about was doing a good job and solving a problem,” Demetrios said. “They were really trying to let the design evolve from the process.

The famous molded plywood chair is a perfect example of the Eameses’ approach. Initially the couple was trying to make a single shell chair body out of pressed plywood. After several experiments in wood-bending, using a homemade contraption they called the Kazaam! machine, which forced layers of laminated wood into a plaster mold, the designers settled on a chair with a separate molded back and seat. “Charles and Ray were coming up against the incontrovertible experience (‘fact’ is the wrong word) that molded plywood did not want to be a single-piece molded shell,” Demetrios wrote in “An Eames Primer.”

Essential to the Eames approach was their dedication to mastering the manufacturing of their designs themselves, said the grandson: “There was really no other way to do it than to just get their hands dirty in their apartment, just let the bathroom be taken over by the Kazaam! machine. You know, it took five years, really, and they learned a lot. They took the gamble on themselves. And then after they had something good enough to talk to somebody else about taking a gamble on, they involved Herman Miller. But they came to that table with a deep understanding because the design itself had flowed from all their experiments.”

The constant experimentation often yielded unanticipated design benefits. One offshoot of the Eameses’ work in plywood was the molded plywood splints they manufactured for the U.S. army to replace injury-causing metal splints for the legs of wounded servicemen.

Herman Miller continues to produce Eames designs today. “It’s timeless design, and it addresses real issues and real problems in both office and residential settings — how to take simple materials and make them both beautiful and affordable,” said Bruce Buursma, corporate communications officer for Herman Miller.

In his role as principal of the Eames Office, Demetrios works in a variety of media —including the burgeoning electronic media — to communicate, preserve and extend the work of his grandparents. The connecting thread in his grandparent’s many projects, he insists, is practical: “You figure out how to do it. You figure out what the material wants to do. And I think the corollary to that is finding out what the equivalents are today. And it may not even be material. It may be entire media. But you’ve got to get your hands dirty.”

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