Two major figures in American mid-twentieth century modern design were husband-and-wife team Charles (American, 1907–1978) and Ray Eames (American, 1916–1988). The Eameses ran a design studio in Los Angeles, eventually called the Eames Office, which is internationally known for furniture design, exhibition design, and films. Among their iconic works, perhaps the most recognizable are the side and lounge chairs from the late 1940s to early 1950s. The collection at the High Museum of Art includes four of these: a DCM (Dining Chair Metal), perhaps the most readily identifiable “Eames chair” (fig. 1); a LCW (Lounge Chair Wood), the all-plywood version of this design (fig. 2); a wire chair on a rocker base (fig. 3); and a molded fiberglass side chair on an “Eiffel Tower” base (fig. 4). All four of these designs have been in continuous, or near-continuous, production by furniture manufacturer Herman Miller for decades.
Furniture designs for mass production are often developed collaboratively, and the team of artists who worked with the Eameses on the chair designs represented in the High’s collection is integral to their story. In particular, significant contributions came from artist Harry Bertoia (American, 1915–1978). The Eameses and Bertoia met while at the famed mid-century incubator for design talent, the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, in the late 1930s. Bertoia was the first of the three artists to become a Cranbrook student in 1937 then stayed on to teach metalwork from 1938 to 1943 and graphic art from 1942 to 1943. Charles Eames joined in 1938 and taught design from 1939 to 1941, and in 1941 he married Ray Kaiser and moved to Los Angeles. Ray’s brief but decisive tenure at Cranbrook was as a student, from September 1940 to January 1941.1 While at Cranbrook, these artists were colleagues and friends: all were involved with developing the experimental furniture designs submitted jointly by Charles and fellow Cranbrook faculty member Eero Saarinen (American, 1910–1961) to the Museum of Modern Art’s 1940–1941 Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition,2 and Bertoia even designed and cast Ray’s gold wedding band.3 When Bertoia moved to California in 1943, it was to work for the Eameses’ fledgling molded plywood company, which recently had become the Molded Plywood Division of the Evans Products Company. Initially, this group produced molded plywood splints for military use, but after the war they intended to move into the design of other products, including plywood chairs.4
By 1945 and with the help of Bertoia and other staff members, the Evans Products Company had begun to develop what Charles’s grandson Eames Demetrios has called the single-shell chair. The goal in these years was to “make a single-piece shell of molded plywood in complex curves” that would form the seat and back of a chair, ideally resulting in a chair form that would be efficient to mass-produce and inexpensive to purchase. Yet as Demetrios observes, in 1945 the Eameses “were still five years and two completely different materials away from their goal.”5 Eames plywood chairs do not have a single-piece shell but are made from two separate back and seat pieces; the problem of the single-piece shell was solved by the office only later, and after Bertoia’s departure, with the wire rod and fiberglass shell designs. The pieces in the High’s collection represent each moment in this design process. The plywood designs, including the DCM and LCW, were released in 1946 and were developed with Bertoia’s significant collaboration, while the High’s wire chair and the fiberglass chair designs both were released in 1951, after Bertoia left the Eames Office.
Although Eames chairs are often discussed as cultural artifacts, the Eames Office approach to structuring and forming their designs also can be studied to consider the artists’ understanding of the nature of the artwork. In fact, as this essay will suggest, there are details in the plywood chairs that reflect ideas that are more typical of Bertoia’s oeuvre, ideas also seen in his independent work across various media (including in the design of his own chairs). However, the later, post-Bertoia wire rod and fiberglass chairs from the Eames Office demonstrate a different perspective, one more particular to the Eames design ethos and seen in their work in other media. These conclusions are supported by details evident in the High’s four chairs, such as how their edges are shaped and formed, how the pieces are connected to one another, and how the shape of each chair “reads” from different angles.
While most of this essay will build on these ideas and address the chairs as designs, independent of the time when the High’s specific examples were produced, for the museum viewer, the production date is an important reminder of the life that an object has had. The High’s chairs were likely objects of use prior to being donated to the museum in the 1980s. The LCW has a label indicating that it was manufactured by the Evans Products Company and distributed by Herman Miller, which suggests that it is a fairly early example, produced between 1947 and 1949.6 The DCM likely was produced slightly more recently; instead of the original screw-in glides on the wire spine’s feet, the High’s chair has the “boot glides” that were used ca. 1953–1958 (in 1958, a different screw-in version was introduced).7 The wire chair was donated to the High in 1984, and by that point it had been in production only at Herman Miller between 1951 and 1967.8 The molded fiberglass side chair is in a color (ochre light) that was first made available in 1960 and was produced continually until the time of the chair’s donation to the museum in 1989.9 For up to thirty years prior to their donation to the museum, these chairs likely were treated as everyday objects, and although they do show some expected signs of wear, they remain intact and legible as design statements.
Two Wire Side Chairs
The story of the Eames Office single-shell chair benefits from being told in reverse, beginning with the wire rod chair (see fig. 3). The Eameses and Bertoia separately developed and released chairs made from wire rods in the early 1950s, and these chairs offer a telling comparison of how each design perspective. The Eames wire side chair was released by Herman Miller in 1951. It has an armless, wire-mesh shell seat that is paired with one of a number of interchangeable bases: a low wire base, the wire “Eiffel Tower” base, a rocker base (as seen on the High’s chair), an X-shaped base, and a wood-and-wire swivel base.10 Bertoia conceived his wire designs for competing furniture manufacturer Knoll, and they initially comprised an entire line of wire mesh seating: diamond-shaped armchairs in two sizes (the High collection includes one of these; see fig. 5), a high-backed lounge chair, a side chair (fig. 6), and an ottoman. The bases in this line are not interchangeable, and the group was introduced in 1952, after the Eames chair.11 In certain ways, the two side chairs (see figs. 3 and 6) are similar, yet they were developed independently, well after Bertoia had concluded his employment with the Eameses in 1946.12
The Eames wire chair shares the basic shape of their fiberglass side chair shell, which the office also developed in 1951. Its body is made from intersecting horizontal and vertical wire rods, spaced an inch apart, that have been resistance welded at right angles to form a geometric mesh. The mesh does not extend all the way to the rim of the shell but instead covers just the region in the center of the chair that is subjected to the most stress; the spaces between this central portion and the rim are spanned by only horizontal or vertical wires. The ends of the internal wires are sandwiched between two framing wires to create a double-beaded rim. In profile, the shell is roughly an L shape, always tilted back, regardless of the base it is attached to, so that the vertex of the L forms the shell’s lowest point. At its center, the shell is depressed to form a basket seat, and the edges at the top and front of the chair turn slightly downward. Unlike the more crisply geometric internal mesh, the shell form has soft, rounded corners all the way around. Its widest point is at the center of the seat; its top and front portions taper as they extend away from the center. The shell is attached to the various bases via a wire component welded to the seat’s underside.13
Bertoia’s side chair shell is also made from a mesh of intersecting horizontal and vertical rods welded together at right angles, but here the mesh is carried to the rim. Each internal wire tapers at its edge and is welded onto a single framing wire. The shell is also roughly an L shape, but its back is less elongated than that of the Eames shell and sits nearly level on its base. Bertoia’s shell is slightly depressed into a basket at the seat, and the vertical edges on the back of the shell curl faintly inward, as if to enclose the sitter. The form is generally rounded, although the back and seat portions of the shell are more squared off than those of the Eames chair, and instead of tapering toward the top and front edges, the edges of the Bertoia shell flare out from the chair’s narrowest point, at the center of its seat. The internal wires forming the mesh bend to follow the curves of the framing edges, which are particularly pronounced at the top and front. The base of the chair is made of two thicker wire rods, welded together and screwed into the underside of the shell. Each wire is bent into a large or a small version of the same shape; the small version attaches to the seat and is welded to the large version, which makes up the legs (the base is unchanged for all chairs in the Bertoia line; see fig. 5 for an example).14
One of the most apparent aspects of the Eames and Bertoia wire chairs is a quality they share: their openness. When the chairs are uncovered (both can be fitted with fabric pads), they easily integrate with their surroundings, as space can literally be viewed both around and through them. In this sense, they are typical of the light and minimal modern furniture designs of the mid-twentieth century; George Nelson, the director of design for Herman Miller, characterized successful contemporary chair designs in 1953 by their “lack of weight, relative transparency and very elegant silhouettes.”15 Both the Bertoia and Eames designs fit this description, and yet the two chairs have significant differences as well. Bertoia’s chairs demonstrate close attention to structure and maintaining a balance of opposing structural forces. Bertoia’s chair elements at first look as though they are able to be expanded or continued infinitely, yet this effect is balanced by the chairs’ central, compact cores. Eames chairs focus less on making structural forces visible—although a balance of opposing forces is important to these designs as well—because the Eameses’ primary focus was on developing designs that are suitable for efficient production.
The Bertoia chair’s mesh grid gently expands out and away from the shell’s center to form the curving seat and back. It has the appearance of a developing form that has been temporarily frozen at one stage in the grid’s progressive outward growth.16 The chair’s base also contributes to this sense of a continuously growing form, since it holds the shell in transient-looking suspension, hovering within the delicate framework of the leg support. Particularly with this base design, Bertoia highlights the wire rods’ tensile strength. Looking at the chair head-on, one can see that Bertoia’s base attaches to his mesh shell on the seat’s left- and right-hand edges, leaving the center of the basket unsupported. The wires in this midsection are subject to obvious tensile stress—the shell is suspended freely between the two side attachments, and yet it alone must hold the sitter at the point of maximum stress. The shell withstands the force that “pulls” down on it when pressure is applied to the seat (tension), and it does so without any compressive member underneath the shell to provide assistance with an upward “push.” For this reason, the basket seat on the Bertoia chair is a legible demonstration of the tensile abilities of the wire mesh.
However, there is also an opposing force at play in these chairs: compressive stress is equally critical to this design’s conceptual and literal integrity, especially as regards the base. The two wire rod forms that make up a Bertoia chair base are arranged to suggest an inward “push” toward the center of the chair (compression). In the front of the chair, a small rod form’s two blunt ends are welded to the outside of a large form’s horizontal bar, as if they are pushing that bar toward the center of the chair. On the reverse side, the large rod form’s two blunt ends are welded to the outside of the small form’s horizonal bar, again seemingly pushing this bar to the center. Bertoia’s structural choices in this base design have created a compressive central core for the chair, and he accentuates this idea in the shell design. One way to read the Bertoia side shells is to say that they expand out from a narrow, central point, yet they can also be read as grids that coalesce at this point, as if the mesh is corralled into the narrow seat basket and held together at the center by the compressive force of the base’s side supports.
This idea is even more apparent in Bertoia’s diamond armchair (fig. 5). The diamond-shaped mesh shell of this chair is oriented in an unusually dynamic way, so that the diamond’s vertices form the head, seat, and armrests of the chair, and its grid is continuous throughout the shell, making the chair appear liable to grow or expand. Like the grid in Bertoia’s side shell, the diamond chair’s grid does not have a strict geometry, and the mesh tightens at the corners and loosens in the basket seat, as if to illustrate that the wires are straining under tensile stress to support a sitter in the suspended basket. Perhaps in an even more emphatic way than the side shell, the diamond shell looks as though its mesh is either expanding outward or is being gathered back into a central point (akin to the way flower stems might be gathered before being placed in a vase). This moment of “gathering” occurs in the deep well of the diamond’s seat basket, which looks as though it is being shaped by compressive, inward-directed pressure from the base’s side supports.
The interest in a balance between tensile and compressive forces is notably present throughout Bertoia’s other work, but it is not something often discussed by the Eameses. Eames writings and statements about their wire chair are very consistent, and they focus on the importance of designing efficient works—durable products created without using an excess of matter, able to be produced affordably and promptly—over any structurally driven concerns. For one of numerous examples, Eames Design, the Eames catalogue raisonné (co-written by Ray Eames), discusses the wire chair as an “example of the adaptation of industrial technology to the production of furniture.”17 The technology in question is resistance welding, a particularly efficient way of creating multiple welds at once by passing electric current through the wires to be joined.18 Even in Eames designs that seem driven by aesthetics, such as the visually elaborate “Eiffel Tower” base used on the wire and fiberglass chairs (see fig. 4), the Eameses considered their work in terms of efficiency. Charles described the base in a 1952 letter to Interiors editor Olga Gueft: “The seemingly complicated base on the DKR [dining-height wire chair on a rod base] is actually the lightest and most economical base we have yet devised.… Other simpler looking solutions proved much more costly in production.”19 The Eiffel Tower base, even more than other interchangeable base options, looks as though it was designed for aesthetic appeal or structural interest, but Charles still discusses it in terms of its lightness and economy.
However, the Eames wire chairs are not without structural interest, and they are actually similar to Bertoia’s in that they (subtly) engage opposing structural forces. The Eames wire shell is centrally focused, with a wide margin between the mesh and the shell’s edges; the relationship between this shell and its various bases is essentially compressive, with the shell pushing down on the chair’s legs. Yet there is a role for tension in the Eames wire chair as well as in the fiberglass shell chair that takes the same essential form and is available with the same base options. Looking at them in profile, the L shape of each shell tilts back, regardless of the chosen base, so its vertex becomes the shell’s lowest point. In profile, the shells almost appear to be sliding backward off their bases so that each shell’s seat descends beyond and below the base support to create a freestanding basket that supports the sitter at the point of maximum stress, which, in the case of the wire chair, is as much a visualization of wires held in tension as any of Bertoia’s designs. This is also the portion of the Eames shell in which the wires deviate most from their geometry, becoming slightly visually irregular as they curve to form the basket of the seat, as if tensile stress has compromised the grid.
Similarly, the shape of the fiberglass shell looks as though it has been stretched and molded by someone sitting in the shell and leaning back slightly—the seat slides back and away from the legs, while the seat basket strains at the center and curls up at the edges. In effect, the basic form has the appearance of a pliable, tensile skin that is fighting to retain its integrity as it is pulled open and expanded by the application of stress to its back and center, similar to the stress placed on a sail as it catches the wind. Further, the Eames design concept—for both the wire rod and fiberglass chairs—is able to withstand any combination of the (efficient) interchangeable bases. The shells and bases are clearly distinct, demarcated by the connecting black rubber shock mounts. While the shells visually connote the kind of dynamic openness seen in Bertoia’s work, stretching and straining under imagined tensile stress, the bases keep the shells grounded, like anchor weights on a hot air balloon. This well-articulated separation of furniture parts with different functions, and the intense focus on points of connection like the shock mounts (“In the design of any structure, it is often the connection that provides the key to the solution”20), is widely remarked upon in the Eames furniture literature. The Eameses explained this separation as something like an act of honesty, done so that the function of each part would be legible: “The frame served a different function than did the seat and back. It had no need for surface. Its job was one of point connections. If the seat was to be the target, the frame might well be deemphasized.”21 This also further demonstrates the Eames concept of efficiency, because the implication is that each part should perform precisely the function it needs to with no excess parts.
Eames Plywood Chairs
While there is some evident overlap in design concerns between Bertoia and the Eameses, there are distinct differences in their practices as well. In the Eames plywood chair designs that Bertoia worked on in the early 1940s, the artists’ approaches to the “open,” modern chair combine. The plywood chairs, whether they have metal or plywood legs, are each made of two molded plywood seat and back pieces (figs. 1–2). Taken together, the two plywood pieces in these chairs roughly approximate the shape of an Eames fiberglass shell, if the shell’s basket seat were cut out and the overall form were slightly squared off. The basket seat is the critical point of implied stretching in response to tensile stress in the Eames wire and fiberglass shell chairs, and although it does not exist in the plywood versions, it is implied through the way the existing pieces are shaped. The plywood backs curl slightly around the sitter on their left- and right-hand sides, but as in the fiberglass chair, the outward stretch of these edges is curtailed by a slight reverse in the curve. The left, right, and top edges of the plywood back all have this reversed curve, but at the bottom edge the concave interior curvature continues unchecked, as if its extension into the area where a basket seat would be is possible. Something similar occurs in the plywood seat pieces, where the left, right, and front edges reverse the concave curvature at the center of the seat by turning back in the opposite direction, but the back edge, closest to the implied basket and forming the deepest part of the curvature, simply ends without any oppositional curves. In both pieces, each plywood edge has been curled under as if in a finishing gesture, except for the two that look as though they might go on to meet one another in the chair’s open middle.
Because the Eames Office ideal was a one-piece molded plywood shell, this suggestion of connection between the two pieces may have seemed like a reasonable compromise once forming a single-piece plywood shell proved too difficult with the technology that the Eameses had available. The shaped plywood still has the look of a stretching tensile skin, and there is a clear articulation of seat and support, particularly in the case of the chairs with metal legs. Yet unlike the wire rod and fiberglass models, which were designed to withstand any combination of base and shell, the metal or plywood supports on the plywood chairs, often called spines, are integral to the way these designs are read. It is in these pieces that Bertoia’s influence is most strongly felt.
The relationship between Eames plywood chair seats and backs and their spines demonstrates Bertoia’s characteristic interest in expansive forms that are curtailed by compressive stress. The spines hold the two plywood pieces so that they form a partial rendition of the typical Eames L shell with a lowered vertex, but unlike the bases on other Eames shells, which simply tack the shells to the ground, the spines seem to play a role in creating this shape. Although separated from the plywood by rubber shock mounts, the spines read as though they are tilting and exerting pressure on the plywood pieces, pushing them toward the L’s central vertex. This effect is enhanced by the exaggerated dip in the spines at the center, which draws them away from the plywood pieces. The plywood seat and back might be imagined as the ends on a set of tongs, with the spine’s central vertex as the hinge. The spine threatens to close inward from this hinge and push the plywood pieces onto one another, an effect that suggests that the plywood chairs have compressive central cores like those by Bertoia. This specific approach to balancing the effect of stretching or expansion with a demonstration of materials subject to compressive stress is a design choice that is far more aligned with Bertoia’s practice. Particularly in profile, the effect of compression at the center of the Eames plywood chair has a strong resemblance to the basket seat of a Bertoia diamond armchair.
Despite this blending or hybridization of approaches to structure and stress, the success of the Eames plywood chair speaks for itself—and reminds us that what the Eames and Bertoia chairs share is ultimately more significant than what differentiates them. The plywood chair may demonstrate two different understandings of the roles of tension and compression in modern art, but it remains the product of a group of designers committed to exploring the potential of new forms in the “open” world of mid-twentieth-century design.