Today’s clue in our “Everywhere in Your Day” Contest takes its inspiration from the continual design journey of Charles and Ray Eames. For these designers, everything was a process and an exploration. And when they married and began working together in the 1940s, part of their journey involved exploring seating solutions crafted from one piece of material — a curved, single-shell form in which the seat and back are one.
In 1939, while working at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, it was Charles and architect Eero Saarinen who explored the first single-shell expression, using molded plywood, through their Kleinhans Chair design. They did not have the ability to produce its three-dimensional curves, however. In 1941, Charles and Eero once again took on the concept of a molded-plywood single-shell chair, placing entries in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Organic Design” competition. They won first place, but once again, could not produce their design due its manufacturing difficulties.
That same year, Charles and Ray, who had met at Cranbrook, married and moved to California. There the couple experimented with their own plywood-molding techniques in attempts to render a three-dimensional, curved form. Along the way, their efforts yielded stretchers, lightweight, stackable leg splints (1942), and a glider seat (1943) for the U.S. Navy during World War II. While they learned much from these developments, they still had to cut and score the veneer in order to manipulate it.
When the war ended, Charles and Ray applied their plywood-molding process to the concept of a mass-produced chair that found comfort in dimensionally shaped surfaces instead of cushioned upholstery. When plywood still could not withstand the stresses of a single-shell form, they created a chair with separate molded-plywood panels for the back and seat: the Eames Molded Plywood Chair (1946).
By 1948, the duo returned to the single-shell form, entering a prototype in stamped metal in the Museum of Modern Art’s “International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design”; it won second place. The design was heavy and expensive to produce, however, so Charles and Ray investigated something new: plastic, a lightweight material that could be molded into organic shapes to conform to the body. The result in 1950 was the single-shell Eames Molded Plastic Chair, the first-ever mass-produced plastic chair.
Through the years, Charles and Ray — believers that their designs should be refined — allowed this chair to continue to evolve. Among its changes and updates: in the late 1980s, fiberglass-reinforced plastic shells were found less suitable for the environment. Ray and Herman Miller discussed discontinuing the chairs, and in the early 1990s, Herman Miller ceased production. By 2000, after exploring more sustainable solutions, the company reintroduced the design, sourcing it from Vitra in 100% recyclable polypropylene.
This year, the landmark design takes another step forward in its journey as the Eames Molded Wood Side Chair. This new expression of the classic introduces wood material to the form for the first time. Today’s 3-D veneer technology slices the wood into spaghetti-thin strips and then glues them back together — giving the material the flexibility to be curved, molded, and shaped into Charles and Ray’s ever-evolving, single-shell design.