A cat's eye view

For decades, the work of artists Saul Steinberg and Charles and Ray Eames have permeated homes and pop culture alike. Their friendship at the mid-century materialized in a shell chair hand-painted with one of Steinberg's cats.

Story by: Sarah Archer

All Eames photography: Courtesy of Eames Office

All Steinberg artworks and photography © The Saul Steinberg Foundation/

Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Saul Steinberg with cat in his Amagansett, Long Island, studio, 1974.

During the summer of 1950, artist Saul Steinberg was in Los Angeles so that he could appear as Gene Kelly’s hand double in the movie “An American in Paris.” He was quickly disenchanted with the project (he decried the output of the movie studio as “Technicolor musicals, stupid stuff”) but he and his wife, artist Hedda Sterne, decided to stay in California anyway. They kept company with Igor Stravinsky, Gene Kelly (no hard feelings, apparently), Christopher Isherwood, Billy Wilder, Oscar Levant, and Charles and Ray Eames. Charles initially suggested they make an experimental film of Steinberg drawings, which never happened. Instead of a film, Steinberg’s visit to the Eames Studio yielded several works of art. One vignette featured an assemblage of Eames furniture against a backdrop with a curvy nude woman painted on a prototype of a fiberglass lounge chair. A fiberglass shell chair similarly got decorated with a reclining nude, and last but not least, a second fiberglass shell chair was immortalized as the sleeping perch of a calm, curiously expressive painted cat.

A black-and-white archival photo taken at Eames Studio of two fiberglass shell chairs with Steinberg's hand-painted designs, one of a nude reclining woman and the other a cat, in front of a wall of fabric swatches and a "Thank you Charles" sign.

(banner image above) Saul Steinberg with cat in his Amagansett, Long Island, studio, 1974. (above) Eames Molded Fiberglass Armchairs painted by Saul Steinberg during a visit to Eames Studio in 1950.

Of all the surfaces available in the Eames Studio, why the shell chair? When it was launched in 1950 by Herman Miller, the shell chair was radically new—there had never been anything like it on the market. The Eameses had previously failed to prototype a single-shell chair form using molded plywood, their well-known material of choice, so they started experimenting with fiberglass instead. They had tried stamped metal, but they were working on the chair with the hopes of having it included in the exhibition “International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design”at the Museum of Modern Art, and the metal version was too expensive to produce. The fiberglass iteration debuted as the first chair with a seat made from a single piece of plastic. Initially designed for the home, the shell chairs became ubiquitous in schools, offices, airports, and restaurants, first in a trio of muted colors, and later in a range of vibrant hues. The enveloping shape, now so familiar to us, was so startlingly curvaceous compared to the expected rectilinear silhouette of a typical side chair, it’s no wonder Saul Steinberg was inspired to customize several of them with the images of beloved round beings.

A black-and-white archival photo taken at Eames Studio of a curvy nude woman is hand-painted on a fiberglass lounge chair prototype, surrounded by a shell armchair, an LCW, and folding chair with various figures also painted upon them and extending to the white walls behind.

An Eames La Chaise prototype painted by Saul Steinberg during a visit to Eames Studio in 1950.

A color archival photo taken at Eames Studio of close-up of the Steinberg Cat, hand-painted on a shell armchair.

The Steinberg Cat, painted by Saul Steinberg on an Eames Molded Fiberglass Armchair, 1950.

A colorful archival photo of Ray and Charles Eames sitting on the floor of their lofted ceiling living room, surrounded by candlesticks, objects collected from their travels, colorful pillows, and many of their pieces of furniture, including an Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman in black leather.

Ray and Charles Eames in the living room, 1958. Photo: Julius Shulman photography archive, 1935–2009. The Getty Research Institute.

An overhead shot of a man and woman laying on a striped blanket with picnic food on green grass.

A still from the Eameses’ short film, Powers of Ten, 1977.

An artists’ perspective

Steinberg and the Eameses had something in common apart from their boundless creativity: They didn’t take perspective for granted. A 1958 photograph by Julius Shulman shows Charles and Ray seated on their living room floor surrounded by candlesticks, objects collected from their travels, and colorful pillows. From the ceiling hangs a painting by abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann, who was Ray’s teacher in New York in the 1930s. The Eameses encouraged people to reconsider scale, position, material, and physical sensations in their work. In their 1977 short film Powers of Ten, we zoom out on a picnic lunch viewed from above and encounter a collection of streets, then cities, continents, planets, and galaxies, then back in the other direction to find—eventually—molecules and atoms. They were enthusiastic about questioning perceived basics, and that allowed them freedom to innovate.

An illustrated New Yorker magazine cover featuring a few of NYC and the rest of the world from 9th Avenue, with everything beyond the Hudson River as sparse fields and the Pacific Ocean

Saul Steinberg, View of the World from 9th Avenue
Cover of The New Yorker, March 29, 1976
Cover reprinted with permission of The New Yorker magazine. All rights reserved.

A black-and-white drawing of six chairs: a flamboyant wicker wing chair, another an ornately carved Victoiran armchair, and an Eames DCM with the witty addition of an antimacassar—a decorative, frilly piece of cloth that protected the top of an armchair from men’s hair oil (also known as macassar oil).

Saul Steinberg, lampoons of chair designs, 1946–49, as published in The Art of Living, 1949.

One year before Powers of Ten came out, Saul Steinberg’s View of the World from 9th Avenue graced the March 29, 1976 cover of The New Yorker. Though it’s usually characterized as a loving parody of Manhattan provincialism, there’s another way to interpret this window view: that it shows a neighborhood from the perspective of a local cat. Though a typical New Yorker might not have a clear sense of what wilds exist beyond the skyline of Hoboken, a cat certainly wouldn’t, but it would have a familiarity with the more immediate landscape of what could be studied for hours from an apartment window.

Throughout his career, Steinberg depicted cats countless times and in myriad ways, from realistic felines to anthropomorphized figures carrying a fish as though it were a briefcase, or lounging demurely, legs crossed. He was an enthusiastic indoorsman, something that comes across clearly in his drawings of interiors and landscapes viewed through windows. In 1950, the same year that he collaborated with the Eameses, Steinberg produced a series of “photoworks” for the March and September issues of the short-lived, but beloved, Flair magazine. One of these (from the March issue), part of a grouping called “Portraits by Steinberg,” depicts four cats. They’re actually footstools, but if you’re familiar with the Cat Chair, you can probably tell where this is going.

A black-and-white archival photo shows four footstools sitting in the corner of an empty room, with cats painted on the white walls and wood floors around them: two right side up, one upside down, and one set on its short side, feet facing away from the wall.

Saul Steinberg, Untitled, 1950, published in Flair, March 1950.

Steinberg staged four footstools as though they were a group of cats in the corner of a room, two right side up, one upside down, and one set on its short side, feet facing away from the wall. Around these, he painted the rest of the bodies: giant heads with stylized whiskers, mouth and eyes resembling those of a bemused person, and big swooping tails. One cat is flopped on its back, feet in the air, and the fourth is seated against the wall, almost like a human being. The genius of this image is that an absurd, almost surreal scene is rendered totally legible because familiar objects are reinterpreted at exactly the right scale. Footstools on their own don’t exactly resemble cats, but the building blocks are there: four feet, similar size. Just shy of human-sized, they would occupy one exponential step in another taxonomy for Powers of Ten, somewhere between tiny insects and towering skyscrapers.

In another issue of Flair (September 1950), Steinberg created a series of photoworks called “The City by Steinberg” which included a tall, slender chest of drawers as a grand skyscraper. The drawers are even pulled out slightly—more at the bottom, less so at the top—to suggest the tapering of architectural setbacks. Here Steinberg plays not with species or form, but with scale. From our perspective as readers, the chest of drawers might be gigantic, or it may be that we, and our little city, are small—maybe even cat-sized.

A black-and-white archival drawing of a grand skyscraper stylized as a tall, slender chest of drawers, with other buildings, airplanes, cars, and sky sketched behind.
A drawing featuring a cat perched at a window, inside a plain white room. He’s taking in the sights, which are zig-zagging and jagged, brilliant in color, non-stop and exciting. We can see a bookstore in one corner, which appears to us upside down.

Saul Steinberg, Chest of Drawers Cityscape, 1950, published in Flair, September 1950.

Saul Steinberg, Looking Down, 1988, felt marker, crayon, colored pencil, conté, and collage on paper, 20 x 14 in. The Saul Steinberg Foundation, New York

One of Steinberg’s later works, a drawing called Looking Down from 1988, features a cat perched at a window, inside a plain white room. He’s taking in the sights, which are zig-zagging and jagged, brilliant in color, non-stop and exciting. We can see a bookstore in one corner, which appears to us upside down. Steinberg may have been inspired by the work of Utagawa Hiroshige, whose famous print Asakusa Ricefields and Torinomachi Festival shows a pet cat gazing intently at festivities from the window of a brothel. His owner’s bowl and robe are visible on the window ledge, and he seems unaware that we’re watching. It’s not difficult to imagine Steinberg himself perched on a windowsill circa 1988, watching the lights and traffic of the city below, curious and observant, but not exactly wanting to be in the thick of it all.

The company they kept

Apart from their playful desire to explore perspective, scale, form, and sensation, Steinberg and the Eameses also shared a perch within the sophisticated milieu of America’s postwar cultural elite. Steinberg’s New Yorker covers are famous, but for the most part that fame extends to people who read The New Yorker, and those who don’t read it but recognize its covers. That’s a robust portion of the public, but not a majority. Likewise, the Eameses enjoy extraordinary recognition as iconic 20th century designers among a design-obsessed populace, but they weren’t initially household names.

A black-and-white archival drawing of the three different "brows" as men: Lowbrow on the left, sitting in a chair and reading a folded paper; Middlebrow in the middle, grandly dressed and thinking about being highbrow; and Highbrow on the right using a modern chair as a stool to reach up to a flying god with the writing "Nec plus ultra" written on a sash.

Saul Steinberg, drawing accompanying Russell Lynes, “Highbrow, Middlebrow, Lowbrow, Harper’s Magazine, February 1949, p. 24

In 1949, Harper’s Magazine published an article entitled “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow” by cultural critic Russell Lynes. The article was accompanied by a Steinberg drawing of the different “brows,” and inspired a Life Magazine article two months later that included an illustrated chart (not by Steinberg) distinguishing the distinctions even further. It was so amusing that it still makes the rounds on social media today. The chart puts an Eames LCM side chair in the top furniture spot—or “highbrow” as Lynes would classify it. (Of note: Herman Miller advertised Eames furniture in the pages of The New Yorker and other rarified periodicals.) Arguably the first postwar modern status symbol, an Eames chair was then—and remains—a non-verbal declaration of discerning, understated good taste.

In a 1968 interview, Steinberg offered his description of what cats might be like if they were artists. “Cats probably represent the artist who’s also not involved completely in the life that surrounds him. He passes through life and is not committed to the people around him.” Steinberg found success in America, but it cannot have been an easy journey to arrive here during World War II, having fled two European countries to escape the increasing threats of antisemitism and Fascism. Though his knowing works and his in-crowd of friends and associates may suggest otherwise, Steinberg spent decades getting to know a country where the customs and culture were very different from what he had known as a child and young adult in Romania and Italy. A certain distance from others, and a desire to observe them, would be understandable.

Which brings us back to that reclining cat on an Eames chair. Cats hold themselves aloof and observant, yet seek comfort, which makes them excellent, if unintentional, arbiters of good design. Of course a cat would install itself on the most important piece of furniture in a room. A dog would never.

Eames Fiberglass Armchair with Steinberg Cat in the Eames House.

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