Yes, they designed modern furniture. They also designed the machines that made the furniture, the ads marketing the furniture and the films explaining how the furniture was made. Later, they designed their own home constructed entirely of prefab metal parts. It's all very impressive. But children of the '70s were awed by the boundless creativity of Ray and Charles Eames before they gave a care about soft seating. America's redoubtable duo Ray and Charles, who crafted the century's iconic furniture for their longtime client, Michigan-based Herman Miller, produced the 1977 short documentary, Powers of Ten.
You might know the flick. It's that one film that opens with a shot of a man lying on a blanket at a park. Then, zooming out, it catapults the viewer through space to its outermost edge before moving back slowly toward the Earth, the United States and Chicago's waterfront, panning slowly toward the man and the mosquito on his hand. It goes in closer still, till you're staring at a microscopic carbon nucleus.
Powers of Ten is one of the films showing at the Henry Ford as part of The Eames Lounge Chair: An Icon of Modern Design, an exhibit that's actually exciting because of all the other stuff lying around. These supplementary things films, drawings, toys, personal notes and wooden experiments clue viewers in to the cultural impact this married couple had on American society, an impression that stretches beyond some cushy leather cradle, reaching outside the world of designers and architects, scholars and aficionados.
Charles Eames met architect Eero Saarinen and furniture designer Harry Bertoia at Cranbrook Art Academy in Bloomfield Hills in the late 1930s. There, Saarinen and Eames collaborated on a process to mold plywood, even designing prize-winning furniture for New York's Museum of Modern Art "Organic Design" competition. One of their early plywood experiments, from 1939, is featured in the show. Credited only to Saarinen and Charles Eames, the small-sized chair playfully curves and bends like it's the work of a child playing a prank. "Toy Elephant," a small child's riding seat from that same period, is early proof that Charles always had the needs of the American people, not merely elite clientele, at heart.
Charles met his wife and future professional partner, Ray, at Cranbrook in 1940, and the pair continued to improve upon their architectural and industrial design skills. They opened their own office a year later. Around that time, the U.S. Navy commissioned the couple to produced plywood products to be used in World War II, such as leg splints, stretchers and lightweight pilot's seats. These innovative war-accoutrements are on display at the Henry Ford.
Eames scholar Daniel Ostroff states that the couple created hundreds of designs over 40 years, but they are best-known for their chairs, which can be categorized into four groups, according to materials and manufacturing method: molded plywood, fiberglass-reinforced plastic, bent and welded wire-mesh and cast aluminum.
The black leather and rosewood lounge chair was first publicly unveiled on March 14, 1956, on an episode of NBC's Home show, which screens as part of the exhibit. Contrary to some contemporary architects and designers' need to create objects and buildings that are as infuriating as they are puzzling, Charles and Ray made no such pretense; they were more than happy to reveal their tricks. From the look of the instructional video, the mass-produced lounge chair that swivels and glides today for about $2,000 seems easier to assemble than something from IKEA.
Still, the Eames lounge chair isn't much to look at. Sure, you can remark on the aesthetic balance between soft, creased leather and a sleek wooden shell. It is a good host, just as the Eamses had hoped, greeting you like a handshake, extending an invitation to relax in the curved yet open palm. Aside from that, admiring it in the sterile environment of a museum can get tired. You've got to be an Eames die-hard to get much fun out of that. If you're not, the Henry Ford offers the authentic Frasier chair as an antidote, the hideous Barkalounger Marty Crane brings when he moves in to his son's aseptic bachelor pad. The inclusion of the prop, perhaps for comic relief or star quality, is silly for such a high-quality exhibit. The decision to display it must've been made by the Henry Ford, because Grand Rapids Art Museum, which organized the show, and New York's Museum of Arts and Design, didn't show it during their runs.
A selection of handwritten notes from Ray to Charles in August 1955 provides envious proof of the couple's admiration and enthusiasm for their work and each other. On scraps of pink or purple paper, Ray jots notes to her husband in bubbly letters with exclamation points: "So happy about you and Paris!" is set off by a small heart. She also writes to Charles about a pair of shoes she thinks he'd look good steppin' in, and draws a tiny pic illustrating them.
The Eameses belonged to a rare tribe who had their hands in absolutely everything, from conceiving and curating popular educational exhibits, such as The World of Franklin and Jefferson and Mathematica: A World of Numbers and Beyond, to producing short films with subjects as seemingly arbitrary as soap suds, to building their own home and decorating it with the likes of tumbleweed hanging from the ceiling as a chandelier, to conducting solar energy experiments. For them, it all made sense.
Whether baking a cake or designing a full-sized glider for the U.S. government, which they did, the Eameses' success had to do with talent and discriminating taste, but also a particular brand of creative consciousness they held on to until they died Charles in 1978 and Ray a decade later. A hokey quote can sum them up appropriately, and they seemed so laid back and good-humored I'm sure they wouldn't mind: "Creativity is allowing yourself to make a mistake. Art is knowing which ones to keep." Or here's another way, but it's been used before: "Why not?" You couldn't design a better life.
The Eames Lounge Chair: An Icon of Modern Design runs through April 29 at the Henry Ford, 20900 Oakman Blvd., Dearborn; 313-982-6001.
Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts and culture editor. Send comments to [email protected]