When Charles Eames' furniture went on show at the Museum of Modern Art, press and public gaped at such novelties as the scrambled legs of one of the organically molded chairs. But designers gaped even more audibly: Eames' furniture, born of basic principles which he outlined in 1940 with Eero Saarinen and of war-developed factory techniques, looked like the first real design exploitation of the possibilities of large-scale machine production.
The Museum itself billed Eames' show as the "greatest innovation in chair design since Marcel Breuer startled the furniture world with his metal chair and Alvar Aalto introduced the technique of lamintaed wood furniture." Like the Eames-Saarinen chair which won the Museum's Organic Design Contest in 1940, the new models show plywood seats and backs molded to fit body contours. But Eames' big new idea is the precision-engineered joint--the first flexible joint ever applied to furniture construction. Borrowing a technique long used in mounting engines, Eames has devised a rubber mount for joining wood chair seats and backs to the metal frame. Unlike the rigid joint of the typical chair, the rubber mount absorbs shocks and distributes stresses.
Other new tricks: parts of similar pieces are standardized for complete interchangeability, and nest for shipping or storing. New wood coloring methods are used; deep and permanent stains color the plys without covering the natural surface.
Electronic bonding, which operates with the speed and precision of radio frequency, is basic in production of the furniture. This war-developed technique makes it possible to transmit heat by radio wave directly to the synthetic resin bonds without injuriously heating the wood. It also solves for the first time the problem of a trim connection between upholstery material and wood.
Eames had tried to get some organically molded furniture into production before the war, but manufacturers shied away from the molded plywood process as too expensive. Eames and his wife (whose main interest is abstract painting) went to work on heat-molding methods in their own kitchen. When the oven exploded, they decided to move their experiments to a bakery. About this time, the war started and Eames turned his plywood research toward a new and vital problem: splints and stretchers. His first invention was a molded shell splint made of thin plywood; his next, a radically new kind of stretcher, man-sized and molded to the configuration of the human body.
Eames went into production on these items, with a hastily assembled staff of artists, scenery designers, sculptors, etc. Eventually he sold the business to the Evans Products Co., an aggressive Detroit manufacturer of various machine specialties who bought heavily into the West Coast plywood industry after the war began.
Evans plans large-scale production of the Eames furniture and promises that pieces will be on sale in most big cities before the year's end.