Design: Modernity, utility - and some really cool chairs

In booming postwar America, Charles and Ray Eames started making cheap modern furniture for the good life everyone was to share. The clean, sculptural pieces they created over more than 30 years are now seen as icons of 20th-century design. Nonie Niesewand reports. Overleaf, where to buy an Eames classic

rchitects and designers the world over rate Eames chairs above all others - and Gucci's Tom Ford (who trained as an architect) is no exception. Ford is hosting the Charles and Ray Eames retrospective at the Design Museum, London in September, which will show the design duo's work from the 1940s to the late 1970s, including architecture and graphics, films and toys.

And, of course, the chairs. The "670", a stretch-limo of a chair in walnut with its own footstool "671" made in 1956, the wafer-thin aluminium and leather chair of 1958 and the aluminium DKR chair, also known as the Bikini, with its wire clothes-hanger struts, made in 1951 - are 20th-century design icons., Most are still in production (though rather more expensively than intended - the plywood LCM/DCM chair, for example, sells today for pounds 155).

But designing a few chairs and their own home, the Californian dream pad they called "Case Study House", in the Fifties would not have been enough to make the American husband-and wife team so celebrated today. What the Eameses did first was to appropriate techniques from the aircraft industry to mould and bend mid-century modern materials - vinyl, nylon, plywood, fibreglass, wood veneer - into shapes so supple they made other, wooden furniture look, well, wooden. Between them, they actually pulled off that Arts and Crafts ideal of making everyday things that were not only beautiful but affordable and plentiful because they were mass-produced; they aimed to bring "the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least", as Charles Eames put it.

"The Eameses were not fashion victims," says Rolf Fehlbaum of Vitra, the manufacturer of the Eames collection of furniture, which bought the licence from Herman Miller a decade ago. "The DCW moulded plywood chairs of 1946 are now very much of our time as we get more interested in organic shapes. But the DSR shell chair, from 1948, went out of production simply because glass fibre, which was cheap then, became too expensive."

The DSR chair won first prize in an international competition to find low-cost furniture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1948. Its bucket seat, reminiscent of an aircraft ejector seat, could be set up on four different supports: cocktail-stick chrome legs, a tulip-like stem, a cat's cradle of wire mesh (what Charles called "the Eiffel Tower") or rockers. The idea of taking a single module, the bucket seat, and configuring its base in different ways so that it rocks, stacks, links or stands alone was a neat one. As was the use of bright beads of heat-responsive glass fibre spun into DSR's contoured shape, which warmed to room temperature immediately. Vitra is to re-launch the DSR chair later this year, Fehlbaum now reveals, having discovered a new ecologically-sound, bio-degradable plastic that means it can be produced again at a sensible price.

There's a tension in the Eameses' furniture, that New York architecture critic Joseph Giovannani calls the "push me and pull you" factor. Both Charles and Ray loved the circus, dance and movement and that sense of physicality - ergonomics to more prosaic designers - became, in their designs, a kind of poetry. Figure-hugging, contoured to the body, their chairs and recliners look effortless. But a lot of disciplined work goes into achieving the kind of human scale that architect Peter Smithson approved as "belonging to the occupants and not to the building". If that sounds like designer-speak, think about the impossibly high-backed, strait-laced Charles Rennie Mackintosh chair designed for Victorian manses. Or the chrome-and-leather, buttoned-back Bauhaus chairs of the 1920s and 1930s, uncomfortable reminders of the dentist's.

Charles Eames, who trained as a Beaux Arts architect in the Art Deco Thirties, experimented with technology at the Cranbrook Academy in Detroit, Michigan where he taught industrial design. There he learnt to take photographs, worked with clay in the ceramics department, did metalwork and taught his students how to fold paper to make it strong enough to hold weights. In 1941 he left his wife and children to marry Ray Kaiser and moved with her to California. She was a painter whose charcoal drawings had been slashed with a razor by her art tutor, Hans Hoffman, to teach her to think in 3D.

The Eamses' own home, carved out of meadow lands in Los Angeles, was planned on graph paper. Case Study House at Pacific Palisades was built in 1946 in one and half days, its steel grid framework filled in with glass doors, louvred windows and coloured panels. Inside, the partition walls shifted, furniture moved in and out. Only the basic frames stayed. "After 13 years of living in a house with an exposed steel frame," Ray Eames said in 1959, "the structure long ago ceased to exist. I'm not aware of it." They lived with nature and its reflections all around, the play of the eucalyptus trees and grass on glass.

The interior was a showcase for all the American crazes of the Fifties: open-plan living, platform seating, vertical-louvred blinds covering sheet- glass walls, tatami mats and Isamu Noguchi paper lanterns, coffee tables and a starburst ceiling of small lights. It was charming, too, with its collection of Mexican clay dolls, Indian embroideries, glass candlesticks and small ceramic bowls, none of it decoration, you understand: "We're not collectors of toys," Ray had said indignantly. "We find things and keep them as examples of principles or aspects of design." The Case Study House received rave reviews around the world in the Fifties but it did not prove a prototype for modular design-and-build housing throughout America.

"Designing a building is so demanding of one's attention," Charles later explained. "Builders, prices, materials, so many things work towards lousing it up. I've chosen to do things that one can attack and better control as an individual. Furniture design, or a film, for example, is a small piece of architecture a man can handle." For years, the Eameses made propaganda films - to promote American values at the Brussels Expo in 1958, to give the Russians Glimpses of the USA during the Cold War, and to sell IBM computers to the Americans at a time when the design guru Ralph Nader was threatening that they would turn Americans into slaves.

They recorded everything about their daily life as scrupulously as a BBC documentary maker. My favourite image of the Eameses is a 1968 black- and-white photograph of them filming the picnic scene from the short film Powers of Ten, which shows charismatic Charles on a fork-lift high in the sky, camera obscuring his face, focusing on the picnic blanket below, while Ray ditzes about in the background with the props. It makes sense of what I always thought was a grumpy answer to a question at a seminar in the Louvre in 1969: "Is design a method of general expression?" to which he answered succinctly, "No, it's a method of action."

Charles Eames once told art educators never to push a child into museums or galleries to look at pictures. "They become boring and inaccessible to children. Take them instead on a picnic and make them enjoy the ephemeral. Let them learn to express an everyday thing in a beautiful way," he said.

With that kind of boredom threshold in mind, the design exhibitor,Vitra, has planned an exuberant show for the Design Museum. As well as their drawings, plans and furniture prototypes, you can watch a chair tumbling round inside a huge drum to prove how tough it is. Or you can make your own fragile house of cards following Charles's instructions. And, for the first time since it was screened in 1959 in Moscow, you can watch Glimpses of the USA, their seven-screen slide-show. Powers of Ten has ended up on T-shirts and on a CD-Rom, which also shows the couple at home and at work.

Rolf Fehlbaum of Vitra was only 19 when he met Charles and Ray Eames in California in the1960s. "What impressed me most of all was how they made everything such fun. A present from Ray was so beautifully wrapped you didn't want to open it. Breakfasts were wonderful, the food, the flowers, the setting. They took such enjoyment in daily life that they never took holidays. They didn't need them, they enjoyed themselves so much."

In 1952 they filmed a commercial for their furniture on two gigantic white sheets of paper laid out at a crossroads in an American suburb: the balletic, boomerang-shaped furniture hovers amidst the telegraph poles and chalet-style houses, clipped hedges and stop signs, like a touchdown of spaceships. Today, an Eames chair in the workplace or at home - increasingly, one and the same place - still has that slightly surreal presence. Go and see for yourself

`The Work of Charles and Ray Eames' is at the Design Museum, London SE1 (0171-378 6055) 15 September-3 January 1999. Eames furniture is on sale at Vitra UK, 13 Grosvenor Street, London W1 (0171-408 1122).

Captions: Suburban surreal (above): an advertising shoot in 1952. Top: frames from the weirdly wonderful Powers of Ten, `a film dealing with the relative size of things in the universe and the effect of adding another zero'

The art of modern living: Ray and Charles Eames at home in 1958. Their steel and glass Case Study House was built in one and a half days in 1946, and was intended to serve as a model for low-cost, do-it-yourself modern design. The interior was a showcase for all the American crazes of the Fifties: open-plan living, vertical-louvred blinds, tatami mats, coffee tables and a starburst ceiling of small lights

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