Maybe not as sexy as some past Icons-you can't shoot it (Colt .45), can't fly it (P51), can't be Batman in it (Batmobile)-this chair and ottoman might be just as important, having come to epitomize midcentury design, while gaining a cult-like status no other piece of furniture has had before or since.
If you're not familiar with the show Mad Men, here's a little primer. It's about an ad agency in the early '60s, and the main man is Don Draper-the epitome of cool. Neatly coiffed hair, skinny ties, slim lapels, casual chauvinism, and the five-martini lunch define the show. It has done for midcentury style what Dallas did for bad plot twists. The whole modernist/midcentury thing is very In now. This chair was never Out.
While at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, Charles Eames-already a prominent professor and head of the industrial design department-met Bernice "Ray" Kaiser, a graphic arts student who was passionately committed to the ideas of modernism and, like Charles, was heavily influenced by visionaries like Frank Lloyd Wright, Picasso, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Miró, and others.
Despite her not-so-feminine nickname, the two instantly connected philosophically, each sharing a strong desire to use design to more warmly transmit their ideas in place of the cold, impersonal "Machine Aesthetic"-this idea that form followed function-that dominated the postwar design landscape.
They saw themselves as orthodox modernists, and they were, having studied the entire modern spectrum-from Arts & Crafts to the New Bauhaus. But they felt that with the right approach, modern design could incorporate emotional and psychological elements. Human elements.
The couple married in 1941, and shortly after moved to Los Angeles, where they would open the Office of Charles and Ray Eames and where they would live for the rest of their lives. In the early years, the Eameses began to make their mark on postwar American design through domestic architecture.
Remember, these were the post-war years-the era of the cooker-cutter house. Eames bungalows became known as warm alternatives to the cold, standard pre-fab domiciles of the day. They appealed to homebuyers who were interested in contemporary style, but who found "modern" design too impersonal.
Not only were the homes at the forefront of design, they were also affordable, something the Eameses saw as absolutely necessary; life could, and should, be improved through design. And the reshuffled postwar American economy made this more possible than ever with high quality, low cost, mass-produced goods.
Although architecture established the Eames name, it wasn't the only medium they had their hands in. Classic workaholics, they made toys, films; they painted, and of course designed furniture.
Molded plywood furnishings, though not new, held an allure to Charles and Ray as an affordable-to-the-masses kind of medium. It had been done before, but never on a large scale. The Eameses were poised to add their own brand of aesthetic ingenuity to the mix.
The couple had been experimenting with molded plywood for some time, and their first mass-produced pieces were, strangely enough, medical splints for the Navy. After making some 100,000 pieces, the Eameses had more knowledge of molded plywood than any furniture maker in the world. More knowledge, and certainly more interest. Other designers likely saw molded plywood about as exciting as... molded plywood. But these cats were a couple of forward thinkers.
With the Herman Miller Furniture Company (for whom the Eameses had designed a major showroom in West Hollywood), Eames plywood furniture became known and coveted the world over. The clean, simplistic DCM (Dining Chair Metal) in particular became a piece that embodied the Eames' affordable, for-the-masses design. In 1951, Herman Miller was selling an absurd 2,000 DCMs a month. But the Eameses were far from done.