Sunday, February 8, 2009

Some influences on Eames

Pavel's post talks about how Charles and Ray Eames pioneered the use of molded plywood in their designs (such as the famous Eames lounge chair). I thought it might be interesting to trace backwards from Eames (or THE Eames) to find a few earlier influences on their work.

These would include the father and son Finnish architects Eliel and Eero Saarinen. Eliel Saarinen was a founder of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan (conceived as the "American Bauhaus"), where he invited Eames and his first wife (Catherine) to come and study architecture, and where Eames would later become head of the industrial design department. With Eero Saarinen, Eames designed two molded plywood chairs in 1940 for a competition sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art, "Organic Design in Home Furnishings." (One of the chairs was a winner in the competition.)

The process of molding wood can be traced back farther, and so can the Finnish connection. One of the earliest developers of the technique was Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto (1898-1976), who started his career as a exhibition designer and in 1925 began working as a furniture designer. (Historical note: Aalto was inspired to become an architect at age ten after seeing Eliel Saarinen's watercolor studies of his home/studio near Helsinki.)

Aalto worked with bent plywood and glue in furniture and lamp designs (1929-33) for the Paimio Sanatorium, a hospital for tuberculosis patients. One of his best known pieces is the cantilevered birch wood Paimio Chair, designed to help patients breathe more easily while sitting for long hours. The degree of bending of the wood tested the technical limits of that time. (The chair is part of the permanent collections at MoMA and the Finnish Design Museum.)

To go back even farther, Aalto was taught at Helsinki Technical University by designer Usko Nystrom, and was influenced by Nystrom's experiments glueing layers of cardboard to make chairs.

Aalto was a co-founder of the Artek furniture design company in 1935 (they're still around today:

Interesting link here from Artek explaining the process of creating the 'L-leg', an essential component of their bentwood designs.

1 comment:

Squerl said...

Great digging into the history of Eames and it's Bauhaus origins. Nice work. I really want that tuberculosis chair. That is super slick. Squerl