durability of Eames molded plywood chairs were tested.
More from the Eliot Noyes article in the September 1946 issue of ARTS & ARCHITECTURE magazine...
"THERE IS NO NEED TO QUALIFY THE STATEMENT. CHARLES EAMES HAS DESIGNED THE MOST IMPORTANT GROUP OF FURNITURE EVER DEVELOPED IN THIS COUNTRY. His achievement is a compound of aesthetic brilliance and technical inventiveness. He has not only produced the finest chairs of modern design, but through borrowing, improvising and inventing techniques, he has for the first time exploited the possibilities of mass production methods for the manufacture of furniture. With one stroke he has underlined the design decadence and the technical obsolescence of Grand Rapids.
When you stop and try to analyze how he approached the problem, it sounds very easy and obvious. Whatever good modern furniture we have had in this country has always been expensive. Eames wanted to produce a good set of designs and "take them out of the carriage trade" by designing them so that they could be manufactured economically in quantity and sold cheaply. This meant that he must be able to use the best ways of doing things that the 20th Century could offer.
Naturally he wanted his furniture to be as comfortable and useful as possible, because he never forgot that he was making his designs for use. This very direct approach made it comparatively simple. He never worried much (as many designers do) about "what the public wants" or "what the public will accept," because he had a profound belief in the public, and the conviction that if they didn't want or wouldn't accept the furniture which he was designing for their use, the fault lay in his designs, not in the public.
He knew very well the absurdity of trying to design to an assumed public taste. It is important to realize that the furniture is an expression of this direct approach; each piece is composed as much of the personal ingredients of Charles Eames as of wood and metal. If you examine this furniture you will find sincerity, honesty, conviction, affection, imagination, and humor. You will not grasp how this furniture came into being or what it really means unless you understand this also about Charles Eames.
The collection includes a wide variety of pieces, using wood and metal as basic materials. There are many types of chairs both for indoors and outdoors, for dining and for conversation, for reading or relaxing. There is also a complete system of unit cases which, with the tables of various heights and sizes, fills out the complete set of furniture needed for living rooms, dining rooms, studies, and so forth. Of the whole group, the chairs are without question the most revolutionary designs.
Two of the most striking features of these chairs in a design sense are their articulation and their sculptural quality. With the exception of the Windsor chair and a few classic pieces of modern furniture, it is hard to think of any pieces in which there is such a clear indication of the nature and function of each part. The success with which lightness and elegance have been combined with strength enhances this articulation.
The marvelously clean details of the connections have made it possible for chair frames to be clearly expressed as distinct elements to which seats and backs are neatly and simply attached. To this revealed structure, Eames has added sensitive seat and back forms which give each chair the quality of a brilliant piece of abstract sculpture. On some, the thin metal members are linear elements of a composition in which the seat and back become subtle forms whose shapes and relationship changes constantly and delightfully as one walks around the chair. The effect is intensified by the use of a broad range of wood textures, colors and metal finishes, which also provide a great variation of mood in the pieces.
Modern furniture has never before had such a range of woods so well finished. One extremely sculptural piece has seat and back of wood impregnated with a dull jet black, and a thin black metal frame making an elegant line through the composition. The mood ranges from the austere and somber through the broadly comfortable to the gay and even humorous. Some chairs have seats and backs covered in leather or calf hide. Others have bright red, yellow, or blue parts which introduce a new cheery note into modern furniture. . . ."
"The method which Eames invented is important not only as an economical way of producing molded forms rapidly and in quantity production; it also gave him the means for easily making many design experiments. Without any great investment in elaborate and expensive tools or jigs, he could try out many different forms, modulating contours, revising thicknesses, and finally arriving at the forms which he wanted.
For Eames is first of all a designer, and his technical innovations were tools for design, as well as methods for manufacture. This achievement in molding was only the first of a number of innovations which Eames has introduced to furniture making. Another is shock mounting. All the pioneer designers of modern furniture have been occupied with trying to make chairs which will move or flex as the sitter adjusts his position.
Significant progress was made along these lines by such men as Mies van der Rohe, Aalto, and Breuer. Eames has carried this idea farther. His molded plywood chair parts are flexible in themselves to some extent. This flexing is then increased by the use of rubber shock mounts in connecting all the parts to each other.
In themselves shock mounts are not new. The mounting of engines on rubber blocks to reduce vibration has long been a standard practice in automobiles and aircraft, but this is the first time that it has been used on chairs. On Eames' pieces, this mount is a thick rubber disc which is used between the various parts where they are joined.
To make a firm connection between these rubber mounts and the parts of the chair posed still another new problem. Here Eames borrowed a technique which has been highly developed in wartime industries. Instead of attempting to attach the chair back, rubber mount, and wood frame to each other by bolts or by any usual cementing system, a process called Cycleweld was used. In this, a sheet of synthetic resin is placed between parts to be joined.
A special electronic instrument then transmits heat by radio wave directly to the resin, which "cures" or bonds the parts to each other without injuriously heating the wood. The process requires only a few seconds, and gives a permanent waterproof joint, which is actually stronger than the wood itself. This welding process is versatile in that it can be used to join almost any two materials, and it offers many important advantages. First, it can be used as the adhesive to bond the various laminations of the plywood itself, giving a finished piece in which the plies will never separate, and which may be subjected to extreme conditions of heat and moisture. Second, the speed and precision of the operation makes it an important technique for mass production. Third, when used as in this furniture to attach chair parts to shock mounts, it distributes stresses over the total area of the mount rather than letting the entire load be concentrated at a single point, which is the case where a bolt is used, for example. Finally, it solves for the first time the difficult problem of making a neat and permanent connection between upholstery material and wood, which becomes another cleanly articulated detail on these chairs. Where, on a chair seat, a foam rubber paid is covered by fabric or leather, this covering material is brought to the edge of the plywood just as if it were another ply, and is bonded there without covering up the expressive plywood edge.
This electronic welding has also been used structurally on Eames' benches and tables. On all these pieces, the legs are detachable. This is not a new idea. Table legs have often been made to bolt to the frame of the table top so that they were removable. There were usually difficulties with this system, since any slight variation in the bolt holes gave slight variations in leg angles, and resulted in wobbly tables where perhaps only three out of four legs touched the ground. This was a shortcoming due to insufficient precision. On the Eames pieces, these joints are handled with the same precision that one finds in the aircraft industry, where there can be no approximations in the way a wing fitting attaches to a fuselage.
The joint between leg and table top is made through exactly mated metal fittings. The critical point occurs in the precision of the attachment of these fittings to the table top and to the leg. By means of the Cycleweld process, this can be done quickly and accurately in a jig which allows no deviations. The fittings on leg and table top are then bolted together with self-locking aircraft bolts.
The precision of this operation is typical of the entire production process; as another aspect of it, standardization of similar parts has been accomplished to the point of complete interchangeability. This has many useful aspects. Similar parts can be stacked or nested for shipping or storage, and when the chairs are assembled by the distributor, any seat and back will fit any frame. This not only simplifies greatly the problems of handling, shipping, and assembly, but actually helps keep the retail cost of the furniture down, since it becomes more compact for shipment and thus reduces the freight cost per chair."