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Dec 15, 2011
JF Chen Spotlights Eames - Architectural Digest

This year has turned out to be a big one for celebrating Charles and Ray Eames, the late husband-and-wife design duo who helped give shape to the 20th century with their groundbreaking furniture, architecture, and toys. Their work is currently included in three Los Angeles museum exhibitions and is the subject of a PBS documentary airing on December 19, while their iconic L.A. home is undergoing an important renovation.

Adding to the flurry is Collecting Eames, a new book published by noted Hollywood furniture dealer Joel Chen, featuring highlights from his extraordinary trove of 425 Eames designs, now on display and for sale in his cavernous warehouse gallery, JF Chen. 

Many of the items came from the collection of Daniel Ostroff, a film producer (The Missing, Dogtown and Z-Boys) and self-professed “Eames nerd” who wrote an essay for the book and cocurated the show. Both projects have been prepared in close collaboration with the designers’ grandson, Eames Demetrios, who plays a key role in preserving their legacy as director of the Eames Office and chairman of the Eames Foundation.

Architectural Digest sat down with all three men to discuss several of the couple’s most storied creations.

 1. Eames Saarinen relaxing chair

Designed jointly by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen, the Relaxing chair won the Museum of Modern Art’s Organic Design Competition in 1941.

“I’ve had this chair sitting in my office for a couple of years, so it hurts a little to sell it,” says Joel Chen (who put the chair on the cover of his book). “These curves, fitting into the human form, were quite revolutionary and became typical of Eames and, afterward, of furniture design in general. The textile covering was woven by Marli Ehrman, who was with the Bauhaus, and it’s obviously pretty worn. Luckily whoever owned it was educated enough to know not to redo it, because it would have lost a lot of its value.”

The chair recently sold to a collector for a price in the low six figures, Chen says. 

2. Molded plastic chair with Eiffel Tower base

The Eameses were always improving their models year after year, making little changes to add functionality. In 1952 they introduced a striking new base to their iconic molded plastic chair. “I was a little upset when I saw that suddenly these chairs went from having straight legs to this twisted Eiffel Tower–type base,” Daniel Ostroff says. “It looked like they’d sacrificed practicality for a meaningless decoration. But then I lifted it and found it was noticeably lighter. The Eiffel Tower design enabled them to shave three pounds off the old model.”

3.Molded-plywood table


The Eameses avoided painted finishes on their furniture in order to increase durability, though they did use dyes, as in the red version of the 1946 molded-plywood table shown here. “These are light tables, and couples used to be reluctant to buy them because they didn’t think they’d last, so salesmen would actually jump on them to demonstrate how strong they were,” Ostroff says. “I bought one that had been used by a family of four for 60 years, and it looks like it’s ready for another 60.”

4. Eames chaise lounge
Designed in 1968, this chaise longue—often referred to as the Billy Wilder chaise—was conceived as the ultimate napping machine. “The Eameses were friends with Wilder, the Oscar-winning director, and Charles oversaw the second unit on his film Spirit of St. Louis, where he learned that Wilder liked to take power naps,” Ostroff explains. “It’s only 18 inches wide, so the idea is you cross your arms and go to sleep and approximately ten minutes later your arms fall over the side and the nap is over.” It took 12 years to complete the design, and the chaise longue is made by Herman Miller today just as it was four decades ago. “They haven’t found any way to improve it,” Ostroff says. “They’re still using the original molds.”

5. Leg Splint

Leg Splint, Wrapped 

By 1942 the Eameses’ broadening design expertise led to a commission from the U.S. Navy for a molded-plywood leg splint that could be manufactured on a large scale. The splint, shown here in a poster, was modeled after Charles’s own leg. The notch at the bottom made it readily attachable to a navy boot, and the light weight and stackability allowed for easy transportation to combat sites. “They are very sculptural—in fact, Ray later used leftover splints for her artwork,” notes Chen.

6. Eames house

Also known as Case Study House No. 8, the Eames House in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles was completed in 1949. “On some level Charles and Ray did the design for themselves, but they tried to make it the universal part of themselves,” says Eames Demetrios. “Like all their work, it’s functional, beautiful, and fun. For a while they even tied a rope to the ceiling of the studio so one could swing from the stairs into cardboard boxes which they piled in the middle of the room.” The Eames Foundation is working on a 250-year plan for preserving the house (open by appointment; 310-459-9663), which includes a refurbishment and erosion control on the surrounding property. “The biggest threat is not in the construction of the house but the bluffs behind it,” Demetrios says. “They will probably be gone before the house.”

   
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