Posts Tagged ‘Charles Eames’

Playboy Architecture, 1953-1979 at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Frankfurt am Main

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

It is a universally acknowledged fact that men only buy Playboy to read the articles.

And we only visited the exhibition “Playboy Architecture, 1953-1979″ at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum in Frankfurt in order to, to, to, tttoooooooo see the Eames DCW that is on display…..mmmm…… its not a chair you see that often….. aaahhh……mmmmmmmm….. or the Bertoia Diamond Chair?

[Audible nervous cough. Depart stage left.]

Playboy Architecture 1953 1979 Deutsches Architekturmuseum Frankfurt am Main Designs for Living

Playboy Architecture 1953-1979 at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum Frankfurt am Main

Originating from a project by students at Princeton University under the guidance of the architecture historian Beatriz Colomina, Playboy Architecture, 1953-1979 seeks to explore Playboy magazine’s role in disseminating contemporary architecture and design. Since its première in 1953 Playboy has frequently covered contemporary architecture and design subjects and so, according to the students theory, helped bring the new ideas of 1950s, 60s and 70s architecture and design to a wider public, and specifically to a public composed of those with the money and influence to help spread the message. And so help move American architecture and design on from the staid pre-war concepts towards lighter, modern styles.

Playboy Architecture, 1953-1979 presents the results of the students research in form of photographs, architectural models, magazines and items of furniture divided into six broad thematic categories.

To begin with however, yes, there is no escaping the nudity nor the widely known if not widely accepted Playboy representation of the female. Not least because the central area in the exhibition space has been converted into a sort of library featuring a complete collection of all Playboy magazines published from 1953 to 1979 for visitors to peruse at their leisure. And pleasure.

No, honest.

Does that matter? Should that matter? Can one look beyond the nudity and inappropriate visual imagery and concentrate on the architecture and design? Distance oneself from the objectification?…… No. Of course you can’t. Don’t be stupid.

When, for example, you want to check in the September 1970 edition to see what the authors had to say about “portable playhouse” architecture, you can’t help noticing that the same edition includes “A loving look at the no-bra look”

However, having viewed the exhibition you do realise that the academic position from which the project arose does have a validity, and as such project and exhibition are perfectly valid.

We would just have preferred it if rather than ignoring the magazine’s wider context, that the curators had split the exhibition into two components: one looking at the serious, sensible coverage the magazine gave contemporary design and architecture. And one looking at naked women perched on chairs.

And then compared, contrasted and drawn some form of conclusion

We don’t want to get all sociological on you. It would just have been better.

Playboy Architecture 1953 1979 Deutsches Architekturmuseum Frankfurt am Main

Playboy Architecture, 1953-1979 at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Frankfurt am Main

Despite any and all objections to the form of female representation on show, the exhibition ably demonstrates that over the period in question Playboy did cover architecture and design with a degree of seriousness. If a lower degree of regularity.

They, for example, only published one full length piece that dealt directly with contemporary American furniture design; the July 1961 article “Designs for Living” from John Anderson, and which was accompanied by a double page photo of George Nelson, Charles Eames, Edward Wormley, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia and Jens Risom each sitting on/standing next to an example of their craft. All in suits. One must add. And one must also add that it is a very well written and serious article. Not just a collection of “Enjoy the curves on that!”, “form follows function!!!” innuendo, but a genuinely well written piece that could conceivably help make the subject of 1960s furniture design clear and understandable. And is in many respects a better piece than most contemporary articles you are likely read on the period and its designers.

In addition throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s Playboy featured regular-ish interviews with architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, Mies van der Rohe, presented regular features on home electronics, Hi-Fi and other lifestyle accessories and had an almost childish fascination with 1970s fantasy “UFO” architecture. But perhaps most interestingly and most relevantly Playboy regularly published their own vision of the ideal bachelor pad for the suave, sophisticated man about town.

In many ways similar to all those nauseatingly awful “home lifestyle” features magazines are full of today, just much better.

Starting with an idealised “Playboy Penthouse Apartment” in 1956 and moving over, for example a “Weekend Hideaway” or a “Duplex Penthouse”, the zenith of the project was unquestionably reached with the publishing in 1962 of plans for a Playboy Town House. Created by R. Donald Jaye the construction was published with the tag line “Posh plans for exciting urban living” and included a swimming pool housed in an atrium with a retractable roof.  In addition to sketches and pages from the original article the exhibition also includes a scale model of what could, arguably should, have been. The project was, regrettably, never realised.

Through the presentation of all these projects however one realises just how well, how competently and how self evidently Playboy placed the furniture of the period into a highly stylised vision of the perfect urbane existence.

As we say just like all those nauseatingly awful “home lifestyle” features magazines are full of today. Just much better.

A Nelson bench in the bathroom, an Eames DCW and Isamu Noguchi Coffee Table in the bedroom, or a Saarinen Womb Chair in the lounge of the Penthouse, while the Town House model features, amongst other pieces, an Eames Lounge Chair and ottoman, a brace of Barcelona Chairs and a complete Eero Saarinen Tulip Dining Room ensemble.

Who wouldn’t want all that?

As we say, interspersed with such well considered and genuinely interesting features are the photos of women sitting on chairs in various stages of undress and in improbable and not especially comfortable looking positions. Every bit as competently and self evidently presented as the furniture in the Playboy buildings; and images which present a highly stylised vision of the perfect compagnon for the suave, sophisticated man about town.

A parallel which delightfully illustrates from where much of today’s over sexualised advertising originates. Today’s advertising executives obviously spent their youth stealing dad’s copy of Playboy.

Playboy Architecture 1953 1979 Deutsches Architekturmuseum Frankfurt am Main Playboy Penthouse Interior

Playboy Architecture, 1953-1979 at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Frankfurt am Main

Despite presenting a few excellent arguments Playboy Architecture, 1953-1979  fails to provided any scientific, validated evidence to back up the claim that Playboy was or has been central in disseminating new design and architecture thinking. Far less support Beatriz Colomina’s assertion that “Playboy made it acceptable for men to be interested in modern architecture and design”

It does however wonderfully explain that the magazine clearly played a role and that it unquestionably helped introduce the ideas and protagonists of the period to a consumer group interested in modern fashion, hot cars, smooth cocktails, careless adventure and naked breasts.

But without any evidence to the contrary we maintain a position that such a group were relatively small and of only marginal significance to the success of Charles Eames, George Nelson et al. Not least because, as the exhibition itself shows, the serious coverage of architecture and design was far too intermittent. Plus there are too many important developments, designers, architects and subject areas from the decades in question that Playboy never covered to allow one to argue that the magazine was “important”. Essentially it only presented a very narrow, selective, impression of design and architecture, and one that largely mirrored the magazine’s unhealthy infatuation with James Bond.

And the titillating photos are and were intended to transmit just the one idea.

Or put another way, we believe that, for example, whereas most Playboy readers of the period probably remember the image of November 1954′s “Playmate of the Month” reclining, carefree, in her B.K.F Hardoy Chair. Only very few will be able to describe the chair. Far less name the designer(s). And no one bought one on the strength of Miss November’s recommendation.

The exhibition still has a few weeks to run and so there is still time to make up your own minds.

Obviously if your not comfortable around lots, as in lots, of images of naked females and women in various stages of undress, your not going to enjoy the exhibition and shouldn’t go. Nor should you go if 1960s faux-jazz lounge music makes your stomach turn. A constant background drone diffuses through the exhibition space.

If however you enjoy all that, or at least can contextualise and accept such, Playboy Architecture, 1953-1979 is a thoroughly entertaining and informative exhibition that, as we say, may not prove the students theory but does provide insights that their logic wasn’t entirety misplaced and that Playboy was at least partly responsible for advancing, for example, American mid-century modern.

And as we all learnt at school, showing your workings always gets you bonus marks, even if the end result isn’t the required one.

Playboy Architecture, 1953-1979 can be viewed at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Schaumainkai 43, 60596 Frankfurt am Main, Germany until Sunday April 20th 2014

(smow) blog Design Calendar: 31st January 1961 – Charles Eames Granted Patent for a Side Flexing Shock Mount

Friday, January 31st, 2014

“In the development and designing of furniture one prevailing problem is the means for securing parts of the furniture together particularly when the parts are made of thin materials such as plywood or metal. This problem is particularly difficult when a certain amount of twisting or give between the parts is desired so as to provide resiliency to one of the parts. In general efforts to solve this problem have failed.”1

So begins a patent application filed by Charles Eames on 28th July 1958. There is however good news.

“I have solved the problem by devising the shock structure of this invention.”

The US Patent Office agreed, and on 31st January 1961 Charles Eames was granted US Patent Nr. 2,969,831 for a “Side Flexing Shock Mount.”

Despite what one may believe when one reads fawning “design” articles, design isn’t about simply creating pretty objects in pretty colours for pretty double page spreads in pretty magazines read by pretty people.

Design is lot of hard work. Dirty hard work.

All too often the biggest impediment to achieving a desired functionality is the necessary system simply doesn’t exist. And so as a designer you must invent it.

In this specific case Charles Eames had a problem combining the seat and backrest of his Lounge Chair in such a manner that the backrest was free to move with the sitter’s body and so provide increased support and comfort.

Charles Eames had previously patented a shock mount – US Patent 2,667,210 – that served on the plywood chair group. However as the Side Flexing Shock Mount patent claim explains, such a mount is and was only suitable in static cases, in cases where “the shock mount is required to absorb only vibration and compression shock.”

With the Lounge Chair Charles and Ray Eames wanted, needed, movement.

And so invention was required.

With the Side Flexing Shock Mount the functionality comes through “an elongated block of resilient material having an elongated rigid member or insert secured thereto.” The steel “insert” moves with the movement of the backrest, and is supported and protected by the rubber “block”, thus allowing the “desired flexibility to the back of the chair while at the same time providing durability and strength due to the even distribution of the load.”

A simple yet effective solution to a serious problem.

And a shining example of how unromantic, how mundane, how bureaucratic, the designer’s lot is.

We obviously don’t recommend taking your Eames Lounge Chair apart to investigate the shock mount, just be thankful that Charles Eames understood his craft as well as he did. If he hadn’t, you wouldn’t now be sitting so comfortably. Nor could your children, their children, their children’s children…..

1, and all subsequent quotes, United States Patent Office, Patent Nr. 2,969,831 Accessed 30.01.2014

Charles Eames US Patent Nr 2,969,831 Side Flexing Shock Mount

Sketches from Charles Eames Patent Application for a Side Flexing Shock Mount. (Source: United States Patent Office)

Vitra acquire Artek. Eames meets Aalto. Again.

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

At Design Miami Basel 2013 one of the more impressive presentations was without question the collection of Alvar Aalto furniture shown by Stockholm/Berlin based gallery Jackson Design.

A presentation that included rare examples of Alvar Aalto’s furniture for and by the Finnish manufacturer Artek. And all available for purchase.

Basel based furniture manufacturer Vitra have gone one step further, and have purchased Artek.

Vitra acquire Artek Eames meets Aalto Jackson Gallery Basel

Alvar Aalto furniture presented by Jackson Gallery at Design Miami Basel 2013

Following completion of his architecture studies in 1921 Alvar Aalto initially established his own practice in Jyväskylä before in 1927 moving south to Turku. In Turku Aalto became acquainted with Otto Korhonen, director of the local wooden furniture manufacturer Huonekalu-ja Rakennustyötehdas with whom he began cooperating on various Huonekalu-ja Rakennustyötehdas projects.

A consequence of these cooperations was that Alvar Aalto began experimenting with wood and for all the moulding of plywood, experimentation that eventually led him to develop his own furniture objects. The first major works being the furnishings for his 1932 Paimio Sanatorium project.

In 1933 Alvar Aalto presented his furniture in a show at Fortnum & Mason in London. The show was a huge success, so much so that demand for Aalto’s reduced, inexpensive wooden furniture far exceed the competence of both Aalto and Huonekalu-ja Rakennustyötehdas. As a result in 1935 a decision was made to form a company to produce Aalto’s furniture and so better control and manage the future development. In December 1935 Alvar Aalto, his wife Aino Aalto, the art collector Maire Gullichsen and art historian Nils-Gustav Hahl formally established the aforementioned Artek. And today Artek remain the sole licensed producer of Alvar Aalto’s designs.

Vitra acquire Artek Eames meets Aalto Leg Moulding

Creating the L-leg as presented in the exhibition Stool 60 by Alvar Aalto at Ungers Archiv für Architekturwissenschaft Cologne.

A central component of Alvar Aalto’s early furniture was the so called “L-leg” – a construction developed by Alvar Aalto in cooperation with Otto Korhonen and whose poetic simplicity was wonderfully demonstrated in the exhibition “Stool 60 by Alvar Aalto” presented at Ungers Archiv für Architekturwissenschaft in Cologne during Cologne Design Week 2013. Over the decades Aalto extended and developed the L-leg into the Y-leg and the X-leg, but all in essence based on the same, very simple, very ingenious, moulding process.

And it is this process that is more important, and interesting, than the leg itself. For with his L-leg Alvar Aalto led the way in developing methods for moulding plywood, and as such laid the foundation for all subsequent moulded plywood furniture.

Which of course brings us to Charles Eames.

It is often argued that Alvar Aalto was an important source of inspiration for Charles Eames, his major breakthrough coming as it did with his and Eero Saarinen’s success in the 1940 MoMa “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition with a seating collection based around moulded plywood shells.

Marilyn Neuhart, however, and somewhat interestingly, sees Eero Saarinen as being more influenced by Alvar Aalto, arguing that Eames was more directly influenced by Marcel Breuer, quoting Peter Blake’s recollection of Charles Eames’ assertion that “…. he couldn’t possibly have done what he did in [furniture design] without Lajko’s [Breuer's] remarkable pioneering designs” to support her argument.1.

One shouldn’t forget however that Marcel Breuer’s own moulded plywood furniture for Isokon first appeared post-1933. And endearing and enticing as Breuer’s Isokon designs unquestionably are, the decision to follow such a line was, we would argue, a reaction to the reaction to Alvar Aalto’s work.

But then one must consider Göran Schildt’s assertion that Aalto’s Paimio Armchair is a “….translation of Breuer’s Wassily chair into the language of wood”2.

Which is all the sort of delightful circular arguments that can have innocent fools like us chasing our tales for months.

And so while the question of direct and/or indirect inspiration is difficult to clarify what is clear is that had Alvar Aalto not discovered the essential difference between the bending of heated wood as perfected by Michael Thonet and the moulding of multi-layered plywood as perfected by himself, it is questionable how far a Charles Eames would have come. Or better put with which product a Charles Eames would have achieved his breakthrough.

The 1940 award winning MoMa collection would arguably never have been realised.

Vitra acquire Artek Eames meets Aalto Paimio Armchair.

The Paimio Armchair by Alvar Aalto through Artek

In addition to the complete Alvar Aalto back catalogue with Artek Vitra have also purchased a fantasy world of furniture design classics by designers and architects including Ilmari Tapiovaara, Shigeru Ban, Tapio Wirkkala, Eero Aarnio. And of course Enzo Mari‘s seminal Sedia 1 chair from his 1974 Autoprogettazione project. A project that remains one of the most important conceptual research projects in the story of modern furniture design.

Ironic in the whole story is that Vitra could so nearly have had access to the Alvar Aalto catalogue without having to buy Artek.  In his fulminous George Nelson biography Stanley Abercrombie notes that “Two other suggestions by Nelson were never effectively pursued, however, even though [Herman Miller Chairman] De Pree wrote Nelson in August 1946 that “Your suggestion regarding Mies van der Rohe and Aalto makes a hit with me.”3.

The suggestion was that Herman Miller should organise licences for the production of Mies van der Rohe’s and Alvar Aalto’s furniture. Contracts that had they ever come about would have meant the works of Alvar Aalto would have been part of the Vitra programme since the late 1950s.

Just imagine that……

Vitra acquire Artek Eames meets Aalto Alvar Aalto 60 stool

Stool 60 by Alvar Aalto through Artek. Here as seen in the exhibition Stool 60 by Alvar Aalto at Ungers Archiv für Architekturwissenschaft Cologne.

According to the joint press release Vitra and Artek will continue to trade independently, possibilities for cooperating in terms of manufacturing, distribution and logistics will however be explored. Which we suspect means for all a chance for Vitra to consolidate their Scandinavian business. A region where there is high demand for the Vitra classic’s, but no extended Vitra distribution network.

The purchase also opens a further intriguing possibility; namely, having collected architects as furniture designers and as architects for the Vitra Campus it will be interesting to observe if Vitra now start collecting architects as producers. We can certainly think of another couple of firms who would fit very well into an extended Vitra portfolio. We’ll keep you updated.

And to end, and to clarify the post title a little, while Charles Eames and Alvar Aalto unquestionably met theoretically through their works, we have no direct evidence that Charles Eames ever physically met Alvar Aalto; but lots of circumstantial evidence that they must have met. We do however have firm evidence that George Nelson met Alvar Aalto; in a 1948 letter to Charles Eames Nelson writes, “It was perfectly wonderful running into him [Alvar Aalto] and we went out afterwards and consumed the entire stock of the local bar”4.

We trust the celebrations to mark Vitra’s purchase of Artek were a more reserved affair.

Vitra acquire Artek Eames meets Aalto Logo

1. Marilyn Neuhart, “The Story of Eames Furniture” gestalten Verlag, Berlin, 2010

2.Göran Schildt in “Aalto Interiors”, Alvar Aalto Museo, Helsinki, 1986

3. Stanley Abercrombie, “George Nelson: The Design of Modern Design” MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1995

4. ibid.

Lost Furniture Design Classics: Case Furniture by Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

We know what you’re thinking, lost furniture designs from Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames.



Two of the most important, influential and best known protagonists of mid-century modern design have a product series that has vanished without trace.

And in our opinion it vanished exactly because Saarinen and Eames are two of the best known protagonists of mid-century modern design.

But let’s start at the beginning….

In 1940 the Museum of Modern Art New York staged their “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition, a design competition that has of course gone down in history as the first time the chair design work of Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames was presented to a wider public.

And indeed rewarded, the pair’s seating collection winning the competition’s “Seating for a living room” category. The most famous member of that 1940 family being the “Conversation Chair”, better known today as the from Vitra produced Organic Chair.

Less well known is that Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames also won the category “Other furniture for a living room” with a truly outrageous modular storage unit system.

Consisting of seven storage units and three base units the beauty of the Eames/Saarinen Case Furniture is less that one can freely combine the various components as required, but much more that as the exhibition catalogue states, “These designs by Saarinen and Eames, probably for the first time, exploit the base for itself.”1.

For not only was it intended that the bases could be used on their own as seating or, and as comically illustrated in the sketches prepared for the competition, as a flower bench, but through the way you combine the storage units and bases you can create the most delightful combinations of seating, storage and work areas of varying heights and lengths. And that in a, more-or-less, infinitely extendible and customisable system.

The only comparable modern equivalent we can think of is Level 34 by Werner Aisslinger for Vitra.

As befits a genuine lost furniture design classic pictures of the Case Furniture by Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames are as rare as a pothole free road in Leipzig, but those that are available in the exhibition catalogue beautifully illustrate just what is possible.

Sadly, owing to “issues” with the rights holders, and unwilling to have the pants sued off us, we are unable to bring you said images… But they are good. If you can find a copy of said catalogue you wont be disappointed!


All winning entries in the competition were produced and made available for sale at leading American department stores of the day including Bloomingdale’s New York, Barker Brothers Los Angeles and Marshall Field & Company Chicago.

The Eames and Saarinen storage system was produced by the Red Lion Table Company2. based in Red Lion Pennsylvania.

And has completely vanished from the designer furniture radar. As in completely. Without trace. As if it never existed.

But how could that be, given the prominence of both Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames?

For us the answer lies in the very traditional form language and construction of the system.

It is classic cabinet making.

There is absolutely nothing “modern” in the objects. And as such we suspect that in the euphoria of the post-war rise of the American furniture industry, and for all the commercial value of the industry’s brave new stars as represented by the likes of Eames and Saarinen, “conservative” furniture was overlooked.

Or classed as “unsellable” by self-appointed “trend experts”, and so dismissed to the archives.

Which of course means that the marketing men of the day failed to notice that the innovation in the system is not in the objects themselves, or as with the prize winning chairs the novelty of the construction process, but the way they connect, the relationship between the objects, the modularity, the innumerate possible combinations and for all the fact that the components represent the start of a system that has the potential to not only be extended by further components but which through its intelligent design can be used for generations with older and newer units fitting effortlessly together.

Aside from the fact that good furniture should always be available, what really upsets us about the fact that the system has vanished is that it presents a rarely, if ever, seen facet of both Eero Saarinen’s and Charles Eames’ canon that helps us form a complete picture of how their creativity and understanding of design developed over the decades.

That and the fact the system is simply inspired genius.




(Just to repeat: Sadly, owing to “issues” with the rights holders, and unwilling to have the pants sued off us, we are unable to bring you said images… But they are good. If you can find a copy of said catalogue you wont be disappointed!)

1. “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1941

2. Arthur Drexler “Charles Eames. Furniture from the Design Collection, The Museum of Modern Art New York” New York, 1973

Gewerbemuseum Winterthur: Wood Loop – Auf Biegen und Brechen

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

At the risk of upsetting furniture historians, wood is probably the longest serving material in furniture design.

It is also one of the most deceptively complex and hard to work materials in furniture design.

For all bending, shaping and moulding pieces of solid wood is a process that has long fascinated and infuriated designers and architects in equal measure.

From Michael Thonet‘s ground breaking research in the 19th century, over the efforts of Alvar Aalto, Marcel Breuer or Charles Eames in the 20th and onto Christian Kuhn and Serge Lunin’s development of the dukta* process in the 21st, the desire to shape and form wood as easily as one can bend metal or mould plastic has been a driving force in the development of popular design and architecture.

On Saturday November 17th the Gewerbemuseum Winterthur will open “Wood Loop – Auf Biegen und Brechen” a new exhibition looking at the use of wood in furniture design over the years, but for all the use of bent wood in it is multifarious forms.

The title is of course a reference to Michael Thonet’s singular maxim. Bend or Break.

In addition to an exhibition presenting a range of classic and contemporary examples of bent wood furniture, “Wood Loop – Auf Biegen und Brechen” promises an in-depth exploration of the dukta process and its development history, while for “Atelier dukta” seven architect and design studios have each developed a project specially for the exhibition.

We’ve not seen the exhibition yet and so obviously can’t make any comment on how well it achieves it goals or how deeply it explores the subject matter.

However as an idea for an exhibition we find it absolutely fascinating and certainly as subject it has the scope and depth to provide a truly rewarding experience.

And all who can make it to the the opening on Saturday afternoon are guaranteed a special treat; our old chums from the Thonet wood bending team will be on hand to present a live demonstration of Michael Thonet’s revolutionary process. And don’t be scared to ask if you can have a go. They usually say yes….

Wood Loop – Auf Biegen und Brechen runs at the Gewerbemuseum Winterthur Kirchplatz 14 CH-8400 Winterthur from November 17th 2012 until April 21st 2013.

In addition to the exhibition the museum have also organised the de rigueur fringe programme. Full details can be found at

*The dukta process was developed by Christian Kuhn and Serge Lunin in a joint project with academic and industry partners. It involves making small incisions in the wood in order to increase flexibility….

Gewerbemuseum Winterthur Wood Loop Auf Biegen und Brechen Michael Thonet

Biegen oder Brechen. Michael Thonet the father of all wood benders.

Gewerbemuseum Winterthur Wood Loop Auf Biegen und Brechen Thonet

And the process developed by Michael Thonet is still practised today. (Here at the Thonet Factory in Frankenberg (Eder))


Marcel Breuer design and architecture Bauhaus dessau Isokon moulded plywood chair

Moulded plywood furniture by Marcel Breuer for Isokon, London (1936)

Design for Use, USA

Friday, November 4th, 2011
Design for Use USA catalogue

Design for Use, USA. The cover of Alexander Girard's catalogue.

“Wooden spoon for pickled vegetables by John F. Kennedy”

? ? ?

John F. Kennedy. Green Mountain Woodcrafters, Vermont.

And no relation of Teddy or Robert.

Still cheered us up.

From March 20th until April 25th 1951 Stuttgart hosted the first post-war exhibition of modern American home furnishings and appliances in Europe.

Organised by the New York Museum of Modern Art under the title “Design for Use, USA”, the exhibition featured a cross section of American domestic design.

And a Who’s Who of mid 20th century American designers: Charles Eames. George Nakashima. Ray Eames. George Nelson. Eero Saarinen. Isamu Noguchi. Etcetera.

All presented in an exhibition concept and catalogue designed by Alexander Girard.

Aside from the very appetising list of objects displayed, the exhibition was and is interesting for a number of reasons.

Firstly because it took place some two years before Willi and Erika Fehlbaum made their fateful trip to New York; from which they returned with the seeds of Vitra in their hand luggage.

Imagine. Just for a second. If someone in Stuttgart had shown a little more entrepreneurial spirit.

No Vitra.

Which is an important lesson in grabbing the opportunity when it presents itself.

Secondly, the exhibition arguably kick-started the designer furniture industry in post-war Europe.

In her article “The “Advance” of American Postwar Design in Europe: MoMA and the Design for Use, USA Exhibition 1951–1953″1 Gay Mcdonald argues that the whole exercise was simply concerned with promoting Americana in Europe in the context of the Marshall Plan. And when you read the original 1951 MoMa press release2 its hard to disagree.

Doesn’t interest us.

As far as we’re aware Americans have always been obsessed with exporting their culture to the rest of the world. Be it blue jeans, hamburgers or oppressive security concepts in the name of freedom.

And of course they famously invented their own sports rather than assimilate those from other cultures.

But we trust that most Europeans, and indeed most Americans, are intelligent enough to form their own conclusions and opinions.

And so regardless of the motives, we find the exhibition was the right thing at the right time. At that period America, untouched by the war, was the motor of world product design. And MoMa was unquestionably the institution playing the biggest role in promoting American design innovation.

In 1951 most of Europe was busy re-building and was greatly in need of quick, efficient housing and furnishing solutions.

Ergo, let MoMa bring the best America has to offer to Europe. And let us take inspiration from those bits we like.

upholstred chair georeg nelson herman miller

"Upholstered chair" by George Nelson for Herman Miller from the Design for Use, USA catalogue

Gay Mcdonald quotes a source as stating that some 60,000 visitors attended the exhibition. That may not sound much; but one must remember that it was 1951. There were no budget airlines offering 20p flights to Stuttgart. And also a lot less “design industry”.

The aforementioned Vitra was still an inconsequential shop fitting company in Basel.

And so 60,00 is fantastic.

What is sadly not documented is who went and what they took away with them.

For just as every important and influential Manchester band of the late 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s can trace their origins back to 4th June 1976 and the Sex Pistols concert at the Lesser Free Trade Hall; we romantically hope that “Design for Use, USA” shaped European furniture design of the 50s and 60s.

However, without the documentation one can only conject on the long-term effect that the exhibition had on those who visited.

After Stuttgart the exhibition continued through Europe with stops in London, Paris, Zürich and the Milan Triennale.

The fact that no-one took the opportunity to organise European production licenses indicating that, maybe, it was all just too new. Too different.

However, it conceivably began a sensitising process that paved the way for Vitra to successfully launch the works of Eames, Nelson, Noguchi et al in 1957.

And indeed for Wilde + Spieth to successfully market Egon Eiermann’s chairs. Egon Eiermann began publicly working towards mass market furniture when he participated in the “Wie Wohnen ?” exhibition that took place in Stuttgart and Karlsruhe in 1949/50. Many of his designs however originated from the mid-1940s, and Eiermann was undoubtedly influenced by what he was reading from America in the specialist publications of the time.

We’re not saying he was copying. But Eiermann and Eames were certainly researching and experimenting in similar directions. Eames albeit a little quicker and more successfully.

Yet in 1951, only few industry figures would have been aware of this, and indeed in 1951 Eiermann’s SE 3 (the current SE 42),  allegedly, only sold some 153 times. And principally to architects. 3 Over the next decade however not only did the sales figure dramatically improve; but Eiermann’s chair designs – with their undeniable “Hint of Eames” – advanced to become European design classics.

But again we can’t actually prove that Design for Use, USA helped.

design for use usa charles eames rar sideboard

A RAR and and ESU Bookcase by Charles and Ray Eames as depicted in the Design for Use, USA catalogue

In addition to paving the way for a new understanding of home furnishings, “Design for Use, USA” also introduced Europe to new technological and business model initiatives; we started moulding plastics and established designer furniture producers in the style of Hermann Miller. But we did it in European way.

We, for example, have no confirmed information that Arne Jacobsen attended the exhibition; but undeniable is how passionately he embraced the use of synthetic materials appearing on the market throughout the 1950s and 60s. And how expertly he fused them with the best traditions of Danish handwork. The Egg and Swan perhaps standing as the best examples.

And so while we admittedly lack the documentation, there is more than enough circumstantial evidence to indicate that without “Design for Use, USA”  it would have taken the European furniture industry a little longer to find its feet.

And with potentially less interesting products.

What we can’t predict however is how the Kennedy dynasty would look today if they had concentrated on pickle spoon design rather than politics.

design for use usa slinky richard t james

The Slinky by Richard T James: was also part of the Design for Use, USA exhibition

1. Gay McDonald “The “Advance” of American Postwar Design in Europe: MoMA and the Design for Use, USA Exhibition 1951–1953″ Design Issues: Volume 24, Number 2 Spring 2008. Pages 15-27


3. Arthur Mehlstäubler “Egon Eiermann – der deutsche Eames?” in Egon Eiermann (1904 – 1970)

(smow) summer tour 2011: Burg Giebichenstein Halle

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

Following our visits to the Bauhaus University Weimar, Fachhochschule Potsdam, Kunsthochschule Berlin-Weißensee and  Universität der Künste Berlin the final stage of our 2011 summer tour was Burg Giebichenstein Halle.

It may just be us, but we are firmly of the belief that Burg Giebichenstein students complete more, and more varied, seminars than students at any of the other schools we visit.

At least based on the presentations at their end of year show.

Be it designing record sleeves, creating items based on the characteristics of fruits/vegetables or designing the lamp that Isamu Noguchi would design if he were still active today – every room of every building seems to house at least one exhibition.

If not two.

Among those that most caught our attention were “eine Bank für zwei” and “Bodenreform”

Eine Bank für zwei set students the challenge of designing a bench for two prominent “creatives” – be they designers, architects, musicians, actors, whatever. The aim being that the benches should represent both the character’s of the users and their relationship to one another in the form language and material choice.

A lovely little project that allowed the students the chance to explore how they understand the work and character of those people they have as references, which should then help them improve their own  techniques.

And allowed us the chance to enjoy the results.

Aside from delightful solutions for Gerrit Rietveld and Charles Eames or Konstantin Grcic and Dieter Rams the highlight for us was Elias Betka’s bench for Charles and Ray Eames: a double seater RAR. An idea that not only blew our socks off, but much more got us thinking about in how far Vitra can – or perhaps better put would – ever consider further developing the work of the Ray and Charles Eames.

Elias Betka's bench for Charles and Ray Eames, Burg Giebichenstein Halle 2011

Elias Betka's bench for Charles and Ray Eames, Burg Giebichenstein Halle 2011

Although Bodenreform was officially concerned with floors, floor-coverings and exploring the role of such in architecture and design, the project from the seminar that most appealed to us didn’t really seem to fit the remit.

As far as we could see.

A fact which of course didn’t detract from the genius of Hobo by Julian Heckel.

Reminiscent of some Victorian adaption of a painters easel for wandering poets, Hobo is, for us, a small table that folds flat to be carried as a backpack, and when opened can be lent against a tree or other free standing structure.

And used to help you ease your tortured soul by comparing your rejected love to a chaffinch struggling to open seed. Or similar

There is also a small seat. That didn’t appeal to us so much.

The table however is a delightful piece of work.

Elsewhere we really liked Ausgewachsen by Annika Marie Buchberger – with one small proviso.
Created for her masters thesis Ausgewachsen is a series of kids furniture where different elements can be placed on a universal base.

Nice idea, well executed.

Except as far as we could see the base comes in three sizes – and the legs aren’t exchangeable. Which means if you want to vary the heights of the objects, you have to have all three bases.

For us the better trick would be to have interchangeable legs.

Our view, and not one that distracted from our enjoyment of the project.

Another child centred project – and there were a lot of them on show, not sure if Halle is a particularly child heavy town or if Burg Giebischenstein students are just particularly fertile – was Igi by Constanze Hosp.

Igi by Constanze Hosp, Burg Giebichenstein Halle 2011

Igi by Constanze Hosp, Burg Giebichenstein Halle 2011

Parents wanting to travel with a young baby on a bike are limited to a trailer. Or the somewhat risky business of a conventional, body hung, child carrier.

Igi is in essence a hard case child carrier that allows you to cycle with your child securely strapped to your chest.

And not just cycling. Also for travelling in over crowded public transport Igi gives new parents that little bit more security an confidence.

Despite the many highlights at the Burg Giebichenstein exhibition one irritation did cloud our day – where was the product design Graduate show?

OK we’d already seen it at DMY, but had still arrived in Halle looking forward to getting a second chance, and maybe a little more time, to explore some of the products.

But high and wide there was neither sign of the Graduate show nor any one who could direct us to where it was.


However despite that fact the 2011 Burg Giebischetsein exhibition was a more than fitting end to our summer tour – and set us us up nicely for our Autumn marathon.

As is traditional we’ve created  a small facebook gallery at

And can anyone help us identity this ⇓ ?

An unidentified chair - a regukar sight on the Burg Giebichenstein Halle campus

An unidentified chair - a regular sight on the Burg Giebichenstein Halle campus

Happy Birthday Eero Saarinen!

Thursday, August 19th, 2010
Eero Saarinen

Eero Saarinen, 1910 - 1961

August 20th marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Finnish architect/designer Eero Saarinen.

Eero Saarinen had – in all probability – very little career choice other than that of architect: Not only was his father Eliel Saarinen one of Finland’s most celebrated architects, but two of his uncles followed the same profession. In addition his mother, Loja Gesellius Saarinen, was a sculptress and textile designer.

Eero Saarinen spent his first 13 years in his birthplace, Kirkkonummi on the outskirts of Helsinki. In 1923, following the positive feedback to Eliel Saarinen’s entry for the Chicago Tribune Tower competition, the family emigrated to the USA – initially to Evanston, Illinois before in 1925 Eliel Saarinen was commissioned by G.G. Booth to build the new Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

The Cranbrook Academy Campus, designed by Eliel Saarinen

The Cranbrook Academy Campus, designed by Eliel Saarinen

A commission that was later to have a large influence on Eero’s career.

In 1930 Eero travelled to Paris where he spent a year studying sculpture at L’Académie de la Grande Chaumière before enrolling at Yale School of Architecture from where he graduated in 1935. After a year travelling Europe and North Africa, Eero Saarinen returned to America where he began working in his fathers office at Cranbrook; and where he met Charles Eames for the first time. The young Eames both studying at the college and being employed in Eliel Saarinen’s office.

The meeting was to be the start of a lifelong professional and personal relationship; Saarinen even naming the first son from his second marriage “Eames”.

Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen at Cranbrook Academy (photo © Cranbrook Archives)

Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen at Cranbrook Academy (photo © Cranbrook Archives)

The professional careers of Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen were equally close and both effectively started with joint projects; the 1940 “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition and the 1945-49 “Case Study House #9″ for Arts & Architecture Magazine.

In response to an increasing boredom in the USA with the minimalist steel/leather/glass objects of the Bauhaus School, the Museum of Modern Art in New York organised in 1940 a competition entitled: “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” to find the best new American furniture design concepts. The competition rules called for designs that were functional, affordable and based on new, modern production processes.

Eames and Saarinen submitted an entry comprising eight designs based largely on their early experiments with moulded synthetic furniture and that included, amongst others, the Conversation Chair or as it is more popularly known today, the Organic Chair.

The jury, including such luminaries as Marcel Breuer and Alvar Aalto, awarded Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen first prize.

The Organic Chair by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen through Vitra

The Organic Chair by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen through Vitra

While the award brought the pair recognition, the mass production of the Eames-Saarinen designs was still impractical in the early 1940s. The technology simply not being rife enough to either produce the chairs nor the machines required to produce the chairs. The approach used, however, was to be important in both designers later furniture design work. Charles Eames employing it for his fibreglass/plastic chair series; while Saarinen used it in his works for Knoll International, most notably the Womb Chair and the Tulip Chair – arguably his two most important designs.

Eames and Saarinen’s architectural careers also involved an early joint project. In January 1945 the US Magazine Arts & Architecture publisher John Entenza wrote an editorial calling for greater use of mass production technology in house building. In the following years a series of leading architects were commissioned to design and build their vision of the industrial mass produced house of the future.

In 1949 “Case Study House #9″ by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen was completed. Showing the typical quadratic nature of most of Eames and Saarinen’s early work,”Case Study House #9″ is filled with fixtures, features and furniture that illustrate both mens belief in the unity between architecture and design and the importance of the relation between a building, its contents and its user.

Next door to “Case Study House #9″ is “Case Study House #8″ the so-called “Eames House”: officially accredited to Charles and Ray Eames, but where one also detects the influence of Eero Saarinen.

For both Saarinen and Eames, their participation in such a prestigious project was to bring the two, still relatively young, architects a greater public and greater authority.

In 1946 another of Eero Saarinen’s “Cranbrook Connections” lead to the start of his collaboration with Knoll International.

Tulip Chair by Eero Saarinen for Knoll International

Tulip Chair by Eero Saarinen for Knoll International

At Cranbrook Saarinen had met Florence Schust. In 1944 Florence married the young German furniture producer Hans G. Knoll and became the Knoll International “in-house interior designer”; and it was Florence Knoll who approached Saarinen to ask him to develop his moulded chair concept for the company.

In total Saarinen developed over a dozen products for Knoll International, many of which have been in continuous production since their launch.

Despite the importance of his work, for Eero Saarinen furniture design was a side project to his architecture career; a career which saw him build, amongst other buildings, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St Louis, the TWA Terminal at JFK Airport New York and Dulles International Airport, Washington. That said it was never a lesser value work for Saarinen, who was fascinated by the concept that each part of a work could reflect and compliment the others, that outside and inside could be united as one entity.  In that sense Saarinen’s furniture designs can be seen as a direct extension of his architectural work. And his architectural work as an extension of his furniture design.

On September 1st 1961 Eero Saarinen died following an operation on a brain tumour.

Despite dying young, in his 25 year career Eero Saarinen created a canon of work – both architectural and furniture designs – that not only helped redefine architectural theory and shaped future thinking, but also laid the foundations for much of the modern designer furniture industry.

Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.

Eero Saarinen, 1910- 1961

(smow) offline: Win a Vitra Organic Chair

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

Organic Chair by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen through Vitra

It may not be the most universally recognised example of either Charles Eames‘ nor Eero Saarinen‘s canon however their 1940 “Conversation Chair” is without doubt one of the more important examples of 20th century furniture design.

Designed for the New York Museum of Modern Art’s “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition the Conversation Chair was a concept piece and Eames’ and Saarinen’s first attempt at moulding synthetics.

At that time however the technology lagged somewhat behind the designers imagination and it was to be almost a decade before either Charles Eames or Eero Saarinen could transform the lessons learnt into commercial products: Charles Eames with his fibreglass/plastic armchairs for Herman Miller and Eero Saarinen with his Tulip Chair for Knoll.

Tulip chair by Eero Saarinen for Knoll

Tulip chair by Eero Saarinen for Knoll

For the sake of completeness we should also mention George Nelson‘s Swag Leg Chair, a design which relies heavily  – albeit with permission – on both the technology and narrative of the Conversation Chair.

Currently marketed by Vitra as the “Organic Chair” Eames and Saarinen’s pioneer work remains a wonderfully confident yet unassuming chair that can be used in all domestic, commercial and retail settings.

And you can win one.

The designer furniture retailer network Creative Inneneinrichter – of which (smow) is a member – is offering an Organic Chair as first prize in their “My way to the VitraHaus” competition.

Second prize is a Vegetal by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec and third prize a Panton Chair.

The rules are very simple: Document your journey to the VitraHaus; the most imaginative, creative and original entry wins.

And so whether your planning skydiving onto the VitraHaus, negotiating the Alps Hannibal-esque with elephants or rafting down the Rhein simply register at the Creative Inneneinrichter website and upload your photos/videos/certificates.

Full details can be found at “Mein weg ins VitraHaus

Although Jasper Morrison built a bus stop next to teh VitraHaus - travelling by bus probabyl wont win you the Organic Chair

Although Jasper Morrison built a bus stop next to the VitraHaus - travelling by bus probably won't win you the Organic Chair.

Eames launch soft Pad – Hope to repeat succes of aluminium Chairs

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

Zeeland, Michigan, 1969

The EA 107 from the Charles and Ray Eames aluminium chair range through Vitra

The EA 107 from the Charles and Ray Eames aluminium chair range through Vitra

Ten years ago Charles and Ray Eames revolutionised the world of chair design with their “aluminium Chair” range. And now they hope to do it again.

In one of the most eagerly anticipated announcements of the year, Charles and Ray Eames today unveiled their new product range: soft Pad

“soft Pad is our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device” declared a proud Charles Eames as he unveiled the new range to the specially invited journalists in the Yerba Buena Center in Zeeland, Michigan

With the soft Pad  Charles and Ray Eames have retained the familiar aluminium Chair frames, but added a range of new features: principally individually upholstered, 2 and 3/4 inch cushions. The cushions, so Eames, contrast with the sleek aluminium profile to create a softer, more opulent chair that still maintains the transparency and clarity of the original aluminium Chair.

The EA 207 from Charles and Ray Eames new soft Pad range through Vitra

The EA 207 from Charles and Ray Eames new soft Pad range through Vitra

In addition Eames hope to expand on the success of the some 140,000 “apps” available for the aluminium Chairs and which are available over the so called aluminium Chair appsStore; including the popular foot stool and facebookapps

Critics have however highlighted the lack of USB ports and the fact that the new soft Pad doesn’t support flash as drawbacks. Charles and Ray Eames however remained upbeat and predict that the new soft Pad will find great resonance amongst consumers, will eventually become a design classic produced in Europe by Vitra and be available for purchase on the Internet.