“The role of the architect, or the designer, is that of a very good, thoughtful host, all of whose energy goes into trying to anticipate the needs of his guests – those who enter the building and use the objects in it.” -Charles Eames, Arts & Architecture, December 1945
The Modernist movement in design was formulated in the late-19th and early-20th centuries by a number of Europeans who surveyed the increasing number of industrially produced goods around them and thought, we need to do better. These pioneers of Modernism generally agreed that the technology for mass manufacturing could be harnessed to raise the standard of living for a vast segment of society. Yet they also believed that this technology needed to be directed by artists, architects and craftsmen (that is, designers) in order to find the most effective ways to marry form and function, quality and cost. Idealistic as it was, this movement generated a great deal of debate on how best to accomplish its goals. In the 1910s, heated, all-out arguments famously arose over which should take greater precedence — standardization, which would enable a higher volume of production and lower prices, or aesthetic expression, which sought to bring art and beauty into everyday life. Even now, a hundred years later, designers continue to wrestle with this tension.
Charles and Ray Eames entered the profession of design during World War II, setting up their own office and workspace in 1941 in California in order to tap into the upsurge of wartime industries situated around Los Angeles at the time. From the outset, the Eames Office espoused a philosophy summed up in one famous phrase: “the best for the most for the least.” Like the pioneers of Modernism a generation before, the Eameses wanted to employ and develop new technologies in order to produce high quality, cost-effective goods for modern living; mass production was taken by them as a given objective for any good designer.
Nonetheless, they were uncommonly sensitive to the limitations of standardization, since they also very much valued individuality and warmth as essential factors in making a house into a home. Their own home, Case Study House #8, stands today as an icon of efficient and ingenious Modernist design, fabricated from standardized parts ordered from catalogues. Even so, the Eameses configured these ready-made parts according to their own unique plan, painting the exterior in De Stijl-style color blocks and furnishing the interior with a boisterous collage of modern furniture, ethnic textiles, and tchotchkes and toys collected during their world travels. The relaxed joie de vivre of the Eames House starkly contrasts with other celebrated Modernist designs such as, say, the roughly contemporary Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe. For the Eameses, standardization should be tempered in such a way as to leave the consumer with as much opportunity as possible to customize and individualize, allowing the design to adapt to the lives of the users, rather than the other way around.
One of the primary ways in which the Eameses created adaptable designs was through a “kit-o-parts” approach, of which the modular ESU system is a prime example. Like their home, the ESU system was developed from an array of industrially produced, standardized materials, including plastic-coated plywood, wood veneers, lacquered Masonite, and chrome-plated steel framing – all of which would be assembled to order. These parts could be interchanged to create different sized cabinets and desks with varying configurations of drawers, shelves and sliding panels. Such customization allowed the ESU system to adapt not only to different types of interiors – living rooms, bedrooms, offices, etc. – providing both storage and room divisions; it also allowed each ESU purchased to reflect the aesthetic choices of its buyer, particularly through the selection of different finishes and colors. The ESU system was designed to engage the eye, but also to remain visually quiet, so as to act as a neutral backdrop for whatever personal items each consumer chose to display within it. This is a wonderful example of how the Eameses acted as “hosts” through their design work. They provided each consumer with the basic building blocks to create something suited to his or her own needs and tastes, making this consumer feel very at home with the product.
The work produced by the office of Charles and Ray Eames between the 1940s and 1970s remains to this day an uncontested exemplar of excellence in design. Any number of reasons might be cited: the Eameses’ egalitarian design philosophy; the office’s highly influential innovations in materials and processes, most notably molded plywood; the very fact that many Eames designs have been in continuous production for more than sixty years. But it is the perfection with which they exploited the power of industrialization while preserving a humanistic aesthetic that secures their important position within the history of objects.
Expert midcentury design dealer Mark McDonald will present a pristine 1953 Eames Storage Unit (ESU) at Design Miami/ this December.