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05.13.2011
Review> Reseating Eames
The Story of Eames Furniture by Marilyn Neuhart
The Graphic Room at the Eames office in Los Angeles.
Courtesy Library of Congress Eames Collection

The Story of Eames Furniture
Marilyn Neuhart
Die Gestalten Verlag, $199

Designer-writer Marilyn Neuhart’s The Story of Eames Furniture, a weighty 800-page, two-volume work with more than 2,500 illustrations, recently joined the many publications that document the canonical work produced by Charles and Ray Eames from 1941 to 1978. The book is an exhaustive account of the Eameses’ groundbreaking furniture designs in molded plywood, bent and welded wire, fiberglass, cast aluminum, and other materials—from their home experiments in molded plywood to the mass-produced furniture manufactured by Evans Products, and since 1948, by Herman Miller (Vitra manufactures Eames designs in Europe). The first half of volume one, The Early Years, is devoted to biographical material about Charles and Ray, their staff, and key colleagues (Eero Saarinen and John Entenza) who were influential in the evolution of their design practice. The remaining sections focus on the Eameses’ design work from 1941 through 1947. Volume two, The Age of Herman Miller, picks up the story at the moment when Herman Miller became the manufacturer of Eames furniture. Every Eames design introduced by Herman Miller from 1948 to 1978—seating, storage, and tables—is presented.

Apart from being a comprehensive catalogue of Eames furniture, Neuhart primarily intends her work as a corrective to what she claims has been the mythologizing and “deification” of the couple’s professional and personal lives. Charles Eames is shown alone on the slipcase, a clear signal that The Story of Eames Furniture is his story, not a tale of collaboration between Charles and Ray Eames, as other authors have argued. In what had originally been a portrait of the couple, Ray’s image has literally been erased, an apt metaphor for the tone and message of this book. (Remarkably, only the pre-marriage material about Ray Kaiser is referenced in the index; there is no entry for Ray Eames.)

Studio space at the Eames Office.
Courtesy Gestalten
 

The Eameses’ interest in furniture was predicated on designing for mass production, a process that requires many hands and minds to transform a prototype into an industrially produced object. In addition to compiling a chronology of furniture, the author has made it her mission to give credit to those on the Eameses’ staff who contributed to this process—credit that was largely absent when the work was underway. Her account aims to deflate the “myth” of Charles as the primary design force behind the furniture, and relegates Ray’s role to little more than flower-arranger, hostess, and sometime color consultant. Among the employees of the Eameses, Don Albinson and Harry Bertoia receive the greatest credit for the design of signature Eames seating products. Don Albinson is identified as the lead designer of the Sofa Compact, the wire mesh chair, the Eames lounge chair, and the cast Aluminum Group chair, among others. To underscore the view of former Eames Office employee Parke Meek (presumably shared by Neuhart), that “Without Don Albinson there would never have been a Charles Eames,” the author designates nearly 150 pages as  “Eames Furniture: The Albinson Years.”  Bertoia—as reported to Neuhart by Albinson, and staff member Fred Usher—is credited with designing the form and structural system of the molded plywood chair.

 
Reception area at the Eames Office (left) and the Eames Storage Unit (right).
 

The author makes it clear that her narrative is that of an eyewitness, an insider’s account, unencumbered by the scholar’s reliance on “second- and third-hand sources.” Her husband John Neuhart, who assisted with this book, worked at the Eames office from 1957–1961. Together, the Neuharts collaborated on Connections, a traveling exhibition about the Eameses’ design practice, which opened in 1976 at the University of California, Los Angeles; and after Charles Eames’ death, with Ray Eames on Eames Design (1989), a survey of Eames office work in which the staff for each project was listed. As a duo, the Neuharts also wrote Eames House in 1994.

The Story of Eames Furniture, through interviews with former staff and other associates, reconstructs a sense of the day-to-day work involved in refining design, inventing molding devices, experimenting with glues and upholstery techniques, and a myriad of other steps required to ready a prototype for factory production. Interspersed with these details are many anecdotes, often sharply critical of Charles and Ray, with plenty of gossipy detail. The author warns readers that they will learn intimate, “painful” details of Charles and Ray’s life, as she whittles their formerly heroic stature down to human-size proportions. For this reader, the relentless criticism of the Eameses’ lifestyle and character is a distraction from the story of Eames furniture. It seems there’s always room for a new jab at Ray’s quirks and shortcomings. Why tell us how long Ray took to get dressed? Or how many affairs Charles allegedly had? Do these stories add to our understanding of historically important furniture design?

The author over privileges her own interviews over many existing writings and interviews, disregarding, in text and bibliography, most relevant work published since 1995. For example, she excludes the Library of Congress/Vitra Design Museum exhibition catalogue, The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention (Abrams, 1997), Eames Demetrios’ An Eames Primer (Universe, 2001), Pat Kirkham’s Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century (MIT, 1995), and recent monographs and exhibition catalogs on others who figure prominently in her narrative, including Gregory Ain, Gilbert Rohde, and Eero Saarinen. Neuhart’s interest is clearly in story, not history.

Spread from the "Design for Living" feature in the July 1969 issue of Playboy magazine.
 

The second volume, The Age of Herman Miller, in addition to its comprehensive entries for each piece of Eames furniture produced by the company, also provides extended biographies of Herman Miller executives, as well as designer-colleagues George Nelson and Alexander Girard, who also produced work for Herman Miller. It was, therefore, perplexing to realize there were no photo credits listed for Herman Miller, and to read the author’s note that for this volume she had no access to the company’s archive. The company provided the explanation: “Ultimately this latest book should be considered on it merits—we believe there is little value to be found for serious students or practitioners of design.” It appears that once company officials understood Neuhart’s agenda—to significantly discredit the Eameses’ design authorship, ascribing it instead to their staff--they withheld rights to publish photos from their corporate archive.

Those who care about scholarship and accuracy will be disappointed and frustrated by the many errors and general carelessness evident throughout.  To locate Frank Lloyd Wright’s “renowned” Fallingwater in Wisconsin—as Neuhart has—is merely one example of misinformation that casts doubt on the author’s reliability.  While the book obviously encompasses a vast amount of detail about the Eameses, their colleagues and associates, and about modernism’s most celebrated furniture, the cumulative effect is an unsatisfying experience.  The author’s agenda precludes an objective exposition of Charles and Ray’s real role in the design process and a cogent understanding of their design philosophy.

Phyllis Ross

Design Historian Phyllis Ross is author of Gilbert Rohde: Modern Design for Modern Living (Yale, 2009).