Plywood During the War
Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen may have won MoMA’s 1940 Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition (in both “seating for a living room” and “other furniture for a living room” categories), but the failure of the designs to be realized as they were intended radically reshaped Eames’s entire approach to design.
While the ethos and aesthetics of the furniture were sound—with designs that utilized three-dimensionally-molded plyformed wood shells, thin upholstered pads, and patented connector joints, to create lightweight and low-cost solutions for comfortable seating based on human factors—the imaginations of the designers eclipsed the abilities of manufacturers. Eames soon realized that the real medium for industrial design was industry, not paper, and that the successful designer must work diligently to fully understand, embrace, and overcome constraints at every stage of production. Divorced and remarried to Cranbrook student Ray Kaiser in 1941, Eames set out for a new life in Los Angeles, California, and instigated a remarkable period of research and exploration that would see the couple evolve from moonlighting novices to masters of mass production—and set the stage for a lifelong journey in the pursuit of problem-solving design.
After Ray and Charles arrived in Los Angeles, they soon befriended John Entenza, editor and publisher of the influential Art & Architecture magazine—where they served on the editorial board and offered frequent contributions, including more than two dozen cover designs, and collaborations with influential friends and colleagues. Charles found work in the art department at MGM studios, making architectural renderings of set designs for directors including Vincente Minnelli and George Davis.
On weeknights and weekends, Ray and Charles pursued their consuming interest—high-performance, low-cost furniture—devising a machine that could fabricate the molded plywood shapes they had begun experimenting with for the MoMA organic furniture competition. In the second bedroom of their Richard Neutra–designed Strathmore apartment, Ray and Charles constructed a plywood-curing oven out of lumber, electric coils, plaster, and a bicycle pump. Ray named the device for a phrase from a magician’s act—the words uttered in the final moment when an alchemical change has been effected, “Ala Kazam!” The Eameses’ Kazam! machine was engineered to metamorphize—molding wood into an endless variety of shapes with applications that defied belief about what plywood could do. The undertaking was risky, not least because the oven required more current than the Eameses could source from their apartment’s internal wiring. Charles hiked up a utility pole to siphon the energy they needed from the street—a harrowing errand that had electrifying consequences for the world of design.
The Eameses began with a prototype for a single molded shell chair, a design objective that originated in the organic design competition and in effect became a lifelong pursuit. The rationale behind a single-shelled chair being that it could be produced with less materials, in fewer steps, with less connections, and those savings could be passed along to the consumer. Their earliest prototypes were painstaking efforts: dozens of hand-applied, glue-painted layers (or plies) of wood pressed into the Kazam!’s chair mold by an inflatable membrane while a heating mechanism firmed the glue for four to six hours. Afterward, Ray and Charles smoothed the wooden shell with a saw or sander in a hands-on, trial and error process. Despite the sturdiness of laminated plywood, the combination of curvature and pressure would cause the shells to split at their weakest points. Ray and Charles experimented with various slices and keyhole openings in the plies to promote torsion and give—an evolving technique that resulted in hundreds of unnamed iterations.
For Ray and Charles, their engagement with design was grounded in utility as they sought to fabricate objects to solve specific problems. When, in late 1941, Dr. Wendell Scott, a St. Louis, Missouri, acquaintance, told them about the inadequacy of the metal splint used by the US military, they chanced upon a problem that spoke to their fundamental concerns. Here was a sorely needed tool with specific objectives from medical and combat professionals: the splint had to be lightweight and stackable for transport, support the natural curve of the human leg, and tightly secure the limb without cutting off circulation. Ray and Charles immediately set about adapting their plywood molding process to the problem at hand, and together with John Entenza, architect Gregory Ain, and Margaret Harris and Griswold Raetze from MGM, formed the Plyformed Wood Company to formalize their operation.
The Eameses began by shaping a plaster mold of Charles’s leg to create a positive form to shape a mold. The couple’s experimentation followed along similar lines as for seating, letting the ultimate form of the splint be guided by the shape of the body and the constraints of the plywood production process. (It was rumored that Charles even sought input on what kind of holes and darts to make in the veneer plies from seamstresses in MGM’s wardrobe department.) The gaps in the veneer that were necessary to allow the plywood to bend into shape also offered ideal slots for threading bandages and securing the limb.