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How WWII Introduced Modern Design’s Greatest Power Couple

The true story of how injured limbs and outdated aircraft gave rise to iconic modern design.

Bursting with brilliance, energy, and curiosity, Charles and Ray Eames were true visionaries with the conviction to reach out and give form to the future. The couple made their name synonymous with modern design—the philosophy that form follows function, that design is the tool for bettering lives, that it is about creating a modern lifestyle, not merely decorating life’s surfaces. They were radicals, yet they spoke to everyone. The Eameses presented an inspiring vision of the future that America could aspire to—especially during wartime.

The iconic molded plywood chairs which cemented the Eameses’ place in modern design history have become elemental; their distinctive lines permeate design to this day. But the story of the Eameses’ serendipitous collaborations with the military, which refined the technology that made those icons possible, stands testament to their aspirations to evolve the human experience.

Charles and Ray moved to Los Angeles, a city buzzing with potential energy, in 1941. Their move coincided with the United States’ entrance into WWII, and Southern California happened to be not only a center of culture but also the nation’s foremost urban military-industrial complex. It was a pivotal moment. War stimulated a conscious shift to stripped-back utility, while rationing and rising costs forced the Eameses to suspend early experiments in mass producing molded plywood.

An Eames plywood leg splint in use, 1943 © 2016 Eames Office LLC (eamesoffice.com)

But the Eameses found other opportunities to advance the technology: the military needed to replace the metal splints used at the time, which were actually causing further trauma to wounded soldiers. The Eameses saw a solution in their molded plywood: the military had the resources to advance the technology, and the designers could contribute their innovations to the war effort. Their superior new splint fit the body using compound curves and reduced stress on the plywood via strategically-placed holes that doubled as openings for bandages.

The Eameses' innovations would be pushed further in 1943, when they drew the attention of the aviation industry. They designed molded plywood fuselage parts for US Navy aircraft, including tail sections, wing parts, and gliders, engineering impossible forms from single pieces of wood. Their designs were pure, perfected for a purpose, and therein lay their beauty.

These military endeavors tested their ability to navigate challenges inherent to large-scale production. But how did the Eameses’ ideology line up with the brutal reality of war? “It has to do with that total commitment to the nation [during WWII],” their grandson, Eames office director Eames Demetrios, tells The Creators Project. “It’s significant that their first major project was for medical use. It was for healing the effects of the war. I think that was a war that a lot of people experienced as very different from more recent wars, in the sense that it could be ‘perfectly justified.’” The Eameses were on the right side of history, and their involvement in the war was an opportunity to engineer better experiences for those directly affected.

Charles Eames with a molded plywood section for their airplane stabilizer tail, 1943 © 2016 Eames Office LLC (eamesoffice.com)

Charles once said, “the object is the pivot between the process and a system,” and this fascination with using a system to reach the masses is what made their military work so meaningful. The Eameses’ commitment to fully knowing the material resolved early technical issues with molded plywood, enabling the eventual mass production of inexpensive furniture. “Ray said that by putting the same energy you put into handcrafting furniture into solving mass production issues, you could help a lot more people,” explains Demetrios. Mass production, mass communication—these modern methods were key to the Eameses’ holistic approach to revolution. They had no interest in the exclusivity of design; they wanted to democratize it.

The Eameses found themselves at a rare intersection between public and private interests, embracing the “visionary concept of modern design as an agent of social change, elevating it to a national agenda.” Whether such a unified vision could succeed today is questionable; the distrust of government that haunts newer generations makes the premise of artists working not against, but for the military seem unlikely. Demetrios suggests this is because “the pain of our recent wars has been unevenly distributed, and therefore you don’t have this feeling of full engagement. But one place where you see a lot of innovation now is also interestingly in this area of rehabilitation of the wounded… It’s interesting that if you think about limb replacement in relation to the splint, it’s an extension of that and it’s a place where everyone can agree that people need to be taken care of, however people feel about war itself.”

The Eameses were interested in extending design beyond objects and into society. From educational films to airport seating, the Eameses saw their diversified practice as “interchangeable lenses through which to view problems, solutions, and the world at large,” and corporations and government alike were eager to render reality through the Eameses' hand. The collaborations succeeded partially because the military is surprisingly receptive to progressive thinking—and today it faces a new challenge: climate change. If the Eameses were still around, one might imagine this new frontier would have been their calling.

To learn more about Charles & Ray Eames, click here.

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