Happy Furniture

On the Media Environments of the Eames Chair

Ray and Charles Eames with one of their aluminum chairs for the Herman Miller Furniture Company
Ray and Charles Eames with one of their aluminum chairs for the Herman Miller Furniture Company, ca. 1958. [© Eames Office LLC, from the collection of the Library of Congress]

Among the personal papers of the architect and designer Eero Saarinen is a curious chart of the marriages of his friends, ranking their relative happiness on a scale from 0 to 100 percent. 1 At the top — with a whopping 90 percent score — are his dear friends Charles and Ray Eames. Saarinen’s approach may strike us as rather technical, perhaps overly quantitative or schematic. Yet even as the chart gestures to midcentury happiness as a product of calculation and technique, Saarinen’s high rating of the Eameses was entirely in keeping with their public image. Arguably the most influential American designers of the postwar period, the Eameses were a model happy couple whose iconic designed objects and design practice were exported globally as symbols of the cheery lifestyle afforded by U.S.-style democratic liberalism. Eamesian happiness, circulating through both images and objects, linked the “goodness” of the American good life to the “goodness” of so-called good design. 2 The new, airy domesticity of good-life modernism was theorized in manifestos for postwar living, such as George Nelson’s and Henry Wright’s Tomorrow’s House: A Complete Guide for the Homebuilder (1945), and promulgated through architectural schools, banking establishments, construction industries, museums, and influential lifestyle magazines like House & Home. 3

So much depends upon what it means to domesticate media, to make it a lifestyle. In the Eames Era, these lessons begin with the revolutionary medium of the chair.

Design historians have recently cast “good design” — with its promise of happiness through consumption and democratic futurity in the American model — as a form of “soft power.” This mode of propaganda and information-handling persuades by attraction rather than coercion, “enlisting support through intangibles like culture, values, belief systems, and perceived moral authority.” 4 Model homes, like model families or model couples, become normalizing instruments, implementing “the lives of free individuals” in a Cold War pedagogy of democratic lifestyle. 5 Eamesian happiness can thus be described as one of the midcentury’s more powerful normative horizons for orienting audiences and consumers toward designed objects and “ways of life” deemed “good.” Images of the Eameses and by the Eameses circulated as signs of the postwar good life. 6

I take a different tack, arguing that Eamesian happiness is ultimately more instructive as a model of production. Within a postindustrial reorganization of the boundaries of work and leisure, designers turned to film and other technical media to model versions of creative, happy making. They worked to find pleasure in an everydayness newly saturated by technics and revolutionary technologies. They sought a human-scale environment of the future in a new world demanding relentless communication, and they intervened in the building and management of that environment at various scales, including in the production of knowledge and the training of future knowledge workers.

These film and media practices compel our attention because they have shaped our present moment of informatic abundance. Midcentury happiness by design anticipated the contemporary condition that Jodi Dean has called “communicative capitalism” — for her, the “technological infrastructure of neoliberalism.” 7 The political is subsumed into consumption, personalization, and the commodification of lifestyles, which we display and perform through the circulation of messages in a nonstop data stream. So much depends upon what it means to domesticate media, to make it a lifestyle. In the Eames Era, these lessons begin with the revolutionary medium of the chair.

Charles and Ray Eames posing with metal chair bases
Charles and Ray Eames posing with metal chair bases, 1947. [Photo by Don Albinson / © Eames Office LLC]

The promise of the happy life is indicated in a delightful photograph taken by Don Albinson during an advertising shoot for the Herman Miller Furniture Company, in 1947. Charles and Ray Eames spread their arms and legs wide in a nod to Vitruvian perfection, a humanist ideal supplemented by metal forms that pin the cheery, hand-holding couple to the ground. On a closer look, we see that these inhuman supports are the thin, bent-metal bases of their famous molded plywood chairs. The image, a visual pun about anthropomorphic furniture, brings the tubular legs of machined metal into whimsical proximity with the malleable appendages of the human body, whose limbs are reorganized by good design.

In estranging the simple act of sitting, the Eameses’ films taught spectators about the postwar arts of living.

By the time that photo was chosen for the cover of Architectural Digest, in 1966, Eamesian happiness was in global circulation, and it was easy to forget the material context: that these chairs were made with a sophisticated plywood molding process involving a synthetic plastic resin developed for military prosthetics, trainer aircraft, and gliders. 8 In 1947, happy humanity was bound to thingly harbingers of the changed substance of postwar matter, and it bothered the designers not a bit. The image is thus an early example of the art of humanizing postwar technics, which would become a recurring theme in the relation between Eames furniture and its media environments, especially in the short films the designers made for television in the 1950s. These films are about the transfigured materiality and new technologies of the postwar period; they use furniture to allegorize the conditions of happy, democratic life. In estranging the simple act of sitting, the films taught spectators about the postwar arts of living.

But more than that, they showed that furniture’s materiality — plywood, fiberglass, steel, aluminum — was embedded in expansive technical environments that include filmmaking itself as a way of participating in a networked information society. The happy furniture in these films receives attention less for its objecthood than for the networks of relentlessly expanding “relationships” in which the stuff finds itself (the Eameses’ preferred term for this is “connections”). This marked a realignment in design practice from the making of objects to “the crafting of situations,” from the designer as an autonomous author to the designer as a node in a “sprawling web of individuals, corporations, institutions, and events.” 9

Herman Miller advertisement for Eames Chair Collection
Herman Miller advertisement for the Eames Chair Collection, Arts & Architecture, 1961– 62. [Courtesy of Herman Miller]

The New Subscape

Icons of midcentury technics, Eames chairs are strange kinds of things. How might their promise of postwar happiness extend beyond their commodity status into their function as something like a medium? Consider how their organic qualities were initially characterized when the Eameses’ furniture first drew international attention in MoMA’s famous show “Organic Design in Home Furnishings,” in 1940–41. Conceived by Eliot F. Noyes, the museum’s first curator of industrial design, “Organic Design” was not just a competition and exhibition but also a business opportunity, its winners to be awarded large manufacturing and distribution contracts. In the exhibition literature, Noyes’s definition of organic design — “an harmonious organization of the parts within the whole, according to structure, material, and purpose” 10 — was accompanied by two passages from Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization:

Our capacity to go beyond the machine rests in the power to assimilate the machine. Until we have absorbed the lessons of objectivity, impersonality, neutrality, the lessons of the mechanical realm, we cannot go further in our development toward the more richly organic, the more profoundly human.

The economic: the objective: and finally the integration of these principles in a new conception of the organic — these are the marks, already discernible, of our assimilation of the machine not merely as an instrument of practical action but as a valuable mode of life. 11

Mumford articulated what historian John Harwood has called “the central problems of design,” as Noyes saw them: “The chair and the living room were points of interface between the human and the machine. The success of that interaction hinged on the development of a newly organic — that is, newly organized, relationship between human being and machine.” 12

The Eames chair was not a thing but an interface, dependent on a ‘newly organized relationship between human being and machine.’

The Eames chair — not a thing but an interface. Harwood reminds us of the new valence attached to that word in the late 1940s within the nascent discipline of ergonomics: the “site at which the human body interacts with a complex mechanical apparatus.” The chair’s “anthropomorphically” bent plywood brings the inhuman object and human body into relation as the “meeting of two identically shaped surfaces,” in which “subject and object comfortably inhabit and identify themselves with each other.” 13 In this sense, the organic qualities of happy, modern furniture play a role analogous to what Mumford’s contemporary Walter Benjamin famously described as the special capacity of film — “to train human beings in the apperceptions and reactions needed to deal with a vast apparatus whose role in their lives is expanding almost daily.” 14

Noyes’s theory of organic design underscored a trend in modern furniture toward lightness, flexibility, and dematerialization in systems, as predicted by his teacher and friend at the Bauhaus, Marcel Breuer. In 1926, Breuer created a poster — ein bauhaus-film, fünf jahre lang (a Bauhaus film, five years long) — that charted a historical progression of his chair designs in the graphic form of a filmstrip with six panels. Breuer’s playful series ended in a hypothetical “chair” in which no furniture was visible, only the figure of a seated woman, her body floating in air, Marx’s ur-medium of the modern into which all solid things melt. The image was accompanied by the caption: “It gets better and better every year. In the end, we will all sit upon an elastic column of air.”

Charles Eames superimposed on armchair prototype
Charles Eames superimposed on armchair prototype, June 1941. [Courtesy Cranbrook Archives, neg. 5702-1]

In casting dematerialized furniture in a speculative, sci-fi scenario, Breuer anticipated the midcentury ideas of George Nelson, who would later hire the Eameses in his capacity as Herman Miller’s director of design. In a witty 1950 essay, “Notes on the New Subscape,” Nelson recounted the “manifold wonders” that he once encountered when, relaxing from the “mighty labors of a designer’s day” on a low-slung modern couch, he accidentally spilled the stuff of his magazine’s inner fold onto the floor. 15 Crawling on the ground to retrieve it, Nelson was brought through “Alice’s looking glass”; he gazed upon his living room with a “mouse-eye view” and was as “bemused by it as a visitor from Mars. On all sides, as far as the eye could reach, were the elements, structures, and symbols of the contemporary subscape”: a “slender steel shaft supporting a light plywood tray”; “eight more steel rods, this time holding up two seats of molded plywood”; “a couch leg crudely shaped like an over-scaled bent hairpin.” This defamiliarizing view allowed Nelson “to see with devastating clarity” the subscape’s displacement of wood supports with metal, which he linked to the interwar progenitors of tubular furniture like Breuer’s, and its corresponding openness, “like a young forest without underbrush.” A generation later, this subscape extended beyond the domain of the intimate and small to larger scales of human production, including architecture, infrastructure, modern art, and atomic physics:

The new subscape also has a great many relatives in the modern world, some of them quite imposing. These include the new skyscrapers, heavy blocks set on a base of thin stilts; they include Calder’s mobiles, in which large shapes are held up by the thinnest of supports; the doodles of Joan Miro which exhibit the same characteristics, the newest elevated highways, the Horton spheroid found in the vicinity of refineries and chemical plants, diagrams of molecular structure — the list is a long one, and remarkably varied to boot. 16

For Nelson, the airy underside of an Eames chair opened onto the design miracles of the subscape’s “zone of invisibility,” which included feats of structural engineering and a seeming defiance of natural laws. The following year, in an essay on “The Enlargement of Vision,” he cast the curious materiality of furniture within a sweeping account of a new, modern environment whose defining trait was its dematerialization and insensibility — specifically, its invisibility, its being “a world we scarcely see at all.” 17 This atmosphere privileged increasingly abstract networks over individual, atomistic consciousness and autonomous, bounded entities. Drawing alternately on Mumford’s Technics and Civilization, Sigfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command, and John Dewey’s Art and Experience, Nelson argued that parallel developments in physics and psychology substituted a “picture of the world” that privileges “transparency … for solidity, relationships for dissociated entities, and tensions or energy, for mass.” Modern physics had demonstrated that “other material ‘entities’ — say, solid objects such as tables or chairs — were really complicated series of electrical tensions.” Across the domains of the fine arts, the natural sciences, architecture, and furniture design, these “remarkable developments” yielded a new theory of production oriented toward “expanding networks” of relationships: “building is becoming less of a traditional art and more an integrated, sheltered network of ‘nervous systems’ for communication.” Anticipating the systemic, communicative work of the Eameses’ furniture films, Nelson concluded, “Furniture very naturally tends to find its organic place in this highly organized complex.” 18

Magazine spread, modern furniture viewed from floor level
A view from below. Interior page of George Nelson’s “Problems of Design: Notes on the New Subscape,” Interiors 110 (November 1950). [Photographer unknown]

Combinatorial Furniture

The Eameses moved to Los Angeles in 1941 with a plan to mass-produce their award-winning furniture designs, following the promise of plywood, an experimental material whose demand soared during the global metal shortages. Charles took a job as a set designer at MGM, which was disrupted when the United States’s entry into World War II prompted the Navy to order 150,000 molded plywood splints. Together with architects Gregory Ain and Griswald Raetze and set designer Margaret Harris, the Eameses established the Plyformed Wood Company in late 1942. The next year they moved into a 12,000 square foot shared space at 901 Washington Boulevard in Venice, where they would operate as a division of Evans Products until Herman Miller took over the manufacture of Eames furniture in 1946.

Design, film, and politics were just then converging in the pages of Arts & Architecture, relaunched by editor John Estenza in 1943. 19 The magazine played a pivotal role in articulating a California modernism with speculative designs on the future, and on the abiding technologies of the postwar good life, most famously in its sponsorship of the Case Study House Program. The magazine also featured film reviews, criticism, and industry news from a left perspective, attending to a “politicized, socially responsible cinema” that had capacity to “influence and indoctrinate.” 20

In the September 1943 issue, Ray Eames made a pitch for plywood’s centrality in the integrated technoaesthetic terrain that Nelson would later dub the new subscape. Following an ad for the George E. Ream Company (“Plywood For War … Later For Peace”), Ray’s photocollage depicts an Eames chair in an expansive terrain of production including works of painting (Picasso’s Guernica) and sculpture, but also oil derricks, military helmets, skyscrapers, airplanes, and the reels of a film-editing table. The collage is accompanied by a short prose manifesto that announces a contemporary aesthetics “influenced by the world in which we live and by the synthesis of the experiences of the world by all creators,” including “the engineer mathematician physicist chemist architect doctor musician writer dancer teacher baker actor editor the man on the job the woman at home and painters.” 21

Ray Eames collage for Arts and Architecture
Ray Eames collage, Arts & Architecture, September 1943, letterpress on paper. [© Eames Office LLC]

After the war, the magazine showcased the Eameses’ plywood furniture designs — some of them prototyped in the storied Kazam Machine in the couple’s L.A. apartment, designed by Arts & Architecture board member Richard Neutra — in a lavish twenty-page feature written by Noyes. 22 It contained stunning illustrations by Swiss photographer and designer Herbert Matter, then a member of the Plyformed Wood Company and the Eames Office staff. Within the magazine’s liberal editorial vision of integrated arts, its readers could learn about the democratic promise of plywood and also take in a “cinema” column about the U.S. Office of Military Government’s recently finished concentration camp documentary, Todesmühlen (released under the English title Death Mills). Lodged between technologies of mass death and postwar happiness, the media culture of Eames-era plywood in the 1946 was capacious indeed.

As plywood objects moved from wartime to postwar environments, the function of the designer expanded from the making of consumer goods to participation in the creative, knowledge-based, information-saturated operations of an emerging postindustrial society. This change placed 901 Washington — and the more than 100 films made there — at the heart of the Eames Office’s investigations in education, experiments in communication, and “sustained interdisciplinary research conducted in tandem with the central scientific institutions of the postwar period, public and private.” 23 Caroline Jones and Peter Galison have identified a shift in the studio during this period, from the centralized, “aggregative and social mode of production” of a wartime factory to a decentralized dispersal of production “among multiple authors at multiple sites,” and in “the spectacular and discursive realms of print, film, and photographic media.” 24

When Herman Miller moved the tooling of furniture to Michigan in the 1950s, the Eames Office expanded at 901. But the word “expansion” is too mild to capture the explosion of experimental activity within the office’s dual “condition as both shop (in the American sense of the word) and studio set,” as Catherine Ince has described it. 25 Film and photography were at the heart of 901’s wide-ranging design activities from the 1950s through the ’70s. In addition to a furniture workshop, office spaces, and kitchen, the building included “full-color and black-and-white photo labs,” a film-editing area, and a conference room for meeting clients that doubled as an impromptu screening room. 26 Photography, filmmaking, and furniture design were understood as related species of communication, expressing the Eameses’ flexible, curious, and to some observers, quintessentially American lifestyle. Eames chairs lived conspicuously medial lives as the inhuman protagonists of the couple’s varied terrain of happy making.

“Kazam Machine” by Ray and Charles Eames
“Kazam Machine” in the Eameses’ Los Angeles apartment, 1941. [© Eames Office LLC]

The molded-fiberglass shell chairs first mass-produced for Herman Miller in 1950 began in another experimental medium, plastic, with the extravagantly suggestive futurity of La Chaise (1948). Its surreal airiness was the product of a foam rubber and Styrofoam core sandwiched between two layers of the novel material “fiberglass” (glass-reinforced polyester). According to the Eameses, La Chaise’s playful form “did not ‘anticipate the variety of needs it is to fill’ because those needs remained ‘indefinite.’” 27 Later mass-produced in a spectrum of colors, fiberglass shell chairs were sold with a variety of bases, alongside the plywood chairs, the wire mesh chairs, and the Eames Storage Units, a lightweight, modular storage system. All this furniture embodied the basic concept “that mass-produced, standardized parts could be combined in different ways to meet the unique needs of each consumer.” 28

Eames chairs symbolized the postwar ideal of lightweight, mobile, endlessly recombinant furniture … valued less for intimacy than as information or code.

This was, in part, the Fordist promise of the Eameses’ furniture. A revealing anecdote: in 1954, Charles Eames wrote to Henry Ford Jr., the president of the automobile giant, noting that he and Ray had “been driving Ford’s continuously since 1929. … We believe in standard production models.” Now in the market for a new convertible, the Eameses had been advised to contact Ford Jr. directly with a request speccing an “acceptable, anonymous model”: exterior, black; top, “natural,” and with a “minimum of advertising symbols attached — preferably none”; interior, “simple neutral tan color or good neutral synthetic material — no two tones.” Ray’s handwritten notes add a political edge to their discerning consumer choices: “We find the forced, no alternative garish decor dictatorship-like.” 29

The request aligns Fordist standardization practices with the Eameses’ own furniture work for Herman Miller, and enacts its promise of customization and individuation within mass-produced anonymity. Similarly, the Eames chairs — moving from dreamy prototype to the mass-produced present — rapidly became a symbol of the postwar ideal of lightweight, mobile, endlessly recombinant furniture often packaged and sold as fragments of easily transportable, knock-down kits. “The Eames idea of design,” Beatriz Colomina explains, “turns on the continuous arrangement and rearrangement of a limited kit of parts. Almost everything they produced can be rearranged; no layout is ever fixed.” 30 This Eamesian sense of the midcentury interior as an “unrestricted combinatorial system” — one whose objects are valued less for intimacy than as information or code, one in which “everything intercommunicates” — was described by Jean Baudrillard in The System of Objects, which saw modern man reborn as cybernetician, obsessed with “the perfect circulation of messages.” 31

Photo shoot for a Herman Miller advertisement, in a parking lot
Photo shoot for a Herman Miller advertisement, 1960. [© Eames Office LLC, from the collection of the Library of Congress]

The Eames Chair on TV

We can observe a similar communicative flexibility, a modular or recombinant quality, in the Eameses’ media experiments. Their first furniture film was made for their television debut on Discovery, a public-service program sponsored by the San Francisco Museum of Art and broadcast in December 1953. The producer pitched a segment on furniture design in which Charles Eames would “explain the evolution of some of [his] designs, demonstrate their uses, and possibly include a film section showing how they were made in the factory.” Apprehensive about appearing on live television, Charles warmed to the notion of using prefabricated filmed modules as stand-alone “answers” to questions posed on-air by the emcee. “From what I hear,” he wrote, “it might be best to get a certain amount on film and avoid studio panic.” But the producer, Allon Schoener, insisted that the filmed material not betray the “carefully planned and rehearsed spontaneity” that is essential to television. His request for a short film about the making of Herman Miller furniture — the now-lost Chair Story — led Charles to propose several additional modules: an animated sequence illustrating some principles of design evolution; a two-minute film described as Toys, Other Designs; and two sequences of stills shot in and around the couple’s already-famous home in Pacific Palisades (material later recombined as House: After Five Years of Living). Ostensibly about furniture design as a creative art, the Discovery program showcased, while expanding, the terrain of the Eameses’ media experimentation. The processes of making a toy or a chair, filming its manufacture, or broadcasting that activity on television connoted the same mobile, happy lifestyle that was enacted in the couple’s modern home. 32

In May 1956, Charles Eames was invited to participate in a similar segment on CBS’s “prestige” public-affairs program Omnibus. Then occupied with location shooting for his friend Billy Wilder’s film Spirit of St. Louis (for which Charles would edit a snappy montage of the plane’s manufacturing process), he responded:

Perhaps a painless way of doing a program about “myself” would make little reference to things we have done but explore a few of a great variety of things that will help shape a real human scale environment of the future — this would include many of the things in which we have been interested, from toys and kites to electronic calculators and games of strategy. … Inasmuch as this is for a television workshop I would not feel right unless we could give special attention to the “production” — some things we would have to shoot, cut, and score here. … I doubt we would want to use much of our existing films. 33

Charles insisted not on autonomous things but on their sheer variety and networked relations; not on himself as expressive maker but rather on scenes of experimental production. The program would reuse some of the filmed modules from the Discovery broadcast, including Chair Story and Toys, and present alternate versions of others. A re-edit of House included Elmer Bernstein’s bright score, and helped introduce both the designers and their credo that “everything is architecture.” And in the first draft of the Omnibus script, the Eameses proposed to end the program with “short (twenty second) pertinent statements by Eero Saarinen, Billy Wilder, and Norbert Wiener.” 34

What is an appropriate showbiz segue from the production of plywood chairs to cybernetic thought? The chair’s ‘aboutness’ was at stake. Was it an isolated thing or systemically defined?

What is an appropriate showbiz segue from the production of plywood chairs to cybernetic thought? The goal was to model just such connections — to move from the problems involved in chair design to the expanding ground of Eamesian production, to “point out that what was shown in the chair film marked just the beginning of designers’ responsibilities.” That these subjects might appear disconnected, or seemingly unrelated to the stuff of furniture, is indicated by notes penciled on the script: “somehow should end up with a chair if it’s about a chair.” Indeed, the chair’s “aboutness” was at stake. Was it an isolated thing or systemically defined? Testimonies from the unlikely trio of Saarinen, Wilder, and Wiener were meant to provide the conceptual logic that would help a TV audience understand why this program about a chair was not just about a chair. Saarinen’s oft-cited quip about the designer’s centripetal expansion of attention to “The Next Larger Thing” (from a chair, to its room, to the building that houses it, to its site, etc.) could be extended one step further, to “communication through graphics and through film.” Wilder would explain “the help that comes through communication theory and how this is often at a very human scale.” And Wiener would offer a caveat about “the danger of abandoning the seemingly unimportant outposts of thinking.” The dispersed sites of the Eameses’ happy-making were posited as “ways of keeping these outposts alive.” 35

S-73 Sofa Compact advertisement for the Herman Miller Furniture Company
S-73 Sofa Compact advertisement for the Herman Miller Furniture Company. [Courtesy of Herman Miller]

Since 1950, the Eames Office had been producing print advertisements for its furniture designs that appeared in trade periodicals and cultural magazines such as Interiors, Architectural Forum, and Arts & Architecture, as well as brochures, instruction booklets, packaging, and point-of-sale promotional pieces. And in 1954 they made S-73 (Sofa Compact), their earliest surviving instructional film about a furniture design — one of eight works of nontheatrical, useful cinema made for Herman Miller over the next two decades. 36 This film, named after the listing in the manufacturer’s catalog, explained the design and function of the Eames Sofa Compact to the sales team, dealers, and merchants. 37 S-73 was fashioned as a visual aid to be bundled, boxed, and shipped alongside the sofa; traveling with, and like, the couch whose systemic workings it communicated. The Eames Office was not only teaching its client — and its client’s clients — how to use this piece of furniture, but moreover enacting how the filmic apparatus itself might be put to corporate use as a flexible communicative device, its technological mobility basically of a piece with the film’s subject.

An opening montage frames the sofa’s compact design as a solution for a uniquely modern predicament: that shipping is both the manufacturer’s responsibility and the “designer’s problem.” Following a parable about shipped goods’ vulnerability to damage in transit, we get our first glimpse of the S-73. Charles explains how the problem is solved by this unit’s compact design. Capable of being shipped affordably at one-third the volume of its assembled size, the S-73 is introduced in a complex logistical drama involving the management of transportation infrastructures that stretch from dollies to airplanes, as well as the commodification of abstract, volumetric space. Capitalizing on the compact is a way of rationalizing air that fuels the genre of low-cost modern furniture design, delivering on an Eamesian design mantra — to “get the most of the best to the most for the least.” The film’s graphic play with boxes of various kinds — trucks, trains, cubes, packages, and grids stretching from floor tiles to living room drapes — announces its position at the dawn of “containerization” itself — the standardization of shipping containers in the mid-1950s. The film thus comments on the extension of modularity as a principle of furniture design and production to its equally flexible networks of distribution and their traffic flows.

Screenshots from S-73 (Sofa Compact), directed by Charles and Ray Eames
A model couple assembles a compact sofa in S-73 (Sofa Compact), directed by Charles and Ray Eames, 1954.

An allegory about a happy, postindustrial lifestyle, the film then turns from boxing to unboxing, from questions of distribution to the product’s “life of service” in the hands of the consumer. Here the film performs its overtly pedagogical lesson about the handy assemblage of the sofa by showing its “decompacting” by “average couples,” in two times — fast and slow. First, through the magic of accelerated motion (scored to classical music), one couple puts together the sofa in a snap. Then, “a couple less experienced in such matters” takes “a little longer.” We need to see the decompacting twice to see it as a variable process of becoming acclimated to a system of new equipment for modern leisure, with which couples can be more or less “experienced.” To master this habitus, we will need to go through the motions, perform the requisite gestures, and build the kit more than once. But we also see in the two iterations of assembly how the Eameses link the S-73’s feats of compacting and decompacting to film’s own capacity for temporal compression, elongation, and abstraction. This was the first in a series of attempts the Eameses made to think together the mobile time of modern furniture and the times of moving-image technologies, and beyond that, the broader forms of “space-time compression” that characterized postindustrial society’s surpassing of Fordism, and its elevation of consumption oriented toward a “life of service.”

An allegory about a happy, postindustrial lifestyle, the film S-73 (Sofa Compact) starts with logistical drama and ends with a wish for long-lived happiness of the sort a flexible sofa can provide.

Against these forms of temporal compacting, S-73 also works to thicken or stretch the life of the sofa by embedding its time- and money-saving design in a longer history of care and planning, thought and experimentation — which is to say, of happy making. In a kind of reversal of Marx’s familiar story of commodity fetishism, S-73 works to materialize, rather than repress or abstract, the value of human labor and scenes of production that have informed it. As Eames’s voiceover insists that the S-73 is “the result of much thought and research on the part of the designer,” we cut to a close-up of a smiling, shut-eyed Charles resting his face on the seat of the sofa, and then to a fast-cut series of seven close-ups of Eames Office staff involved in the history of this product’s manufacture. The lesson, humanized by the faces of labor, is a kind of design flashback that chronicles all the “problems and decisions that go with planning and preparing a product for production,” including some of the important “mock-ups and models” of the S-73. So, while it may be an object of pleasure, made for a long life of service, the sofa sure has taken a lot of work.

In fact, by modeling various versions of the S-73 in different environments, the film makes clear that this seat — and its abiding time — isn’t really for lounging per se. Rather, the S-73 exemplifies a more restless, mobile time, offering moments of vulnerable repose in between more demanding events — moments that can register as anticipation, anxiety, boredom, or relief at being momentarily distracted from something putatively more important. We see the sofa in various guises — in an office lobby; in a dentist’s waiting room; and at home in a modern art gallery, where a stylish woman reads an exhibition catalog while a man gazes silently at the abstract works on the wall behind her. The sofa’s steel frame is a designed thing of beauty of the same order of nature itself. It is nature transfigured: an exemplary “subscape.” Charles clarifies this in the next cut: a close-up of an abstract metal sculpture against a background of diffuse yellow. As the camera racks focus, the sculpture blurs in the foreground, revealing the sharp yellow fabric of an S-73, now located in some modern living room. The camera pulls back, and we realize that the sculpture sits atop a television faced by the S-73, now positioned in another site of distractibility. A woman enters from frame right and lies on the sofa, her back to us. Cut to a reverse angle of the sofa in a tastefully appointed interior. For two beats, there is no movement, until a young boy — her son, we assume — enters from frame left, and attempts to wake his mother by shaking her head and rousing her to duties she has momentarily forgotten, or escaped from. We cut to the camera drifting from the top of the sofa to the checkerboard drapes, and fade to black. In the next, final, shot, we see a close-up of the female half of the average couple, who smiles directly at the camera as Eames’s voiceover concludes, “Thank you, Molly. We hope your new sofa will bring you many years of service and pleasure.”

Screenshots from S-73 (Sofa Compact), directed by Charles and Ray Eames
The environments of a compact sofa featured in S-73 (Sofa Compact), directed by Charles and Ray Eames, 1954.

The film ends with a wish for long-lived happiness of the sort the S-73 can provide, but it has labored to show us that this temporal continuity of “service and pleasure” exists alongside other, more vulnerable times: the abstract time in which it is boxed and shipped; the habit-forming time of domestication it takes to incorporate this new technology into one’s lifestyle; the time of labor that produces it; the downtimes between what counts as eventful in one’s day; even the press of contingency (the event of a spilled jelly sandwich) that only synthetic upholstery can accommodate. “There is no predicting what may happen in the life of a sofa,” Charles’s voiceover observes. Carving out any time for leisure, and the designed spaces of restive repose that allow us to take pleasure in it — this, S-73 clarifies, takes work: it calls for logistical control, discipline, and predictive capacities. When does the life of service begin and end? Do designers ever sleep? In asking these questions, S-73 is less a chair or a film than a plea for systematicity, for better modes of time management. Beginning with the box, the grid, and the shipping container, it is a film about a sofa, about that broader, and largely neglected category that John Durham Peters has called “logistical media” — media that “arrange people and property into time and space”; it attests to the place of flexible sofas and speedy film production at 901 within what media historian Alexander Klose calls the ascendancy of the “container principle.” 38

The Eameses would, of course, make a lounge chair sufficiently soft and comfortable enough for you to actually fall asleep in. And how. The celebrated 1956 Eames Lounge Chair was, Charles explained, conceived “as a present for a friend, Billy Wilder,” who was forced to abandon — among other things — a prized Mies chair when he fled Hitler’s Germany for the United States in 1933. 39 The lounger was not the first Eames furniture developed with Wilder’s forms of repose in mind. That was the molded plywood “TV chair” of 1946. A Life magazine piece on the Eames house pictures Wilder in the chair in a striking multiple-exposure photograph; the caption reads, “Eames designed this special chair in which the restless Wilder can easily jump around while watching television.” 40 This image of a recumbent Wilder rocking back and forth in a state of medial distraction brings together photographic (indeed, protocinematic) time, the forms of attention called for by television, and the viewing protocols materialized by modern furniture. The image, like the concluding vignette of S-73, demonstrates that the Eameses had begun to think hard about the relationship between modern furniture, filmic and photographic time, and the postwar incursion of television into the domestic interior. No surprise, then, that S-73 finds itself in a living room reoriented around a television set that it faces. The momentary pleasure it offers to the mother who tries to catch a nap seems to depend on both mom and TV being, for a time, turned off, removed from broadcast television’s ongoing space of abstract flows.

Eames Lounge Chair, directed by Charles and Ray Eames
A recumbent male fantasy in Eames Lounge Chair, directed by Charles and Ray Eames, 1956.

The Eameses unveiled their lounger in a charming two-minute promotional film broadcast in April 1956 as part of a longer spot on NBC’s show Home, hosted by Arlene Francis. It was the mission of such shows to train their audience in regimes of postwar consumption, promoting new signs of taste and sophistication, and the show went to some lengths to stage the Eameses’ latest work in a broader design history of revolutionary modern furniture. 41 After a substantive interview, the curtain finally rises on the chair, and Francis asks Charles to tell her audience something about it. He responds that a better idea would be to “build it for you right here,” and we dissolve to the film proper.

Eames Lounge Chair teaches us how to assemble the chair, and how it gives its users pleasure. The human sitter, even in this lavish seat, doesn’t lounge for long. He has to be a node in a flexible network of production, consumption, and distribution.

Part by part, segment by segment, built by hand from the base up, the Eames Lounge Chair comes into being in accelerated motion. When the chair is finally finished, the assembler sits down and closes his eyes. A woman emerges from frame left. Carrying a Herman Miller brochure, she crosses in front of the lounging man, gliding unnaturally across the floor, by virtue of the Eameses’ pixilation technique. When she exits the frame, the ottoman materializes in front of the man, and he puts his feet up. A cut inserts lounging into the temporality of male fantasy, which is clarified in two dissolves. The first shows the still-lounging man, dressed as a modest laborer in jeans, sneakers, and a T-shirt, transformed into a suited gentleman of leisure, with black leather dress shoes and reading a paper. A blonde woman in an evening gown emerges, for just a second or two, and perches at his feet on the ottoman. She vanishes first; then goes the man’s classy outfit. As Bernstein’s piano jumps into overdrive, the original assembler wakes up, rapidly disassembles chair and ottoman, and boxes them separately. Two people lift the filled box toward the camera, and the film ends.

Eames Lounge Chair thus teaches us how to assemble the chair, and how it gives its users pleasure. It also denies the chair’s status as autonomous object, asking us to visualize instead its environmental, systemic functioning. The context of a commercial TV broadcast reveals connections between the transmissibility and transit of chair, film, and televisual image. The film seems to have an idea about the time of media superimposed on it: not just the accelerated time in which segments of chairs or celluloid are assembled or disassembled, or the slow temporalities of labor, leisure, and fantasy, but also the temporality of logistics. 42 Not lounge time but logistical time, organizational time — because the human sitter, even in this lavish seat, doesn’t lounge for long. He has to be a node in a flexible network of production, consumption, and distribution across various medial forms. What the Eameses are asking us to see — on TV, on film, in this chair’s very materiality — is not just a happy human but a human at home in a corporate system of organized complexity.

Kaleidoscopic Jazz Chair, film by Charles and Ray Eames
Shots from Kaleidoscopic Jazz Chair, directed by Charles and Ray Eames, 1960.

Kaleidoscopic Vision and the Democratic Surround

The Eames sought to portray postwar modernity as a technocratically integrated system, a dynamic network of relations of thickening complexity and scalar fluidity. 43 Their understanding of the link between perception and organization owed a strong debt to the Hungarian designer and visual artist Gyorgy Kepes, who stumped for an integrative, humanist “language of vision.” 44 As Reinhold Martin has shown, this model entailed the aesthetic proposition that the “organized image is not the carrier of the message; it is the message.” 45 In Kepes’s groundbreaking book The New Landscape in Art and Science (1956), he compares the magnetic core memory inside an MIT computer and the patterns of experimental ceiling lighting to the modular components of the Eames chairs. Hardware and houseware: as Charles insisted to Arlene Francis, everything is architecture. As an aesthetic ideology at work in the Eameses’ furniture films and multiscreen experiments, the language of vision aims to train the viewer in the integrative, organizational work of information processing.

The faith in an abiding language of perceptual organization, and its enabling technologies, is even more evident as objects of vision speed by, or are multiplied across screens, or are chopped up into bits, like modular furniture, and playfully reassembled. Especially instructive here are the Eameses’ experiments in kaleidoscopic vision, the films Kaleidoscope Shop (1959) and Kaleidoscope Jazz Chair (1960). The first was produced, in fact, as a visual surrogate for the Eameses’ own productive experimentalism. When Charles, lecturing at the Royal College of Art in London, was asked to give an illustrated tour of the 901 workshop, he responded by showing a four-minute film that dissolved that iconic site of organized production into play and sensation. Graphic layout rooms, film production spaces, offices, the furniture shop — all the spaces of the Eameses’ media practice are presented to the viewer through a kaleidoscope. We see work through a toy. In this relentlessly active visual field, the eye, like these designers, never rests.

If the kaleidoscopic camera was a way to liven up a possibly boring lecture and a strategy to preserve some privacy about the Eames Office’s inner workings, it also mobilized the kaleidoscope’s connection to the intimate, protocinematic pleasures of peeping, and its capacity to produce sensual effects around elusive visual objects never fully present. Oriented toward sensory pleasure rather than information, the films recall the centrality of this kaleidoscopic perception to the 19th century’s standardization of “modern” observers themselves, their submission to the dictates of rationalization and serial production. Jonathan Crary, for example, has noted that the kaleidoscope’s inventor, Sir David Brewster, justified the fashioning of the device in 1815 by the “productivity and efficiency” of its image-making. “He saw it as a mechanical means for the reformation of art according to an industrial paradigm.” 46

The seven-minute film Kaleidoscope Jazz Chair has two segments. The first involves the fast-moving kaleidoscopic transformation of stuff in the Eames Office, including its iconic chairs. In the second, the fragmented, radial images give way to a compensatory form of serial organization through stop-motion shots in which the multicolored fiberglass chairs assemble into organized rows, stack themselves in endless variations of color, and in one case, speed one after another in single file toward the camera. For a brief moment, the couple appears seated on the chairs, only to vanish before the infinite variety of their work. In another sequence, the seat colors change in time with a syncopated score, like keys on a Herman Miller color organ, synesthetically blending jazz and color to provoke warm feelings. Brewster himself had high hopes for expanding the kaleidoscope’s affective power beyond the single, private viewer and toward a public spectacle projected on a screen through an “electric lime ball” magic lantern, a kind of kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria. If Brewster was dreaming of the kaleidoscope’s future in a more hallucinogenic domain of sensorial play that we tend to associate with the expanded cinema spectacles of the 1960s, such as Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable multiscreen events, perhaps it is no surprise that the art students who saw Kaleidoscope Shop at Eames’s lecture would later describe the experience as feeling “more like the beginning of the ‘swinging sixties’ than a presentation by the world’s most ‘serious’ industrial designer.” 47

Kaleidoscope Shop, film by Charles and Ray Eames
From Kaleidoscope Shop, directed by Charles and Ray Eames, 1959.

In asking us to view their experimentalism through kaleidoscopic views of a famous office-turned-playground, the Eameses announce their practice as a lifestyle. Filmic experimentation is perceptual experimentation, and both are embedded in the times, speeds, and sensations of serial, industrialized production and its transformations of the spaces of private life, its reworking of the boundary between leisure and work. That boundary vanishes in this film — indeed, it is everywhere collapsed by the Eameses’ way of working and playing — and yet the designers still summon a space of privacy that the spectacle of chairs kaleidoscopically fragmented, then serially paraded as abstract sensation, would seek to preserve. The Eameses’ furniture films are not merely advertisements, or uncritical mirrors of a material culture of commodified everydayness; rather they are midcentury “allegories of production,” forms of small-format, domestic production that materialize their own location in the new nature of industrial, and postindustrial, image making. 48

The most striking allegory of Eamesian technoliving and image production, however, is House: After Five Years of Living (1955), a ten-minute film composed entirely of a sequence of three hundred still images of the Eameses’ own home. The images are of the house’s interior and immediate environs, and its dazzling surfeit of carefully arranged objects (furniture, collectibles, knickknacks) — rapidly edited in what would become the Eameses’ trademark style of “fast cutting,” and scored again by Bernstein. British architect Peter Smithson would later cast the house’s technoairiness as the definitive expression of the “Eames aesthetic”: their way of selecting, arranging, and juxtaposing objects in surprising domestic combinations. But he was also commenting on the Eameses’ way of mobilizing wonder: “This sounds like whimsy, but the basic vehicle — the steel lattice frame in the case of the house, the colour film and colour processing in the graphics work, the pressing and moulding in the case of the furniture — are ordinary to the culture.” 49 In short, Charles Eames is happy in a variety of media, modeling a way of living and working in the becoming ordinary of postwar technologies that is, literally, the stuff of his house, and his film about it, House.

Charles and Ray Eames pose with steel frame during construction of Case Study House No. 8
Charles and Ray Eames pose with steel frame during construction of Case Study House No. 8, 1949. [© Eames Office LLC]

The so-called Eames House that served as the couple’s home and studio for many years was constructed as part of the Case Study House Program, launched in 1945 through the sponsorship of John Entenza’s Arts & Architecture and publicized in its pages. Constructed in the traumatic shadow of World War II, the Case homes imagined their future occupants reoriented by the war; they assumed that “the soldier returning from war had become a ‘modern man,’ a figure who would prefer to live in a modern environment utilizing the most advanced technology rather than return to live in the ‘old-fashioned houses with enclosed rooms.’” 50

What was modern about the Case houses was not just their use of standardized, prefab building materials but also, as Smithson argued, their enactment of a postwar lifestyle in which domesticity was at home in the spaces and times of modern image-making technologies such as photography and newly mobile 16mm cameras. The July 1944 manifesto, “What Is a House?,” cowritten by Entenza, Charles Eames, Buckminster Fuller, and Herbert Matter, set the conceptual terms for the Case program, defining the house as “the basis for the environment that conditions us; the envelope which encases the most important of our life’s functions.” Those postwar lives and their vital capacities would only “break through into the future” when their environment — the home — acknowledged its degree of technological saturation. A drawing by Eames portrayed home machines assimilated in an array of “family functions,” such as film-viewing, kite-flying, card-playing, listening to records, shaking cocktails, painting, and, naturally, lounging on modern furniture. 51 Domestic filmmaking and viewing were cast within a broad continuum of postwar lifestyle to be performed while enveloped in technology. Eames and Saarinen’s briefs for Case Study Houses 8 and 9 extended the logic of efficient modern spaces in which one lives and produces in time and media: “‘House’ in these cases means center of productive activities.” Play dissolves into work, work is the stuff of enjoyment, and professional and personal investments blur in the domain of serious pleasure. As a “background for life in work,” the house itself becomes an unobtrusive stage or frame for productive lifestyle. 52

Charles Eames, drawing for What Is a House?
Charles Eames, drawing for Eames, John Entenza, and Herbert Matter, “What Is a House?,” Arts & Architecture, July 1944. [© Travers Family Trust]

The 300-plus stills of House incarnate the principle of “object overload” that the Eameses wrote into their brief for the house in 1945, which specified a “large, unbroken area of pure enjoyment of space in which objects can be placed and taken away — driftwood, sculpture, mobiles, plants, constructions, etc.” 53 By beginning to ask just how much information their viewers could handle, or how quickly they could handle it, the Eameses’ experiments in information overload aimed to cultivate a specifically democratic sensorium. The furnishings inside the Eames house, or the dream of postwar mass production that the structure itself is, were read as the stuff of the American “good life,” or signs of what Victoria de Grazia has dubbed the “Market Empire.” 54 Such homologies between the sheer scale of American affluence and the speed or size of images of abundance, or between the vital multiplicity of American pluralism and the multiplication of screens, would animate the design of Glimpses of the U.S.A., the famous multiscreen exercise in global communication which the Eames unveiled at the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow. But these experiments unfolded in the context of what Fred Turner has called a “Cold War politics of attention” and its preoccupation with the crafting of multimedia, “democratic surrounds.” 55 By this Turner means a midcentury intellectual climate that understood the perceptual and psychological labor of choosing from among a complex, speedy array of images, and drawing relationships between them, as the very enactment of democratic perception.

To talk of these designers is to talk of their chairs, which is to speak of their house, which is to say something of the things in it, which is to marvel at their curious assemblages and thus work to make connections.

Turner’s “democratic surround” helps explain the curious logic behind these experiments in information overload. House, described by the Eames Office as “an exercise in looking at architecture through the medium of film,” presents carefully paced images of domestic life, which allow spectators to synthesize from these various details their own webs of significant “relationships” or “connections.” 56 House is therefore a key furniture film precisely because the Eames chair — as a singular object — is not privileged, but rather assumes its semiotic and syntactical function in the film’s broader communicative universe. In one montage, we twice glimpse a black Eames chair among images from the domain of making: a bowl of stones, the leaves of a houseplant, the florid strokes of an abstract watercolor, a camera tripod, a folk art toy, and various images of the slumbering studio and signs of work in progress: stacked film cans, lights, empty reels, a 16mm camera, and reels of film in the process of being edited. To talk of these designers is to talk of their chairs, which is to speak of their house, which is to say something of the things in it, which is to marvel at their curious assemblages and thus work to make connections. To speak of the Eameses is to enact a cascading logic of interrelatedness and connectivity. As Charles explained to a baffled class of students, “the point is that everything is in relation with every other thing in the room, all of which is architecture.” 57

Eames Lounge Chair Wood (LCW), in a life of happy making. From House: After Five Years of Living, directed by Charles and Ray Eames, 1955.

House’s structuring paradox is its happy impersonality, its joyful anonymity: it is often described as a deeply personal film, filled with the stuff of the Eameses’ shared life together, but it has no people in it. Instead, it offers a curiously abstract domesticity in which the couple’s traces appear only in what Robert Venturi once described as the “eclectic assemblages” of their things. 58 What signs of happiness can be found in a dwelling without humans? What marks of intimacy or personality are left in this network of gabby things? Here, we can recall a biomorphic lesson from the organic furniture — the way its sensuous curves conjure the intimate presence of the human body even when it is absent. The molded plywood or fiberglass seems touched by a body, evoking a history or future of embodied contact. Such is the personality of the mass-produced.

Explaining the design process of the molded plywood chair to viewers of the Discovery show, Charles Eames located similitude and shared comfort in the abstraction of the mass-produced object — the ergonomic commons, as it were — while he stressed its embeddedness in the time and history of its human facture. Just as Chair Story showed the human-scale time of labor, House: After Five Years of Living performs a feat of filmic compression, defining productive life as the building of shared world, one made through a vast continuum of activities (working, creating, collecting, selecting, arranging, photographing, filming) that transpire while being “enveloped” in technologies that have become second nature. The stilled world revealed by the camera in this anthropological film only seems “without us,” ghostly and spectral. In fact, House is the technical reanimation of a world fabricated and organized by humans, and the logical enactment of Charles Eames’s contemporary definition of architecture “not in terms of buildings but as the world and the extension of man and his environment.” 59

Case Study House No. 8, exterior
Exterior, Case Study House No. 8. [Photo by Julius Shulman / J. Paul Getty Trust, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, 2004.R.10]

Solar Do-Nothings

House is a story of human happiness without humans, an allegory of their lives with things and lives in technology. But stories about postwar happy-making can also be told in films about a functionless technical object, like the Solar Do-Nothing Machine (1957). An automated thing, the machine exists somewhere between the stuff of a toy box, the “eccentric technicity or gratuitous formalism” of the gadget, and the nameless, “empty functionalism” of the gizmo. 60 Although not a piece of furniture, this quasi-sculptural hybrid echoes the environmental preoccupations of the Eameses’ furniture films, connecting kinetic, ludic matter (here, aluminum), moving-image technologies, and democratic lifestyles.

The Do-Nothing Machine flaunts its own uselessness, modeling the time of leisure, open and unstructured. It’s a playful response, in the key of Rube Goldberg, to the instrumental operations of the sponsored films with which the Eameses were accustomed by 1957. Conspicuously aesthetic, its sculptural dynamism is situated in a vanguard genealogy of kinetic art, between the airiness of modern furniture and the environmental aspirations of modern sculpture. And its scale is intimate and cosmic at once. As Nelson’s musings on the “new subscape” remind us, acts of human production within the new natures and atmospheres of the midcentury tend to precipitate often dizzying scalar movements between registers of smallness and bigness. Fluidity of movement between micro and macrocosm is the central conceit of the Eameses’ best-known film, Powers of Ten (1968, 1977). 61 But it is also evident in Solar Do-Nothing Machine, a curious film/object that works to convert the specter of sublime human interventionism in the postwar atmosphere into the jejune energies of a delightful aluminum toy-thing.

“The key to Eames’ world,” art critic Lawrence Alloway observed, “is his toys.” 62 And the Eameses were fascinated with toys as special kinds of material objects conveying the beauty, order, and creative possibilities within “everyday acts of play.” 63 In 1950, they mass-produced the Toy, a kite-like play-kit of brightly colored triangular and square panels that could be assembled into a flexible variety of different environments; the packaging proclaimed it was “Large • Colorful • Easy to Assemble • For Creating a Light, Bright Expandable World.” They had also developed a number of recombinant paper playthings, including the House of Cards (1952), the Giant House of Cards (1953), and the Coloring Toy (1955), which invited children to participate in the joys of “construction, arrangement, and building.” And they had made a series of charming, well-crafted short films starring trains, puppets, and mechanical toys, including Traveling Boy (1950), Parade, or Here They Come Down Our Street (1952), and Toccata for Toy Trains (1957). So they were perhaps the natural choice to design a toy for an advertising campaign.

Solar Do-Nothing Machine, advertisement in Life magazine
Solar Do-Nothing Machine, designed by Charles Eames for the Alcoa “Forecast” campaign, Life, 1959.

The explosive wartime production of Alcoa — the Aluminum Company of America — had made the lightweight, malleable metal virtually synonymous with United States aircraft. But in 1957-58, a recession sent aluminum prices down. Alcoa sought to correct its production surplus through the so-called Forecast Program, an insistently future-oriented advertising campaign whose goal was to promote aluminum by commissioning top designers to fashion new aluminum products. The designs weren’t things so much as concepts — metallic metaphors for the bold, domestic future of aluminum — and they were built to circulate as images in magazine advertisements. The Eameses were commissioned to design an aluminum toy, and they built a whimsical, redundant contraption that deployed freestanding aluminum reflector screens to capture sunlight and reflect it into panels of photovoltaic cells. The cells turned sunlight into electrical energy that set into motion ten revolving displays of brightly colored pinwheels and stars. This was the sunny future of aluminum: a happy atmosphere in which natural energy could be harnessed in the production of an utterly gratuitous spectacle of movement and color. As a feature in Life magazine put it, the Solar Do-Nothing Machine was “a bit of scientific and artistic whimsy now,” but it was being “sent on tour as an enchanting harbinger of more useful sun-machines in the future.” 64

The Solar Do-Nothing Machine is a knowing thingamajig that knows it solves no problem, beyond the spectacular promotion of aluminum.

In this same period, others were also scanning unseen energies in the skies above for signals about the future of the homo faber. Hannah Arendt opened The Human Condition (1958) with a prologue starring an aerial, technical wonder — Sputnik — that exemplified “modern world alienation, its twofold flight from the earth into the universe and from the world into the self.” The satellite was part of the broader realm of human artifice that Arendt called “world,” produced by the distinctively human activity of “work.” For her, Sputnik augured the hypertrophy of human design and the rise of “artificial life”; it was a dangerous attempt to transcend humans’ earthly existence. Arendt was no less concerned by the “advent of automation,” which sucked humans into an accelerating process of production and consumption. When technical know-how outstrips the political capacity for thinking and speaking, we are “at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is.” Confronting this “new and yet unknown age” of design — the airborne, automatic gadgets that conspired to transform the foundational activities of humans — the book was an attempt “to think what we are doing.” 65

The Solar Do-Nothing Machine stages this anxious discrepancy between midcentury technical know-how and utility, between human “work” and the final yield of human purposiveness. It is a knowing thingamajig that knows it solves no problem, beyond the spectacular promotion of aluminum. The accompanying film is similarly self-reflexive, joining the excesses of its visible superfluity to the miraculous but invisible energetic transfers transpiring atmospherically. Like much of the Eameses’ output, the film betrays a fascination with how things work. It analyzes the machine in a jazzy sequence of charming close-ups of mobile, sun-powered aluminum, shots that alternately foreground the substance’s materiality and seek to dissolve it entirely into airy, abstract biomorphic patterns or the hazy atmosphere of sunlight that animates it. The film seems to suggest that such animation, and our optical delight in it, could go on indefinitely, but then the energy source cuts out, abruptly, with the film’s own conclusion. Thus, the Solar Do-Nothing Machine recasts the Toy’s promise of a “light, bright, expandable world” as a green wish for clean air and infinitely renewable natural energy. Less a tool for present-day problem solving than a medium of speculation, the machine offers what Daniel Barber has called a “concise expression of the place solar power occupied in the expansion of energy infrastructures right after WWII,” when “solar energy was able to do, if not exactly nothing, then very little.” 66

Yet at stake in kinetic art’s “environmental turn” was the activation of a more participatory, interactive — indeed democratic — sensorium, where meaning was contingent on the equally mobile eye and body of the spectator. Because kineticism’s “environment” sought to bring together, and mutually transform, various kinds of space — optical, architectural, experiential — it marked a turn away from an earlier modernist investment in abstract optical space (the domain of spirit or the absolute) and toward particular, contingent, embodied spaces. Indeed, for many artists in the 1960s, this would be the space of participatory politics — what Arendt would celebrate as the human capacity for “action.” In the same year that Sputnik was shot into orbit and the Solar Do-Nothing Machine set into motion, Guy Habasque hailed the “spatiodynamic” idiom of Hungarian-born Frenchman Nicolas Schoffer, designer of the first cybernetic sculpture, CYSP 1. 67 Named for “cybernetics” and “spatiodynamism,” CYSP 1 was composed of right-angled black steel, sixteen plates of polychrome aluminum, and an “electronic brain” that allowed it to move in response to ambient feedback. 68

It asks after the future of human making — what are we doing? — with an anxious eye toward the technoscientific environments in which Eamesian happiness was made.

The Eameses’ contemporaneous Solar Do-Nothing Machine is not a properly cybernetic work, since its electrical assemblage of lightweight aluminum does not respond to information fed back into its processors from the ambient surround. Nor can it correct, modulate, or otherwise adjust its unidirectional movement in response to changes in its environment or to the contingent, embodied situation of its spectator. Yet the manner in which it orients itself to an environment whose energies inform, and recursively shape, its own movement dovetails with the midcentury cybernetic principles in which the Eameses were steeped. Solar Do-Nothing Machine proposes that we think the productive activity of humans and machines together, bound here in similarly unknown future of adaptations to technical environments surging with unseen, energetic potential.

What’s more, the film insists that this imagined future, free from entropy, loss, and waste, is fully compatible with the most extravagant, most useless human interventions in matter and energy. The Solar Do-Nothing Machine is a toy whose scale is the world. Its abiding design dream of human technology, at once infinitely large and infinitely small, excessively powerful and doing nothing at all, redounds to a postatomic world that can imagine such intensely utopias of energy because it has witnessed the scale of nuclear annihilation. Although humans are not present, the film nonetheless makes a spectacle of the Eameses’ modernist faith in human ingenuity and humane design. Its compensatory wish is for a decisive human manipulation of matter and nature that would leave no human trace. As an Arendtian fable of the extremes of human “worldliness” or a cyberautomated future, The Solar Do-Nothing Machine gives no inkling of a mission or end. It asks after the future of human making — what are we doing? — with an anxious eye toward the technoscientific environments in which Eamesian happiness was made.

Richard Hamilton painting, Interior II
Richard Hamilton, Interior II, 1964. [Tate, London]

The Eames Chair in the Expanded Field

And so, over the course of two decades, Ray and Charles Eames linked stories about the materiality of modern furniture to canny reflections on the environmental aspirations of postwar aesthetic production. In 1964, artist Richard Hamilton included the Eames Office’s La Fonda chair (1961) in his mixed-media painting Interior II, where the chair, as image-object, quite literally becomes media — collage material. Positioned in front of an image of actor Patricia Knight, the chair sits in the center of the scene’s carefully orchestrated nexus of gazes, perspectives, and display techniques. By what cultural logic has an Eames chair, in the early 1960s, found itself a protagonist in Hamilton’s hypermediated pop interior?

As Peter Smithson attests, Charles and Ray Eames enjoyed close ties with many of Hamilton’s colleagues in the British Independent Group, the iconoclastic young artists, architects, and critics whose meetings at London’s fledging Institute of Contemporary Arts in the early 1950s helped shape an insurgent, antiauthoritarian “aesthetics of plenty.” In a landmark 1961 essay, critic Reyner Banham took stock of a broad transformation of design values brought about by the increasing mechanization of Western households, new rates of obsolescence, product miniaturization, and the introduction of “a degree of mechanization into the creative work” of painters, sculptors, and designers alike. This shift, Banham argued, recast the purview of the modern architect. No longer the “absolute master of the visual environment,” the architect was now a tastemaker or selector, whose goal was to “exercise choice and background control over the choice of others.” For Banham, no figure in the world of design had “made so great an impact on the world, both by his products and personality,” as Charles Eames. 69 If the Eameses’ output epitomized “design by choice,” and the “problem of affluent democracy” driving postwar technological change, part of what was so striking about their production was the way it embodied the happy promise of the postwar American good life through a disarming sense of comfort in the power of technology itself, from mobile plywood to 16mm. In this climate, Alison Smithson declared, “the Eames chair was like a message of hope from another planet.” 70

By giving the La Fonda chair such visual prominence, Hamilton’s painting inserts the chair into its portrait of technology, while insisting on the medial process of collage itself. 71 The painting’s subject is not just a mediated interior but also the expanded field of art itself. The chair’s technology is celebrated even as it is tabulated as cultural data, as an advertising image with transatlantic reach. Appropriately enough, it sits among other cultural technologies of display that have converted the space of the interior — much like the Eameses’ film House — into a system of mobile views. As object and image, harbinger of postwar technics and commodity fetish, design technology and display technology, Hamilton’s La Fonda finds itself in the same informatic networks in which the Eameses themselves would increasingly chart the future of their design work. These are the technological, imagistic, and semiotic environments of an Eames chair. Indeed, as the Eameses’ design practice expanded in the 1950s from its initial focus on product and graphic design toward filmmaking and exhibition design, it became, in Charles’s words, “more and more concerned with the way information is handled.” 72

Editors’ Note

This article is excerpted from Happiness by Design: Modernism and Media in the Eames Era, by Justus Nieland and published next week by the University of Minnesota Press. Copyright 2020 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. It appears here by permission of the author and the University of Minnesota Press.

Images copyrighted by the Eames Office LLC may not be used without permission.

  1. Alexandra Lange, “This Year’s Model: Representing Modernism to the Post-War American Corporation,” Journal of Design History 19:3 (2006), 244, https://doi.org/10.1093/jdh/epl009.
  2. On the contemporary science of happiness, and its modes of measuring happiness through “hedonimeters” and “happiness indicators,” see Sara Ahmed, “The Happiness Turn,” New Formations 63 (Winter 2007/2008), 7–14. For a longer history, see William Davies, The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being (Verso, 2015).
  3. In the postwar United States, the Eameses’ designed objects and lifestyle were exhibited within a broader revolution in American architecture, design, and the booming housing market that Mark Jarzombek has dubbed “Good-Life Modernism,” a massive effort to “integrate the house once and for all into the realm of consumer goods.” See Mark Jarzombek, “Good-Life Modernism and Beyond: The American House in the 1950s and 1960s. A Commentary,” Cornell School of Architecture 4 (Fall 1990), 78.
  4. Greg Castillo, Cold War on the Home Front: The Soft Power of Midcentury Design (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), xi.
  5. Edgar Kaufmann Jr., What Is Modern Design? (Simon and Schuster, 1950), 8.
  6. See Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Duke University Press, 2010); and Sara Ahmed, “Happy Objects,” in The Affect Theory Reader, Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (Duke University Press, 2010), 35.
  7. Jodi Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (Duke University Press, 2009), 23.
  8. On postwar material culture’s movement between wartime violence and domestic ease, see especially Beatriz Colomina, Domesticity at War (MIT Press, 2007).
  9. On the Eameses’ turn from objects to “situations,” see Ralph Caplan, Connections: The Work of Charles and Ray Eames (UCLA Art Council/Frederick S. Wright Art Gallery, 1977), 32; on the network of the Eameses’ design process, see John Harwood, The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1946–1976 (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 219–20.
  10. Organic Design in Home Furnishings (Museum of Modern Art, 1941).
  11. Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (Harcourt Brace, 1934), quoted in Organic Design in Home Furnishings.
  12. Harwood, The Interface, 25.
  13. Harwood, The Interface, 25, 125.
  14. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility: The Second Version,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, 3, 1935–1938, Ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith; Trans. Rodney Livingston et al. (Harvard University Press 2002), 108.
  15. George Nelson, “Notes on the New Subscape,” in Problems of Design (Whitney, 1957), 194–99.
  16. Nelson, “Notes on the New Subscape,” 200.
  17. Nelson, “The Enlargement of Vision,” in Problems of Design, 65.
  18. Nelson, “The Enlargement of Vision,” 71.
  19. Barbara Goldstein, introduction to Arts & Architecture: The Entenza Years (MIT Press, 1990), 8.
  20. Eric Smoodin, introduction to Hollywood Quarterly: Film Culture in Postwar America, 1945–1957 (University of California Press, 2002), xiv.
  21. Arts & Architecture (September 1943), 16. Alvin Lustig designed the first cover of the reboot. Ray Eames designed ten covers that year, and another eight in 1944.
  22. Eliot Noyes, “Charles Eames,” Arts & Architecture (September 1946), 26.
  23. John Harwood, “R and D: The Eames Office at Work,” in Explorations in Architecture: Teaching, Design, Research, Reto Geiser (Birkhauser Architecture, 2008), 200.
  24. See Peter Galison and Caroline Jones, “Factory, Laboratory, Studio: Dispersing Sites of Production,” in The Architecture of Science, Peter Galison and Emily Thompson (MIT Press, 1999), 497–540.
  25. Catherine Ince, “Something about the World of Charles and Ray Eames,” in Ed. Catherine Ince with Lotte Johnson, The World of Charles and Ray Eames (Rizzoli, 2016), 13.
    5. On the broader relationship between
  26. For a more detailed discussion of 901, see Justus Nieland, “Postindustrial Studio Lifestyle: The Eameses in the Environment of 901,” in In the Studio: Visual Creation and its Material Environments, Brian R. Jacobson (University of California Press, forthcoming).
  27. Quoted in Jeffrey Meikle, American Plastic: A Cultural History (Rutgers University Press, 1995), 202–03.
  28. John Neuhart and Marilyn Neuhart, with Ray Eames, Eames Design: The Work of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames (Harry N. Abrams, 1989), 142.
  29. Part II, box 7, folder, “Ford, Henry,” Charles and Ray Eames Papers, Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
  30. Beatriz Colomina, “Introduction,” in Cold War Hothouses: Inventing Postwar Culture, from Cockpit to Playboy, Beatriz Colomina, Annmarie Brennan, and Jeannie Kim (Princeton Architectural Press, 2004), 19.
  31. Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects, Trans. James Benedict (Verson, 1996).
  32. Part II, box 190, folder: “Discovery Television Program” (1953), Charles and Ray Eames Papers.
  33. Part II, box 173, folder: “Omnibus, CBS television series, notes and storyline for a program on the Eameses’ work, 1955–56,” Charles and Ray Eames Papers.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Ibid.
  36. These works include S-73/ Sofa Compact (1954), Eames Lounge Chair (1956), Kaleidoscope Jazz Chair (1960), ECS/Eames Contract Storage (1961), Soft Pad (1970), and The Fiberglass Chairs: Something of How They Got the Way They Are (1970), as well as two films about Herman Miller furniture displayed at the World’s Fairs in Brussels and Seattle: HMI at the Brussels Fair (1958) and Before the Fair (1962). These last two were made not to explain the furniture to dealers and clients but as gifts to Herman Miller.
  37. Ralph Caplan, “The Messages of Industry on the Screen,” Business Screen, April 1960, 48–64.
  38. John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward an Elemental Philosophy of Media (University of Chicago Press, 2015); Alexander Klose, The Container Principle: How a Box Changes the Way We Think, Charles Marcrum II (CMIT Press, 2015).
  39. The Eames Lounge Chair: An Icon of Modern Design (Merrell, 2006), 154. On Wilder’s Mies chair, see Pat Kirkham, Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century (MIT Press, 1995).
  40. “A Designer’s Home of His Own: Charles Eames Builds a House of Steel and Glass,” Life, September 11, 1950, 342.
  41. See Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (University of Chicago Press, 1992).
  42. The Eameses’ film and media practice transpired within what Jesse LeCavalier calls “the logistics revolution,” starting after World War II and “maturing in the 1970s,” and enabling “coordination at new scales, speeds, and efficiencies with new attendant forms.” The Eames chair, S-73 suggests, is one such midcentury form. Jesse LeCavalier, The Rule of Logistics: Walmart and the Architecture of Fulfillment (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 54.
  43. Lynn Spigel, TV by Design (University of Chicago Press, 2009).
  44. Gyorgy Kepes, The Language of Vision (Theobold, 1944).
  45. Reinhold Martin, The Organizational Complex: Architecture, Media, Corporate Space (MIT Press), 62.
  46. Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (MIT Press, 1992), 116.
  47. Kirkham, Charles and Ray Eames.
  48. David E. James, Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties (Princeton University Press, 1989).
  49. Peter Smithson, “Just a Few Chairs and a House: An Essay on the Eames Aesthetic,” Architectural Design 36 (September 1966), 14.
  50. Beatriz Colomina, “Reflections on the Eames House,” in The World of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention (Harry N. Abrams in association with the Library of Congress and the Vitra Design Museum, 1997), 134.
  51. Arts & Architecture: The Entenza Years, 35, 46.
  52. Eames and Saarinen, quoted in Kirkham, Charles and Ray Eames.
  53. Eames, quoted in Kirkham, Charles and Ray Eames.
  54. Victoria de Grazia, Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance Through Twentieth-Century Europe (Belknap Harvard, 2006).
  55. Fred Turner, The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
  56. Neuhart and Neuhart, Eames Design.
  57. Part II, box 215, folder: “1953–1954 University of California, Berkeley, Calif. lectures,” Charles and Ray Eames Papers.
  58. Venturi, quoted in Kirkham, Charles and Ray Eames.
  59. Part II, box 190, folder: “Discovery Television Program” (1953), Charles and Ray Eames Papers.
  60. See Baudrillard on the “pseudo-functionality” of the gizmo in his chapter “The Metafunctional and Dysfunctional System,” The System of Objects.
  61. Paul Schrader, “Poetry of Ideas: The Films of Charles Eames,” Film Quarterly 23:3 (Spring 1970), 2–16, https://doi.org/10.2307/1210376.
  62. Lawrence Alloway, “Eames’ World,” Architectural Association Journal 72 (1956), 54.
  63. Tamar Zinguer, “Toy,” in Colomina, Brennan, and Kim, Cold War Hothouses, On the Eameses’ “toy” films as a subset of their interest in “object films,” see Schrader, “Poetry of Ideas,” and Kirkham, Charles and Ray Eames, 333–44.
  64. “A Twirling Toy Run by Sun: Gadget Is Forerunner of Future Solar-Power Machine,” Life, March 24, 1958, 22–23.
  65. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd ed. (University of Chicago Press, 1998), 1–6.
  66. Daniel A. Barber, “The World Solar Energy Project, c. 1954,” Grey Room 51 (Spring 2013), 66.
  67. Guy Habasque, “Notes on a New Trend: Multidimensional Animated Works,” Yale French Studies 19/20 (1957), 35–44.
  68. CYSP 1 also was an early incarnation of Schoeffer’s ever more ambitious attempts to dynamize public space by integrating kinetic indeterminism into the urban environment. See Larry Busbea, Topologies: The Urban Utopia in France, 1960–1970 (MIT Press, 2007), 54.
  69. Reyner Banham, “Design by Choice,” in Design by Choice: Ideas in Architecture, Penny Sparke (Rizzoli, 1981), 101, 103.
  70. Alison Smithson, “And Now Dharmas Are Dying Out in Japan,” in “Eames Celebration,” Eds. Peter Smithson and Alison Smithson, Architectural Design 37 (September 1966), 17.
  71. Hamilton’s Interior II bears out Banham’s desire to advance what Hal Foster calls “imaging of technology as the principal criterion for design — for design of the second machine age or the first pop age as well.” Hal Foster, “Notes on the First Pop Age,” in Richard Hamilton, Hal Foster (MIT Press, 2010), 46.
  72. Neuhart and Neuhart, Eames Design, 223.
Justus Nieland, “Happy Furniture,” Places Journal, January 2020. Accessed 29 Sep 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/200130

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