From the start of their professional careers together, Charles and Ray Eames believed that their designs and creations were sympathetic solutions to modern-day problems. The Eameses “belonged to a generation of designers who, immediately before, during, and after World War II, aimed to use new materials and industrial processes to produce quality everyday goods at prices affordable to most people” (Kirkham, 6). Their first commission, to design a new type of emergency medical splints for the United States Navy, is rarely discussed in connection to their furniture, yet this project forced the young designers to “bolster their usual attention to functionality and aesthetics with a new consideration: empathy [for the human body]” (Weems, 46). While nearly any piece of Eames furniture can be used as evidence to underscore the importance of this early commission, the designers continuing search for and creation of chairs that fit the human anatomy properly can be directly linked back to the early Naval prototypes.
Shortly after their move to Los Angeles, the Eameses experimented in their apartment with molded, compound-curved plywood chair seats, continuing the work Charles had begun with Eero Saarinen for the 1940 Museum of Modern Art “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition. Unable to design a chair made out of a single body-fitting shell for the competition, and not ones to leave a problem unsolved, Charles and Ray continued to experiment with plywood even after moving across the country. In December 1941, Wendell G. Scott, a medical doctor for the U.S. Navy, visited the Eameses in their Westwood apartment and was shown their wood-molding experiments. Recognizing a potential solution for a medical problem, Scott was intrigued by their plywood experiments. Scott explained that the “metal splint [used for medical emergencies at the time] did not sufficiently secure an injured limb, causing loss of circulation and gangrene in the limb or death from shock following further injury to the exposed” areas of the limb (Neuhart, 28). The medical officer felt that splints and body litters made of plywood would “satisfy the wartime need for lightweight and compact splints that were resilient and easy to use, nest, carry, clean, and reuse” (Neuhart, 28). The design issue piqued the interest of the Eameses, and their experiments with plywood could be incorporated into this project. The couple decided to try and develop a solution to the military’s problem.
Intrigued and excited at the prospect of solving the military’s splint issue, Charles and Ray immediately began experimenting with prototypes. The splint project forced the designers to “reframe their consideration of [the human body] in terms of damage and dysfunction” (Weems, 46). Instead of designing a chair which would hold and support a “normal” human body, such as the one Charles designed for the MoMA competition, the Eameses had to design a splint which would, at least momentarily hold together a broken, battered arm or leg.
After working furiously for a few months, in early 1942 the Eames pair presented their completed prototype to the Navy. It was determined that this design needed to be slightly modified, and the couple returned home in order to make the necessary corrections. In the summer of 1942, “[t]he Navy accepted the modified prototype, and the Eameses began designing the equipment needed for mass production” (Neuhart, 29). The design approved by the Navy was a highly functional device that was light and cheap to mass produce. It was, as the military report stated, “a simple splint that could be applied quickly and efficiently by untrained personnel without causing additional damage to the injured part” (Scott, 1425). The splint was so successfully designed that “[by] war’s end, over 150,000 splints had been produced” (Keems, 46). The Navy later recognized the Eameses’ important contribution to the war efforts.
In designing a splint for medical emergencies, whatever conceptions of the human body the Eameses had would have been eradicated when faced with bodies that were torn, broken, or in some way compromised. Significantly, Charles used himself as the model on which the splint was based. “To make the splint, a plaster mold was first taken of Charles’s leg, an uncomfortable and painful process (the head of the curing plaster and the pressure of the wooden blocks supporting the leg caused burns and bruises)” (Neuhart, 28). It might have been possible for the Eameses to have an abstract, distant idea of the violence of World War II prior to the Naval commission, but once Charles saw his own leg being fitted into the prototypes and suffered his own wounds during the creation process, it would have been nearly impossible for him to remain emotionally distant from their ongoing project. This enhanced sense of empathy for the soldiers, combined with the Eameses’s unique problem-solving abilities, encouraged the Eameses to develop a new, unique kind of splint.
“The Eames splint became a model of new ways of conceiving orthopedic devices, not only because of its innovation in materials and artistry, but also for the way that its anthropomorphized contours made it feel and look like an organic extension of the limb to which it was attached” (Weems, 47). The Eameses wanted to design a splint where the contrast between the supported limb and the medical device was not so jarring to the injured person. Rather than having the cold, metallic skeleton encasing their limb, the Eames splint more seamlessly encased the injured body part. The new splint design was less artificial looking, and thus less unsettling to the wearer. “Cutting a new path through the technophilism of wartime research, [the Eameses] splint positioned the body – and more importantly, the [human] subject – as the proper focus in the man-machine amalgam” (Weems, 47). This focus on the vulnerable human body and subsequent empathy early on in the Eames partnership continued throughout their careers.
Even one of the most ubiquitous examples of Mid-Century Modern design, the Eames Lounge (670) and Ottoman (671) “became a paragon of effective design precisely because of its deep adaptability to the needs of the weary body” (Weems, 47). Originally envisioned by Charles Eames as a chair with the “warm, receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt”, the Lounge Chair effectively recalls a broken-in leather baseball mitt that was lovingly used during childhood. Recalling the design goals of the Navy splint in terms of providing emotional support while also caring for physical injury of the soldier, the Eames Lounge Chair is demonstrative of the impact the Navy commission had on the Eameses. This chair has remained so popular in subsequent decades because it provides emotional support to the sitter, through familiarity and comfort, while also encasing the body in a supportive shell. Broken in, comfortable, never stuff or pretentious, the Eames Lounge Chair is redolent of Americana and nostalgic feelings. This is where the emotional support stems from. The physical support of the Eames Lounge Chair stems from the designers’ blend of natural form and modern technology. The natural wood elements reflect the curvature and gentle slopes found in nature, while also quietly utilizing definitively modern practices like molded plywood and a swivel base. Similar to the military splints, the Eames Lounge Chair comfortably supported in a more natural, biomorphic way. The soft, rich leather combined with the precise padding and gently curved wood make for a truly restful sitting experience. The Eames Lounge Chair’s “celebrated visual aesthetic, though rarely discussed [in terms of its relation to the wartime splint]… is perhaps best understood to be an outgrowth of this compassionate functionality” (Weems, 47).
The success the Eameses experienced during their lifetime had much to do with the central part empathy played in their designs. They wanted to make lives better through modern innovations and designs, and believed that technology could be used to improve quality of life for all. The early commission of designing emergency medical splints for the Navy had a profound and lasting effect on the couple. The splint that the Eamses’ designed “became a model of new ways of conceiving orthopedic devices” as its “innovation in materials and artistry” and its “anthropomorphized contours” created a natural blend into the protected limb. This unique commission fulfilled their original belief in design – to create sympathetic solutions to modern-day problems. Generally considered a footnote in the history of Eames design, the Navy splint had a massive impact on the careers of Charles and Ray Eames. As such, the splint deserves to be more widely discussed within the context of the couple’s furniture.
Kirkham, Pat. Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1995. Print.
Neuhart, John, Ray Eames, and Marilyn Neuhart. Eames Design: The Work of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1989. Print.
Underwood, Max. “Inside the Office of Charles and Ray Eames.” Eames Office. PTAH, 2002. Web. 1 June 2016.
United States. Navy Department. Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. United States Naval Medical Bulletin. Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., for sale by Supt. of Docs,
Weems, Jason. “War Furniture: Charles and Ray Eames Design for the Wounded Body.” Boom: A Journal of California 2.1 (2012): 46-48. JSTOR. Web. 01 June 2016.
Header Image: The Library of Congress, Washington D.C.