New York, 1947. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) announces the International Competition for Affordable Furniture. The contest, which had held a previous edition in 1941, had been interrupted in the central years of the decade by World War II. After that obligatory parenthesis, he returned with a thirst for color and optimism, ready to furnish the domestic aesthetics of the American Way of Life. That year, the Californian couple formed by Charles and Ray Eames won second prize in the Seats category with their now iconic Shell Chair. 75 years later, Vitra has produced a limited edition of 500 numbered units of the Shell armchair to celebrate the before and after of that design milestone and, also, its creators, to whom it is dedicating an exhibition in Germany starting next 14 of June.
75 years ago there was a detail that radically changed the orientation of the MoMA competition with respect to how it had been conceived at the beginning of the forties. The term was added to the title of the 1947 call low cost (low cost or affordable, in Spanish). Those two words infused the event with a revolutionary and conscious character, revealing MoMA’s interest in promoting a comfortable and complacent lifestyle through industrial design, but economically in keeping with the rigors of a post-war period.
The Shell Chair by Charles and Ray Eames was the first industrially mass-produced chair in history, marketed by Vitra from the 1950s to the present. Apparently simple, the piece flaunts a complex geometry of curved lines and continuous lines that merge the seat and back into a single-piece plastic structure. “The organic profile of the casing offers a feeling of floating lightness never felt until then,” they say at Vitra. This casing, the heart of the work, was then placed on various bases: metal or wooden legs, high stool feet, rocking chair rockers, tripods with wheels… Imagination, the rejection of stylistic excess, a jovial spirit and a deep reflection on society and the environment democratized the world of furniture.
Of necessity, virtue
With the Shell series, the Eameses masterfully captured the true essence of good design: solving real-life problems. If before the Great War they had dared with complex prototypes of laminated birch, the commitment to make the design available to the majority stirred their minds, leading them to change the noble wood for an amazingly versatile fiberglass-reinforced polyester resin. and much cheaper. As for the shape, it was carefully premeditated and conceived so that the seat could be manufactured, stacked and moved in series, reducing production costs as much as possible. Talent, purpose, commitment, technical rigor, harmony and high doses of imagination came up with the optimal solution to seduce that middle-class consumer eager for brand new interior design and, with it, shake off the memory of everything that sounded like penury. Nothing to do with the empty concept of many of the objects that today claim to be considered “design”.
The chair as canvas
The MoMA award was just the beginning: the funniest chapter in the story of the Charles and Ray Eames fiberglass seat was yet to be written. Better said… for drawing. On a visit to the Eames’ office in Los Angeles, California, Romanian-Jewish artist Saul Steinberg—a cartoonist from The New Yorker and a close friend of the marriage—he began to scribble on the furniture, the floor and the walls of the study. Spontaneous strokes flowed throughout the space. One of the figures that emerged from that improvised happening it was a cat curled up in a shell chair. With its eyes closed, the kitten’s happy grimace seems to express its desire to want to remain attached to that cozy armchair forever.
“There is something highly intelligent and philosophical about a cat,” Steinberg wrote in 1967 about felines, one of the illustrator’s favorite and most recurring motifs. Through his fine mastery of parody, Steinberg’s drawings fed the critical spirit from one of the most popular magazines of the moment. With that spontaneous foray into 3D —a doodle with a childish air nestled in a MoMA piece— the antisocial little cat that steals our seats established its author as a master of humor, tenderness and nonconformity.
Half furniture, half vignette
Of that artistic experiment, in the Eames office Two original pieces are still preserved: the cat and a female nude. To commemorate the 75th anniversary of MoMA’s International Affordable Furniture Competition, Vitra has produced a limited edition of 500 numbered units of the Eames’ Shell armchair with Steinberg’s cat. The replicas have been hand painted one by one from an exact template of the original.
In addition, on June 14, coinciding with the Art Basel fair, the designer furniture manufacturing company will present the exhibition on its Weil am Rhein (Germany) campus Eames & Steinberg. The exhibition reflects on the way in which these creators broke down the barriers between industrial design and graphic design through a singular reciprocity between the two languages that had never been explored before.
The Eames chair is transcendental because it refers to the first purpose of democratizing design, something that in a climate of crisis comparable to the one that surrounds us today is vital and commendable. Steinberg’s cat crouched there is transcendent for his sense of humor, for his cynicism, for his free and subversive spirit. Chair and cat eloquently express the commitment of their creators to their time. They are two daily inhabitants of homes and together they make this inimitable work —half furniture, half vignette— that furnishes our houses and also our minds. Design and illustration: what trades are so necessary.