Think of an Eames and it’s invariably that lounge chair with the matching footstool that springs to mind. Or perhaps the Eiffel – the first industrially manufactured plastic chair.
But the manufacturer of those pieces always preferred his earlier, simpler plywood chairs. In 1999, Time magazine agreed when it voted the LCW (lounge chair wood) the best design of the 20th century, calling it “elegant, light and comfortable. Much copied but never bettered”.
Charles Eames launched the LCW in 1946. It was the result of several years of experimentation with moulded plywood, and several failed attempts to make a chair from a single piece of wood.
Six years earlier, the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, had launched the Organic Design competition to find a “group of designers capable of contributing to the creation of a useful and beautiful environment for today’s living”.
Eames and Eero Saarinen, a fellow designer and friend, decided to enter together. The final entry, the Organic chair, won second prize. But Eames was determined to continue working on his original idea which would later become known as the LCW.
In the apartment he shared with his wife, Ray, they set up a machine into which they fed wood and glue – and out came moulded plywood. Their first product was a splint based on Charles’ leg. The Navy ordered 5,000 splints and production moved out of the spare room.
In 1946, MoMA held an exhibition, Chairs, Eames and Chests, featuring the couple’s plywood furniture.
The Eames continued to work on new designs all their lives and when Charles died in 1978, Ray carried on alone until she too died – exactly 10 years to the day after her husband.