In honor of Memorial Day, as we remember those who lost their lives in service, we wanted to highlight a story of design about aiding those who served.

In 1942, Dr. Wendell Scott, a surgeon in the United States Navy based in San Diego, traveled to Los Angeles to visit an old friend, Charles, and his wife Ray Eames.[1] The Eameses—recently married—had moved to California the prior year. Scott’s visit followed on the heels of the United States’s entry into the Second World War.[2] At the forefront of the doctor’s mind was a problem the Navy was experiencing with emergency leg splints. Poorly engineered and heavy, the metal splints did not conform to the body and lacked a supportive heel. They were causing further trauma to those already injured. In the Eameses’ spare bedroom, Scott found a possible design solution in the molded plywood furniture prototypes issuing from Charles’s “Kazaam! Machine.”[3]

Charles began experimenting with molded plywood in 1940 at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. In collaboration with Eero Saarinen, and with drafting assistance from Ray, Charles submitted designs for molded plywood furniture to a competition organized by The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Their designs for living room furniture won first prize.[4] The competition intended to connect winners with manufacturers to bring their designs into mass production; however, the technology had not been sufficiently developed to produce Charles’s molded plywood furniture in any large quantity.[5]

Dr. Scott’s proposal to produce molded plywood splints gave the Eameses a path to move forward. The design of the splint was a challenge. It needed to be lightweight, yet durable; conform to the shape of the leg; and, most importantly, be mass producible. To accomplish this, Charles and Ray relied on a team of collaborators including Gregory Ain and Margaret Harris, both of whom Charles had met while working for the movie studio, Metro Goldwyn Mayer.[6] Harris, a costume designer, provided key insights into shaping the plywood by suggesting cut-outs that mimicked the effect of darts in sewing. These cut-outs enabled the plywood to be efficiently molded into compound curved forms without splintering the wood.

The final prototype—called the Transportation Leg Splint—was presented to the Navy in the Fall of 1942, and an initial order for 5,000 splints was placed. With funding from the publisher John Entenza, the Eameses formed the Plyform Wood Company (PWC).[7] Overwhelming response led the Eameses into a partnership with Col. Edward S. Evans of Evans Products, a Michigan-based wood manufacturer, ultimately enabling the production of nearly 150,000 splints.[8] Rising to this design challenge, the Eameses developed the production techniques and business relationships that set the foundation for what would become their now iconic molded plywood furniture after the war.

Dr. Devon Zimmerman is a graduate curatorial research fellow in the Product Design and Decorative Arts Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

[1] For a comprehensive review of the Eameses move to Los Angeles and war time experiments, see Marilyn Neuhart with John Neuhart, The Story of Eames Furniture: Book 1 The Early Years (Berlin: Gestalten, 2015), 290–331.

[2] For a discussion of the Eameses in the context of the expanding military industrial complex in Southern California, see Ryan Reft, “Charles and Ray Eames: How Wartime L.A. Shaped the Mid-Century Modern Aesthetic, KCET, Los Angeles, September 1, 2016 (https://www.kcet.org/shows/lost-la/charles-and-ray-eames-how-wartime-la-shaped-the-mid-century-modern-aesthetic#_ftn13).

[3] The “Kazaam! Machine” was an experimental, heated mold that pressed glued sheets of veneer into shape with a rubber balloon inflated by a bicycle pump. Gloria Koenig, Charles and Ray Eames: Pioneers of Mid-Century Modernism (Cologne: Taschen, 2005), 21.

[4] The competition and resulting exhibition are now referred to as Organic Design. Eames and Saarinen worked with the manufacturers Heywood-Wakefield and Haskelite to make a chair out of a single piece of molded plywood. Bill Stern, “War and Peace: Unexpected Dividends,” in Living in A Modern Way: California Design: 1930–1965, ed. Wendy Kaplan (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2011), 186.

[5] Gloria Koenig, Charles and Ray Eames: Pioneers of Mid-Century Modernism (Cologne: Taschen, 2005), 19.

[6] Eames Demetrios, An Eames Primer (New York: Universe Publisher, 2001), 42–43; 108–11.

[7] Koenig, Charles and Ray Eames, 22.

[8] PWC was folded into the company and subsequently renamed the Molded Plywood Division of Evans Products. Marilyn and John Neuhart, The Story of Eames Furniture, 315–17.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.