Charles and Ray Eames: How Wartime L.A. Shaped the Mid-Century Modern Aesthetic

During the mid-1990s, while working evenings and weekends on her PhD dissertation on 18th-century Philadelphia, veteran Library of Congress archivist Margaret McAleer found inspiration in what one might consider an unlikely place: the papers of legendary Los Angeles-based, 20th-century designers Charles and Ray Eames.

Ray Eames, who died in 1988, had bequeathed the collection to the library, and McAleer was assigned to organize the manuscript portion of the collection in advance of a 1998 exhibition on the designers.[1] She dove into its endless contents. “I was so inspired by their creativity and passion,” she noted in a recent interview. “They developed unique, fresh perspectives on every topic they explored. It was completely inspiring for my own dissertation.” Manuscript Division colleague Tracey Barton, who also worked on the Eames papers, concurs, describing the collection as “a wonderland of just all my favorite things in one place.”[2]

Seventy-five years ago, after meeting in Michigan at the Cranbook Academy of Arts in 1940, Charles and Ray Eames (husband and wife) arrived in Los Angeles not knowing a soul besides one another. It would be the start of one of the most influential design partnerships in twentieth century American history. Together they helped to define the mid-century modern aesthetic. Go to Ikea and you’ll see derivations of their famous Eames chair everywhere; in Househunters episodes their influence can often be seen in the furniture populating various rooms in prospective homes. Every time an aspiring pair of homeowners describes their style as “mid-century modern,” the Eames played a role.

Tag courtesy of the Charles and Ray Eames Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
Tag courtesy of the Charles and Ray Eames Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Not that any of this was preordained. The move to Los Angles was a significant risk. On one hand, while it might have been “surprising” due to their lack of connections there, notes McAleer, echoing numerous design historians, it also served as the “perfect place to start fresh,” Barton adds.[3] “Charles had neither the college degrees nor the professional credentials” necessary for an architecture license,” writes Marilyn and John Neuhart. Similarly, Ray had only “six years of study with the painter Hans Hoffman.”[4] Even without these advantages, Los Angeles and Southern California more generally seemed to be an open canvas upon which the Eames could paint their own future. The influence moved in both directions. “The Eameses played a major part in shaping Californian modernism in the 30-odd years they worked there – and California (Los Angeles in particular) was not without its influence on them,” asserts Pat Kirkham.[5]

Success did not come immediately and when it did come L.A.’s unique position as both an entertainment capital and the site of a rapidly expanding military-industrial complex would play a key role in bringing the Eameses to prominence. Just as McAleer found in the Eameses unlikely inspiration that spilled into her dissertation, so too did the design couple derive innovation in their furniture designs from the very regimented and standardized military.

The same year the Eames moved to Southern California, the U.S entered World War II. The Army needed plywood gliders for the transportation of soldiers and equipment behind enemy lines and the Navy needed splints for injured sailors. The Eameses’ proximity to San Diego via L.A. created the perfect design opportunity. Under the auspices of the Evans Products Company’s Molded Plywood Division, the Eames office successfully manufactured 150,000 splints for the Navy. Through this experience, and the manufacture of other, less notable military products, including a “blister” created but not widely produced for wartime gliders, the Eameses developed a new, innovative process for the industrial manufacturing of plywood while also establishing new relationships in the design world that would bring them to national prominence. To be clear, not all their designs worked or would be widely implemented, the Eames provide a key example of how the public and private sphere are intimately connected.

The Eameses’ arrival in Los Angeles coincided with a decades-long military investment in the region. By 1938, 60 percent of U.S. airframe manufacturers resided in Southern California, largely the Los Angeles and San Diego metropolitan areas. In addition, the Navy had contributed greatly to San Diego’s growth and, to a lesser extent, Long Beach’s. “[T]he Navy is integrated into this community more completely here than any other American port,” noted the San Diego Union in 1934.[6] When the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor drew America into the war, the resulting global conflict “covered the [aerospace] industry with gold,” writes historian Roger Lotchin. World War II “vastly accelerated the coupling of the city with the sword and created the close interdependence of the region upon the complex range of defense economic stimuli.”[7]

Indeed, Southern California witnessed a boom in its aircraft and shipbuilding industries; “12 percent of all war orders” went to California, notes historian Michael Sherry.[8] From 1941 to 1945, $70 billion in federal funds poured into the Golden State and, as a result, metropolitan San Diego and Los Angeles emerged as “the nation’s largest urban military industrial complex,” points out Gerald D. Nash.[9] Wartime mobilization, which followed the great migration of Midwesterners and Southerners to California during the 1920s and ’30s, symbolized the general national shift from east to west. “It was as if someone had tilted the country: people, money and soldiers all spilled west,” Richard White concluded.[10]

Consciously or not, the Eameses were part of that tilt. On July 5, 1941 they arrived in Los Angeles. Staying at the Highland Hotel in Hollywood for a couple of months, they watched the city enlarge “with what would become the wartime economy.” Once settled, they immediately connected with locals, notes grandson Eames Demetrios. They met Arts and Architecture publisher John Entenza, who later introduced them to famed architect Richard Neutra. In turn, Neutra found them a place in the new Strathmore Apartments that he had just designed. There the couple would reside, conducting their work in secrecy lest Neutra’s mother-in-law (who served as superintendent) discover their dangerous attempts at molding plywood. Charles continued to refine techniques for molding the plywood chair shell but lacked the finances to transform this process into one appropriate for mass production. War meant access to fewer materials and an end to plywood work until the conflict ended.[11]

Charles eventually found regular employment at Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM), though he viewed the opportunity somewhat dimly. “After many weeks of searching of work with some gleaming future I finally gave up and two weeks ago started work with [MGM],” he wrote to a friend. “All hope for the future is lost but I get a regular paycheck.” Neutra’s apartment was great, but they had no furniture and felt like “the shoemaker’s shoeless children,” he confided.[12]

Admittedly, Charles and Ray did not move to Los Angeles to take advantage of the burgeoning military industrial complex. However, Charles’s efforts at innovation mirrored those of his aerospace counterparts. Many observers believed plywood could be a valuable innovation with numerous military applications. At the same time Charles searched for new ways to mold plywood for furniture, Timm Aircraft, Morrow Aircraft, Fletcher Aviation, and Plxweve Manufacturing – all Los Angeles-based companies – were also struggling to discover an industrial approach to the production of plywood aircraft, airplane parts, and other means to adapt the new technology to different uses.[13]

New circumstances would arise, however, and the needs of the military had a great deal to do with the birth of opportunity. In 1942, with materials being requisitioned for the war effort, Charles and Ray were forced to suspend their experiments in molding plywood, yet military work would inadvertently lead to Charles discovering new innovations in the field. “Instead of inhibiting the development of the furniture, the work on the war related products manufactured in the years between 1942 and the end of 1945 stands in direct line of the manufacture of the first plywood chairs,” argue the Neuharts.[14]

Soon after America’s entrance into WWII, an old St. Louis friend of Charles’s, Wendell Scott, visited the Eames. Scott, a Navy medical doctor stationed in San Diego, saw promise in Charles’s plywood molding and believed it might be the solution to difficulties that the Navy had been experiencing with battlefield leg splints. The splints then used were unable to protect injured sailors and soldiers from further injury. Often, limbs endured increased shock and trauma; sometimes this included loss of circulation and even gangrene. In part due to an exposed heel, the metal splints in use did not adequately protect injured combatants. Once Scott saw the molded plywood seat models, he told Charles that a molded plywood splint could address the insufficiencies of the metal version while also conserving precious materials like steel and metal.[15]

Letters courtesy of the Charles and Ray Eames Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
Letters courtesy of the Charles and Ray Eames Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

The Eameses warmed to the project, though it would require a design even more complicated than the chair shell, as the splint needed to support and protect the limbs of soldiers, sailors, and airmen of varying sizes and shapes. It needed to be able to function in battle on land and at sea, and it had to be mobile. In addition to drawing on their own skill and resourcefulness, the Eameses drew upon their expanding circle of creative friends including John Entenza and Norman Bruns; both helped them obtain the necessary materials. In addition, the former would provide critical financial and business support, and the latter, who worked at Lockheed Martin by day, contributed his technical expertise. Margaret Harris, a theater designer working in MGM’s costume department, designed a basic pattern for the veneer layup and over time her skill in this area would prove critical to the splint’s development.[16]

Like a mad scientist, Charles used himself as a guinea pig. Since the mold needed to conform to human limbs, Charles used his own leg when trying out new models. This meant heating up plaster so that it could be molded; Charles suffered numerous burns and bruises. One time, in February of 1942, Ray had just poured the liquefied plaster around his leg, from his ankle to his rear, when an air raid signal warned of a possible Japanese attack. Lacking blinds and blackout curtains in their Neutra apartment, they could only turn off the lights as Charles sat there in the dark unable to “visually monitor the setting up process throughout the critical heating and hardening stages,” write the Neuharts.[17]

By fall, the Navy liked what it saw and in November 1942 ordered 5,000 splints. Having formed the Plyformed Wood Company (PWC) with Entenza and others, the Eameses established a small office for production in an old bakery at 555 Rose Avenue in Venice Beach. Soon, however, the difficulties in implementing military contracts led to an agreement between Charles and Col. Edward S. Evans, owner of the Michigan-based woods production company Evans Products, in which PWC was subsumed by Evans Products, becoming the Molded Plywood Division of Evans Products.[18]

During World War I, Colonel Evans had distinguished himself as a talented member of the Quartermaster Corps, eventually rising to the rank of colonel – hence his honorific. Having been blessed with tenacious business acumen and an eye for discovering talent, Evans knew a skilled inventor when he came upon one. During the 1920s, he stumbled upon one himself with a clever idea for engine separators – they keep the positive and negative battery plates from contact while still allowing for the circulation of battery acids – using thin pieces of cedar wood. It became one of his most profitable ventures. During WWII, “half the jeeps, trucks, and tanks, and other vehicles in the Allied armies” reportedly deployed his separators. Another Evans contribution: new techniques and devices for loading aircraft, many of which provided better means for the transport of injured servicemen from the battlefield to the home front.[19]

Evans Company World War II Christmas Card (c.1943-45) [cover, interior]. Courtesy of the Charles and Ray Eames Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
Evans Company World War II Christmas Card (c.1943-45) [cover, interior]. Courtesy of the Charles and Ray Eames Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
His work on gliders, a critical component of the war, also distinguished the colonel from his competitors. Due to his contributions in this area, many dubbed him “the father of gliding.” Observers argued that he made possible the glider invasion of Europe by the Allies.[20] The Molded Plywood Division contributed, too, by successfully manufacturing a critical part of the gliders known as a “blister.” Though Charles Eames and his team did not design it, they were the first to successfully implement it. “[I]t turned out the Army had asked several teams to try and do [the same] and all of them had failed,” notes Demetrios. According to historians, even though it never went into wide use due to an unrelated accident, it was a mark of how far the company had come in its molding capabilities.

Having converted many of his factories to wartime production, Evans also had the manufacturing capacity that Charles Eames and his coworkers lacked. Over the summer months of 1942, Charles and his team perfected the molding techniques necessary for a better plywood splint. While technology rapidly advanced in this period, the process of molding the new splint drew heavily upon the same principles and practices used in the experimental chair that Charles and Ray had slaved over prior to the war.

Named the Transportation Leg Splint by Dr. Scott and Charles – 42 inches long, 7 ¾ inches wide through the thigh section (its widest point) and 3 ½ inches deep from the “top of the side members to the top of the heel support” – it required repeated experimentation, innovation, and artistry by all involved. Though thin – its walls range from 3/16 to ¼ inch in width – the splint retained a great deal of strength.[21] By fall of 1943, the Navy placed an order for 200,000 splints, though only 150,000 would be produced between 1943 and 1945.[22]

 Eames splint Evans molded plywood transportation leg splint [cover, interior], c.1945. Courtesy of the Charles and Ray Eames Papers, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Eames splint; Evans molded plywood transportation leg splint [cover, interior], c.1945. Courtesy of the Charles and Ray Eames Papers, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Under the leadership of Charles Eames, the Molded Plywood Division developed an arm splint and litter also meant for use in the battlefield, but neither was ever approved for mass production by the military. Oddly, very little if any documentation of the leg splint’s use by the Navy and Marines has been found. As the war concluded, Charles and Dr. Scott attempted to market the military splint for wider use among the public, but interest never developed. In subsequent years, one could find them in surplus stores as remnants of the war. Over time however, Eames aficionados began collecting them, as their modernist design became a symbol of the artistic milieu of the day.[23]

Whatever the extent of their wartime application, the litter, arm, and leg splints that Charles and the Molded Plywood Division produced convinced Charles that through his efforts and those of his coworkers, a one-piece molded plywood chair was possible through mechanized production, which in turn would lead to more affordable products. With a modernist aesthetic that matched its purely functional use, the splint embodied a central aspect of the Eames larger ethos: quality design for a reasonable cost. “The best to the most for the least,” Charles Eames once said.[24]

As simple as it looked, the plywood splint necessitated that Charles and his coworkers overcome the most difficult challenges of assemblage and molding that they had thus far encountered.[25] What Charles and Ray learned from the experience proved integral to the development of the famous Eames Chair. Though Col. Evans died in 1945, Evans Products produced Charles’s designs for his 1946 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. The show expanded the popularity of Eames furniture among both the public and manufacturers, launching it well beyond the niche community of designers attracted by their earlier achievement: the Organic Chair from the 1940-1941 MOMA competition now referred to as Organic Designs.[26]

The influence of the Eamses’ wartime work for Evans Products extended beyond their products. New workspaces and partnerships also bloomed. In 1943, Charles and Ray moved into their 901 Washington Avenue space that would become an incubator of L.A. and national mid-century modern design for the next 45 years.

Working with Entenza also bore proverbial fruit. Entenza asked the Eameses to be part of his Case Study House program, through which they built the iconic Eames House in the Pacific Palisades. The Case Study House program hoped to infuse homes with modernist influence while tapping into the post war boom. “[T]here was a sense that all the new technologies and materials of the war effort could be used to do something besides harm people,” notes Demetrios.[27] It was a home meant to attain “maximum volume from minimum materials,” at once addressing the desire by postwar America for affordable homeownership while drawing on modernist ideals.[28]

The Herman Miller showroom, 1949, designed by Charles Eames. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – Architectural Teaching Slide Collection.
The Herman Miller showroom, 1949, designed by Charles Eames. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – Architectural Teaching Slide Collection.

In 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama gave a speech in Roanoke, Virginia, in which he pointed out that the private and public sector often work in tandem. “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. . .The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.” One imagines in this year of anti-establishment candidates that the public will hear more about the separation between government and the private sphere. Perhaps all of this would have happened for the Eames without WWII and splint production. Perhaps two undeniably powerful, driven, creative minds like the Eameses would have found a way to leave their mark. However, government work certainly played a role in their rise to fame and prominence; though often maligned as unimaginative and regimented, contract work for the military stimulated their creative endeavors and helped spawn new partnerships. It incubated their work financially and creatively. Without the triumvirate of the growing military, Los Angeles and the Eames ­­– and maybe mid-century modern aesthetic – turns out much differently.

In the end, like archivists McAleer and Barton, you find inspiration in all kinds of places, whether digging through the stacks of material in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress or building splints for the military in a Venice Beach factory.

[1] The Charles and Ray Eames Papers is divided between the Manuscript Division and the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress.

[2] Margaret McAleer, interview with author, July 12, 2016; Tracy Barton, interview with author, July 12, 2016.

[3] Margaret McAleer, interview with author, July 12, 2016; Tracy Barton, interview with author, July 12, 2016

[4] Marilyn and John Neuhart, The Story of Eames Furniture Volume I, (Berlin, Germany: Gestalten Press, 2011), 291.

[5] Pat Kirkham, Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century, (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1995), 52.

[6] Roger Lotchin, Fortress California 1910-1961: From Warfare to Welfare, (Champaign-Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 38.

[7] Roger Lotchin, Fortress California 1910-1961: From Warfare to Welfare, (Champaign-Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 65-66.

[8] Michael Sherry, In the Shadow of War: The United States since the 1930s, (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1995), 74.

[9] Gerald B. Nash, The American West Transformed: The Impact of World War II, (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1990), 25.

[10] Richard White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West, (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), 496.

[11] Marilyn and John Neuhart, The Story of Eames Furniture, 303.

[12] Eames Demetrios, An Eames Primer, (New York: Universe Publishing, 2013), 101.

[13] Marilyn and John Neuhart, The Story of Eames Furniture, 299.

[14] Marilyn and John Neuhart, The Story of Eames Furniture, 305.

[15] Marilyn and John Neuhart, The Story of Eames Furniture, 305

[16] Marilyn and John Neuhart, The Story of Eames Furniture, 305, 307-308.

[17] Marilyn and John Neuhart, The Story of Eames Furniture, 306.

[18] Demetrios, An Eames Primer, 108; Marilyn and John Neuhart, The Story of Eames Furniture, 309, 313.

[19] Marilyn and John Neuhart, The Story of Eames Furniture, 315-316.

[20] Marilyn and John Neuhart, The Story of Eames Furniture, 317.

[21] Marilyn and John Neuhart, 324.

[22] Pat Kirkham, Charles and Ray Eames, 214.

[23] Marilyn and John Neuhart, The Story of Eames Furniture, 328-329.

[24] Demetrios, An Eames Primer, 119.

[25] Marilyn and John Neuhart, The Story of Eames Furniture, 329.

[26] Demetrios, An Eames Primer, 109, 37.

[27] Demetrios, An Eames Primer, 134.

[28] Kirkham, Charles and Ray Eames, 113.