My “House of Cards” Would Have Loewy Tiles, an Eames Musical Tower, Alexander Girard Textiles and a Russel Wright Pass-Through

Did you know that the seafoam green and turquoise glazed tiles fronting the Macy’s store at Kingsdale Shopping Center in Upper Arlington were the work of industrial designer Raymond Loewy? Besides creating the former Lazarus department store at Kingsdale in 1970, Loewy designed refrigerators, automobiles with slanted windshields, and a revamped version of the Lucky Strike cigarette package. 

That fact shared by Fritz Harding, a local commercial and residential interior designer, was one of the best reasons for attending the Columbus Museum of Art’s 20th Century Design Market, held last weekend. 

During the three-day event, guests toured private “Midcentury Classic” homes in Columbus, dressed as their favorite Mad Men characters and drank retro cocktails, shopped and attended lectures on mid-century design. 

My appreciation for modern design started with some “Midcentury Classic” features that I spotted in my Oxford home, which was built in 1959. My pink-and-gray-tiled bathroom was a pristine example of the color scheme favored during the 1950s. My kitchen-dining room pass-through was like one promoted by Russel and Mary Wright for creating the gracious, casual and efficient entertaining they described in their 1950 book, Guide to Easier Living. I also developed an appreciation for Wright’s stylish, colorful “American Modern” dinnerware and for Dragon Rock, his Garrison, New York home that I hope to visit someday. 

But I thought I should learn more. To make the most of this unique experience offered by the museum, I checked out several information resources that explored the functional, streamlined furniture designs and open-plan living spaces that were favored during the middle years of the 20th century. 

I read about Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair, Pierre Hardoy’s Butterfly Chair, and George Nelson’s Marshmallow Sofa, Coconut Chair and Pretzel Chair. I learned about Eero Saarinen’s Womb Chair and Arne Jacobsen’s Egg Chair. I discovered that Alexander Girard, director of textile design for the Herman Miller Company, not only introduced vibrant patterned fabrics to the workplace, but also gave Braniff International a new look in 1965, revamping airport ticket counters, airplane interiors, terminal lounge sofas and luggage tags. 

Girard’s work led me to find out more about Herman Miller, a company known for its efforts to mass-produce and market modern, functional furniture. I discovered that the research it conducted on the ways people work in an office led to the creation of open-plan, modular, and interchangeable modern office designs. Researching ergonomics helped it to explore ways to help aging or disabled people live independently longer. Even the posters for its annual employee picnics are collectible pieces of art. 

Herman Miller is also synonymous with the Eames Chair, designed by Charles Eames and his wife, Ray, who met at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. The comfortable, molded, form-fitting, stackable, prize-winning, mass-produced, low-cost chair got its start in the 1940s and continues to attract buyers today. 

The Eames Chair was created in molded plywood, fiberglass-reinforced plastic, bent and welded wire mesh, and cast aluminum, The Work of Charles and Ray Eames said. According to Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s, the fiberglass chair was offered in six Fifties fashion colors: greige, elephant-hide gray, lemon yellow, seafoam green, parchment and red. Ray’s aesthetic sense guided not only the color choices for the chair, but also the way it was marketed to middle-class Americans in photographs and advertisements. 

Reading Classic Herman Miller, I learned that the Eameses created other iconic seating. In 1956, they built a leather and molded-wood lounge chair and ottoman as a birthday present for their friend, film director Billy Wilder. The pieces are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art and continue to be sold by Herman Miller. In 1950, they designed a padded leather swivel chair for the lobby of the Time-Life Building in New York that later came to be known as the “Bobby Fischer.” In 1962, the Eameses designed Tandem Sling Seating, those familiar vinyl-padded seats stretched between cast aluminum frames we’ve lounged in during flight layovers, for Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and Dulles International Airport. 

The Eameses also designed unique homes for post-World War II living. Case Study No. 8, their home in Pacific Palisades, California, was built in 1949 and is constructed of concrete, steel and glass rectangles and squares, complemented with bold primary colors.

Learning more about the Eameses helped me realize that these designers were also important mid-century communicators. Using multi-screen slide shows, they helped companies like IBM quickly convey lots of information about themselves and their products. They created films, designed interactive games and produced exhibitions, such as “The World of Franklin and Jefferson,” which toured the country during the Bicentennial. 

As I learned more about the Eameses’ work, I especially appreciated Ray’s eye for design. She was a voracious collector and talented arranger of objects that represented her diverse interests. I also admired the Eameses’ fashion sense. Charles often wore cuffed trousers and handmade shirts, often worn with a bow tie or a bandanna. Ray never wore trousers. She favored blouses; short, fitted jackets with small rounded collars; full skirts; pinafore dresses; and slipper-style shoes or espadrilles. Often, she wore a small, soft bow in her hair, usually made of velvet. I would have enjoyed meeting Ray.

All that reading prepared me well for hearing the 20th Century Design Market’s featured guest speaker: Eames Demetrios, grandson of Charles and Ray Eames. 

As he talked about the ideas behind the objects that his grandparents created, Demetrios displayed that same talent for communication that they possessed. In the tradition of the Eameses’ multi-screen slide shows, he offered a choice of 30 different short films he created that provided insight into his grandparents’ career. To begin, he shared “The Dinner Party Sequence,” a film that was shown in the pavilion and exhibition that the Eameses designed for IBM to show at its pavilion at the New York World’s Fair of 1964. The film spans the stages of problem-solving, from stating the problem, collecting and abstracting information, building and manipulating a model, and making a decision. You can see some of these films at “Eames by Demetrios.” “The Dinner Party Sequence” is on the bottom row, at the far left side. 

Ray would have been 100 years old on December 15, 2012, so as a tribute, Demetrios shared a film that provided glimpses of her talent for putting objects and color together. In a film he shot at the Eames Office before it was dismantled after Ray’s death in 1988, Demetrios introduced us to the gravity-powered, 16-foot-high xylophone musical tower toy that the Eameses developed. Showing a rebus drawing that Charles sent to his daughter, Lucia, in the mid-1930s, Demetrios commented that this illustrated how comfortable Charles was in working with images, and how pervasive his contribution to modern communication was. 

My reading also helped me take a more appreciative and informed look at the display that Continental Office Environments created of some of the most notable and influential pieces from the era. Poster-sized recreations of advertisements and publications from the Herman Miller archives complemented furniture and textile designs by Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson and Alexander Girard. The special exhibition is on view at the Columbus Museum of Art through October 7. 

Continental also created the Herman Miller Pop Up Shop, where you could admire furniture vignettes and browse shelves filled with objects that captured the Mid-Century Modern look. I brought home a small set of “House of Cards,” the picture card deck that Charles and Ray Eames created in the 1950s. The cards include over 50 photos of objects that Ray must have selected, such as an apple on a Meissen dish, a German wood doll, porcelain marbles, an Austrian wax angel, French tassels, Victorian English pill boxes and lockets. Each card has six slots, so you can join them to create a wall, a cube, a ring and other structures. 

If you’d like to read more about mid-century design, see: Hand Made Modern: Mid-Century Inspired Projects For Your Home, by Todd Oldham, with Julia Szabo; Mid-Century Modern, by Bradley Quinn; Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s, by Cara Greenberg; Living Modern: Bringing Modernism Home, by Andrew Weaving and Lisa Freedman; Handcrafted Modern: At Home with Mid-Century Designers, by Leslie Williamson; and Furniture & Interiors of the 1960s, by Anne Bony.  For information about Herman Miller, see Leslie Piña’s books, Herman Miller Office, Classic Herman Miller and Herman Miller: Interior Views; Herman Miller, Inc.: Buildings and Beliefs, by Jeffrey L. Cruikshank and Clark Malcolm; and Herman Miller: The Purpose of Design, by John R. Berry. 

To learn more about Charles and Ray Eames, see: Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century, by Pat Kirkham; Eames House: Charles and Ray Eames, by James Steele; and An Eames Primer, by Eames Demetrios. 

The Charles Eames and Ray Eames Papers at the Library of Congress comprises nearly one million items, including photographs, drawings, films, slides and manuscript materials documenting the design activities and professional associations of the Eameses. The collection also includes advertisements, magazines, comics and other ephemera from the Eames Office’s publicity files, showing how the Eames chair and the Eames aesthetic assimilated into art, commerce, industry and fashion. The Library of Congress created The Work of Charles & Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention, a 1999-2002 traveling exhibition and accompanying book.

Also, watch Charles and Ray Eames: The Architect and the Painter, a documentary that was part of PBS’ “American Masters” series. The documentary mentions that in the 1954 movie, Executive Suite, William Holden portrays a furniture designer that is said to be based on Charles Eames.  The film tells quite a tale, and it’s worth seeing, especially for spotting several famous movie stars of the day.

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