Friday, July 29, 2005

The Chair

The MoMA, as we all know, houses the best and finest of Modern American Art. In a bid to bring design into the drab HomeDepot interiors of every apple-pie baking mom's boudoir, the MoMA organizes the International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design annually.

So when Charles and Ray Eames, two furniture makers and architects from LA decided that they wanted to enter it in 1948, they knew that they needed to come up with something whacky enough to please the blase New York crowds. New York, in case you did not know it, had already been there and done them. Even in 1948.

Along with the Third Reich, WW-II had also officially put and end to the mad craze for curvy baroque French furniture. Nowadays, you can still see some fanatics breathe in heavily when they speak of Louis XV furniture, but then you see Neo-nazis hanging around too.

"We need something new and original for the Competition," Charles said to his wife Ray one sunny LA morning over breakfast in 1948 as he began squishing the frosted doughnut on his plate.

"Dont' play with your food Chuck. And take the trash out once you are done, honey." It would be a while before couples in California started saying "groovy baby" to each other. But Chuck was not about to be distracted.

"Ray, darling! I've got it!" he proclaimed, holding the deformed frosted doughnut up on his fork. "This is gonna be the new low-cost chair for the masses in Manhattan!" And that's how the "La Chaise" came to be.

The Eames' obviously knew that when the MoMA calls for a low-cost design competition, one can interpret the term `low-cost 'very loosely indeed. As a matter of fact MoMA's online store still sells it and here's their pitch for it.
Price: $6850.00. Designed in 1948 for MoMA's International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design, and inspired by Gaston Lachaise's 1927 sculpture Reclining Nude, this organically-shaped chair has become a design icon. Although it proved too expensive to manufacture at the time, La Chaise finally went into production in 1990 and has been produced in small quantities ever since. Engineered by Vitra of a fiberglass shell and natural oak base with metal supports.
So after they had prototyped this one, they called up the Rockefellers and asked them if they wanted to buy it. "Yeah sure," JD is reported to have replied," but what is it?" And here's what the Eames' came up with (taken from the MoMA site again)

Charles and Ray Eames's description for the design of La Chaise, submitted to MoMA's 1948 International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design, read "The form of this chair does not pretend to clearly anticipate the variety of needs it is to fill. These needs are as of yet indefinite and the solution of the form is to a large degree intuitive. The form can only suggest a freer adaptation of material to need and stimulate inquiry into what these needs may be."

The MoMA was quick to recognize a good thing when they saw one. While they had only asked for a chair and maybe a dinner-table, the Eames's had in effect created a modern day Sphinx that looked like a melted doughnut. Not only was this a whack-job, but also a baffler. New York society ladies bought these by the dozens and installed them in their salons since it was evident that the chair would provide for hours of entertainment. In the days before TV or swingers parties became popular, the `with-it' set invited their arriviste neighbours (those that could only afford apartments that did not have a view of Central Park) to their drawing rooms and tittered merrily as they watched them squirm uncomfortably on "La Chaise".