Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 814:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 814.

Today, two architects see with a child's eye. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

A friend stopped by my office and left off a three-inch stack of tough 7 x 11" cards with slitted sides. Each card had a different design -- spirals, gems, dodecahedrons, snowflakes.

They were her childhood toys. "See," she said, "you fit them together and make things." Last night my wife and I built a castle from them. Our cats stalked the work -- curious, worried.

Those cards were just one of hundreds of designs by Charles and Ray Eames. In 1941 architect Charles Eames and artist Ray Kaiser married. Six months later, America joined WW-II.

They'd already begun working with molded plywood. They'd invented their Kazam machine to press heated plywood against a plaster mold. First they made molded plywood litters and splints for wounded soldiers. Next they made plywood airplane parts.

As the War ground down, they turned to chairs. First children's chairs, then all-plywood dining chairs. Next they added chrome-plated steel legs. After that, the catalog of their work is a catalog of furniture you grew up with.

You've seen those chairs so often, you don't see them any more. Seats of molded plywood fitted with clean chrome-plated legs. Sometimes the plywood's filled with black leather padding.

From chairs, the Eameses went to a whole range of office furniture. Then they molded fiberglas. They made those black plastic and chrome assembly-hall chairs -- the ones that nest together so you can stack them twelve high. In one form, their chairs defined the modern air terminal.

The hallmark of their stuff is its clean childlike simplicity. The theme of play runs in all their work. In 1951 they made something they simply called The Toy. It was a set of large triangles that children could use to build play houses.

They cooked up those mind-stretching building cards in 1952. They invented a coloring toy and a line of tops. They made movies, and they designed exhibit halls. That great whirl of forms had one clear center. It was the optimism of a child's eye.

For 40 years Charles and Ray formed the perfect symbiosis. "He was the energy, she the taste," a one-time associate told me. For 40 years their furniture carved its place in our lives.

I hate to dismantle that castle of cards we built last night. This morning the cat'd been in it. She'd bent it into a new form -- one that never occurred to us last night. Like all the Eameses' work, the simplicity of those cards hides possibility that bends and turns. Like the Eameses themselves, those crazy cards harbor the twin design virtues -- of simplicity and surprise.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Neuhart, J., Neuhart, M., Eames, R., Eames Design New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1989. (published after the death of both Charles and Ray Eames.)

Neuhart, M., and Neuhart, J., The Saarinen Legacy: The Eames Connection, from the Rice Design Alliance Lecture Series. Oct. 25, 1989. (Tape available at the University of Houston College of Architecture Visual Resource Unit.)

I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and Architecture Librarian, for suggesting the topic and for providing both the bibliographic material and the building cards; to Jean Krchnak, UH Art and Architecture Slide Library, for the Neuhart tape; and to Bill Howze, video producer and former Eames associate, for his counsel.

For a set of Eames chairs, see


Photo by John Lienhard

New York Museum of Modern Art displays a late Eames chair on the left
and another chair by his mentor Eero Saarinen on the right.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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