Marilyn Neuhart with John Neuhart. The Story of Eames Furniture. 2 vols. Vol. 1, The Early Years. Vol. 2, The Herman Miller Age. Berlin: Gestalten Verlag, 2010. 798 pp.; 2,500 color and bw illus., bibliography, index. $199.00.
Those interested in American furniture must often contend with a paucity of biographical information about individual makers and manufacturers. Adroit scholars may resurrect whole shop practices through a single account book or may contend with a legacy that is larger than the historical record, as is the case with cabinetmakers like Duncan Phyfe. For scholars of twentieth-century furniture, wider access to secondary materials and personal and corporate archives has become commonplace, offering better biographical information. There is, however, a risk of overdocumentation. The detailed cataloguing of the minutiae of the creative process and of running a business can obscure the larger picture. “Can we know too much about a designer” is the question that underlies Marilyn and John Neuhart’s sprawling, ambitious, and sometimes unwieldy account of the furniture of the Los Angeles–based, twentieth-century designers Ray and Charles Eames.
The Story of Eames Furniture was written by Marilyn Neuhart, with the assistance of her husband, John. On the surface, they are ideal Eames biographers: they studied art and design in Los Angeles in the 1950s and became entranced by the seemingly limitless potential of the field. A series of whimsical dolls created by Marilyn caught the attention of Alexander Girard, who sold them in his Textiles & Objects store in New York, and John was employed in the Eames Office between 1957 and 1961. The Neuharts established their own design partnership and were reunited with the Eames Office in the late 1970s, when they organized the traveling exhibition and catalogue Connections: The Work of Charles and Ray Eames. This endeavor launched the Neuharts on a multiyear project of documenting the Eames Office under the direction of Ray Eames, who wanted to create a record of the office following Charles’s death in 1978. The first result of this partnership was Eames Design: The Work of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames, which was coauthored by Ray and published in 1989. The Eames Office was remarkably prolific, and, at 456 pages, Eames Design provided only a chronological overview of the firm. The Neuharts’ subsequent books took on discrete aspects of the Eames oeuvre: Eames House (1994) and The Story of Eames Furniture (2010).
Despite their once-close relationship with the Eames Office, Neuhart’s current book presents a dim view of the Eameses. In the 1989 book coauthored with Ray, Charles was presented as stern but magnanimous, and Ray was “a wonderful blend of Victorian and contemporary sensibilities” who was “in large part responsible for the Eames ‘look’” (p. 10). Twenty years later, in The Story of Eames Furniture, the characterizations are more pointed: “Charles could be exceedingly charming,” but, “with few exceptions, Charles did not cultivate deep personal friendships and he tended to burn his bridges behind him, abruptly and often suddenly, terminating relationships with people on his own staff and with colleagues of longstanding” (pp. 45, 49). Ray became defined by “the terror of potential failure [that] undoubtedly intensified her inherent inability to make decisions.” Neuhart patronizingly dismisses Ray as “at her very best in situations where decorative sensibilities were required” (p. 59).
Charles Eames—whether dashing, philandering, cold, brilliant, or authoritative—is always the hero in the standard narratives about the Eames Office, whereas Ray’s position continually shifts. Her contributions were invisible in 1946 when the Museum of Modern Art, New York, staged the exhibition “New Furniture by Charles Eames,” but she was presented as an equal partner in the 1976 exhibition “Connections: The Work of Charles and Ray Eames.” Pat Kirkham’s book Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century explicitly articulated Ray’s centrality to the products and running of the Eames Office, while Eames Demetrios’s An Eames Primer is an equally admiring paean to his grandparents. Neuhart’s contribution to the Eames historiography pushes Ray out of the spotlight and into a supporting role as an ineffectual decorator whose taste for expensive clothes and reluctance to admit her age contributed to her irrelevance to the office’s loftier mission of creating good design. Neuhart’s critical reassessment is refreshing, as the Eameses are often written about in hagiographic terms, but her disparaging tone feels personally motivated and undercuts her scholarly authority.
Neuhart’s emotionally complex biography of Ray and Charles distracts from the book’s larger discussion of how furniture was designed and manufactured in the Eames Office. The Story of Eames Furniture is divided into roughly three sections across two volumes: biographical sketches and early furniture in volume 1 and furniture made with Herman Miller in volume 2. This narrative charts the development, refinement, production, and marketing of Eames furniture. Neuhart presents collaboration as a fundamental tenet of the Eames Office, and one of the book’s most important contributions is the attention Neuhart pays to the collaborators. Although Charles put a premium on teamwork, credit was not readily shared. There is an often-told story that Harry Bertoia and Gregory Ain resigned in protest from the Eames Office in the late 1940s because they felt Charles received all the credit for their contributions. Neuhart attempts to square the historical account by providing extended biographies for twenty-two people who influenced or worked in the Eames Office. The result is 178 pages of valuable information that not only greatly expands our understanding of the Eames Office but also provides a snapshot of postwar American industrial design. Each entry discusses the subject’s family background, education, their projects at the Eames Office, and their own work. Fred Usher, for example, completed a tour of duty in the U.S. Navy and then studied at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. At the Eames Office, he helped design the “Eiffel Tower” base and upholstery for the Eames Wire Chair. Later, he worked with architects Victor Gruen, Kevin Roche, and John Dinkloo and was instrumental in the design of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Usher never attained the fame of the Eameses, but his career followed a trajectory that many designers would find familiar, and Neuhart’s thoughtful documentation of his life helps expand the historical record.
The remainder of the two volumes proceeds project by project through every piece of furniture to come out of the Eames Office, embellished with copious background information about Evans Products, Herman Miller, and the other companies with which the Eames Office partnered. Neuhart’s definition of furniture is generous and includes, for example, the housings for radios and speakers. Each discussion is augmented by patent drawings, archival photographs showing the manufacturing process, reproductions of marketing material, and stylish images of the completed products. Neuhart’s thirty-some years of research are readily apparent in these sections as she explicates every aspect of a design’s evolution. The Eames Wire Chair (inexplicably given the new title Wire Mesh Chair), for example, originated from Charles’s interest in the geodesic domes created by Buckminster Fuller. The idea may have belonged to Charles, but, according to Neuhart, the design work was carried out by Fred Usher, Dale Bauer, and Don Albinson, a longtime member of the Eames Office whom Neuhart credits with creating many of the firms best-known designs. Neuhart gives a full description of the different gauges of wire and the resistance welding used to fabricate the wire shell, noting that Albinson drafted the patent application for the innovative frame construction, although Charles’s name appeared on it. Neuhart also describes the variety of bases available for the Eames Wire Chair and how they were constructed, with assembly parts manufactured by Banner Metals of Compton, California, and fastened together with 1/2-inch Phillips-head screws. This is true connoisseurship; no aspect of the chair’s development or construction is too insignificant for inclusion and underscores the idea that the level of consideration involved in the production of manufactured furniture equals that of handcraftsmanship, even if the parameters are different.
At nearly eight hundred pages, The Story of Eames Furniture was an ambitious undertaking. Marilyn Neuhart also designed the book, which provides continuity between how the text reads and how the pages look. The volumes are lavishly illustrated with color and black-and-white images culled from an extensive trove of archival material that the Neuharts assembled over the past thirty years. (This archive was recently the subject of a lawsuit. The Neuharts tried to sell it at auction in 2010, after the manuscript for their book was complete, but Lucia Eames contested their ownership of the material and claimed it rightfully belonged to the Eames Office.) The Story of Eames Furniture is not an introductory text for casual perusal; it is a resource for those with prior knowledge of the Eames oeuvre. Each volume is almost four hundred pages; people or ideas introduced in the first volume are not reintroduced in the second, and the endnotes and index for both volumes appear only in volume 2, so both books must be used together. Someone looking for a particular design in the table of contents needs to know where it falls in the Eames chronology, and turning to the index only invites frustration. A reader wanting to learn more about the iconic Eames coffee table, for example, would find in the index only the general heading “table.” The official product names are selectively indexed—neither Coffee Table Metal nor CTM appears, although the design is discussed and illustrated numerous times. Neuhart also uses alternative names for the designs in the text, a sizable flaw for a book that aspires to be the definitive record. The Story of Eames Furniture contains a wealth of information, but accessing it can be trying.
Neuhart’s text affirms that Eames furniture was the work of many hands, to borrow Benjamin Hewitt’s sobriquet for federal card tables. But most complex furniture always has been and always will be, regardless of its manufacture in a preindustrial or factory setting. What differentiates Eames furniture is that we have the documentation that records all the people and companies involved, and this wealth of information is both the value and the shortcoming of The Story of Eames Furniture. The overwhelming amount of technical specifics can be engrossing, and Neuhart correctly presents the design development process as complex and nonlinear. She may give too much credit to the contributions of individual employees, but then this is very much a revisionist history intended to deflate the heroic persona of Charles and to accentuate the broad talent of the Eames Office. A flaw of the book is its lack of critical distance, yet one can argue that it could not have been written without it. Neuhart’s anecdotes and abundance of detail will be a great benefit to future scholars with more objectivity, scholars who are able to see through the conflicting personalities of the Eames Office and focus on the products as remarkable documents of the legacy of twentieth-century American innovation in furniture.
John Stuart Gordon
Yale University Art Gallery