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The Eames Lounge Chair: A lasting blend of vision and practicality

As their contribution to the millennial stock-taking that was all the rage in 1999, the critics at Time magazine looked back over the 20th century and declared the outstanding design of the era to be Charles and Ray Eames's 1946 Lounge Chair Wood (LCW).

In a sense, this item of furniture was an odd choice for such big recognition. The mass-produced LCW was more serviceable than elegant. The stuff of it was pressure-formed plyboard veneer, not some beautiful or exotic wood. It didn't have the sharp intellectual edge of home furnishings by Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, or the avant-garde chic of a bedside table or rug by Eileen Gray.

But this complete absence of elitism and lux, as well as LCW's democratic versatility and the way it moulds itself well to ordinary bottoms, seem to have been among the attractions that prompted the Time pundits to single it out. They are surely also reasons furniture created by the Eames couple in the 1940s and 1950s, including LCW, continues to be manufactured and marketed down to the present day.

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The durable value of the brand was one of the topics featured in yesterday's Toronto talk by Los Angeles artist, filmmaker and author Eames Demetrios, grandson of Charles and Ray, and an overseer of the artistic and commercial legacy. (Mr. Demetrios was a key-noter at this year's edition of the IIDEX interior design and architecture show, taking place yesterday and today at the Direct Energy Centre.)

Honouring the talents and accomplishments of his grandparents, however, was not Mr. Demetrios's only aim. As he told me during a telephone conversation a couple of weeks ago, he also hoped to give fresh encouragement to young designers.

"I want them to see the hard work that went into the designs," he said. "It's not one flash of inspiration. It's a matter of a flash that goes on for 30 years." Charles Eames was fond of saying of his work that "the blood will never show" – meaning that the effortless-seeming result rarely reveals the blood and sweat required by any creative effort.

"They made no sketches," Mr. Demetrios said. "They worked from three-dimensional prototypes, letting the design flow from the explorations they were doing. They never delegated imagination."

There are two principal reasons, he said, why the Eames duo is a good example for young creative labourers.

"One is that they had no style. Someone who worked at the office once said, there is no house style. If Charles had heard that he would have approved, since he understood the difference between style and design."

Design, in the sense the Eameses used the word, is the art of solving problems – "making airport furniture that is bulletproof and easy to clean," Mr. Demetrios said – of developing new artistic applications for shopfloor production technologies, experimenting with vernacular materials such as aluminum and plywood.

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The Eameses were not the first to pursue such a strategy; the European modernists, including as Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto, had preceded them by decades. But they brought to these interests a distinctively American, populist energy, and a certain cheerfulness, that was evident in the first work they did after moving from the Midwest and setting up shop in Los Angeles in 1941.

The other virtue making them exemplars for the young, according to Mr. Demetrios, was their belief "that the good designer is a good host, anticipating the needs of a guest. Hospitality is a gracious thing, a wonderful thing, to have at the centre of design."

If the Eameses had an ideology that drove their design work, it was mid-century democratic humanism of an accommodating, hospitable kind. The story is told that the origin of the famous LCW chair, with its biomorphic shape, lay in Charles's war-time crafting of plywood splints for use by the U.S. Air Force. From this experience of bending wood to the shapes of injured limbs came the know-how necessary to create humane, simple seating.

"The splint was very practical," Mr. Demetrios said. "They were interested in the technologies coming out of the Second World War. Charles always saw design as an extension of architecture, while Ray came out of painting, and she saw her work as an extension of the discipline and structure of painting. But they were both great combinations of the visionary and the pragmatic."

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