The Eames Collection at the Vitra Design Museum

Trial and Error: An interview with Rolf Fehlbaum

Vitra first introduced Charles and Ray Eames’s creations to the European market in the late 1950s, marking the beginning of a collaboration that would shape the company’s understanding of design to the present day. Charles and Ray’s method of exploring real needs and finding solutions through an experimental process of trial and error distinguishes their work from designs that concentrate solely on new forms and trends. That is the reason why Eames products continue to be relevant while form-based designs fade once the next new fashion emerges.

This lesson of longevity became the cornerstone of Vitra’s approach to sustainability. In the late 1980s the Vitra Design Museum took over a significant part of the three-dimensional estate of the Eames Office. The collection that made its way into the archive was centred around prototypes, tools, trial-and-error experiments and also ‘flops’ as Rolf Fehlbaum, Chairman Emeritus of Vitra, calls them.

Today these Eames objects can be seen at the Vitra Schaudepot located on the Vitra Campus in Weil am Rhein, Germany. Furthermore, the reassembled contents of Charles Eames’s office on permanent loan from the Eames family can be viewed by the public on the lower level of the Vitra Schaudepot. Vitra and the Vitra Design Museum collaborate together with the Eames Office on the development of Eames furniture, exhibitions and publications. 

In the following interview, Rolf Fehlbaum discusses the lengthy development process adopted by Charles and Ray Eames using examples from the archive collection.

We are standing here amongst the holdings of the Vitra Design Museum Collection. Rolf, can you explain why part of the Eames Office archives came to the museum?

After Ray Eames passed away in 1988, Charles and Ray’s office at 901 Washington Boulevard was closed. It was their wish that the office archive would go to educational institutions. Approximately 1.5 million two-dimensional objects such as letters, plans, artwork and photographs were donated to the Library of Congress, while the couple’s three-dimensional material studies, prototypes, furniture models and tools were offered to a number of museums.

Given that the Eameses’ work is central to both Vitra and the Vitra Design Museum’s collection, the museum’s then director Alexander von Vegesack travelled to Los Angeles to discuss the acquisition of the majority of this three-dimensional archive with Charles’s daughter Lucia Eames. She felt that the Vitra Design Museum was the right home for this important collection and supported the initiative.

You first learned about design and designers in your role as a translator for your parents, the founders of Vitra. Can you pinpoint the moment when this job evolved from a duty to a passion?

I first met Charles in 1957. My role was translating for my father who did not speak English well. In 1960 I spent a few months in the USA meeting George Nelson, Charles and Ray Eames and Alexander Girard. This was my initiation to design. Later after finishing my studies in social science, I worked in the film business and architectural education. During these years I stayed in touch with the design world, but only became deeply involved in design when my brother Raymond and I took over the company in 1977.

I have heard you argue that the most important lesson to be learned from the work of Charles and Ray Eames is that products of lasting relevance do not stem from a single brilliant idea but are the result of a lengthy process of trial-and-error in which numerous solutions are considered and most of them rejected. Can you explain what you mean by that?

In our Eames Collection there are many objects that seem completely incongruous at first glance. You need to see them in context to realise that they are part of this trial-and-error process. An Eames design does not start with a drawing. And forms are not what the Eameses are concerned with at this stage. It starts with an understanding of the problem they aim to solve. Charles said, ‘Thinking of how a chair looks comes pretty far down on the list of things I worry about when designing.’ With a chair, the issue is about comfort and ergonomics, about how to create a comfortable seat and back, how to manufacture them, how to connect them to a base, how to solve an armrest, a leg etc. Of course, there is always the need to integrate these elements into a whole to become a product, but that image evolves over the course of the process. It is not there in the beginning. That is the character of their approach.
In an interview Charles was asked whether he designed his chairs in a flash. He responded, ‘Yes, it was flash of inspiration…a kind of thirty-year flash.

Looking at the archive, we can also see that Charles and Ray Eames took on the role generally played by the manufacturer. They explored technologies that had never before been used in the furniture industry, they thought about the choice of materials, the fabrication methods, the tools and jigs needed for production, testing devices etc. and presented a fully engineered product. They also developed ideas for marketing a product with photography, films and exhibitions. They gave the products meaningful names and continued to be interested in a product long after its introduction to the market. They improved it over time learning from users. I guess this is a unique case in the history of modern design.

After an Eames design finally made it to the market, the couple not only sought to continually improve it, but they also thought about further applications for the concept, rather than moving on to the next idea as most designers would. Why is that?

They were not interested in innovation just to create something new. They were interested in good solutions. And if they found a good solution, why not continue to work with it. For instance, the Eames Shell Chair family started with an armchair and was followed by a side chair. A number of bases were developed in various materials for diverse purposes (stacking, rocking, lounging, pivoting) and could each be paired with the different shell models. That systems approach was totally new in the 1950s.
Our collection at the Vitra Design Museum includes numerous combinations of different shells and bases.
And they were interested in technology, not just furniture technology. This led them to apply solutions that worked in other fields, for example they transferred rubber shock mounts used in the car industry to furniture design. Not because they wanted to do something original or surprising. They just were looking for a good solution to a problem which they could not solve with traditional means. The shock mounts provide a sturdy yet flexible connection between a chair base and shell with the huge advantage that the shell does not need to be pierced with screws. ‘Innovate as a last resort. More horrors are done in the name of innovation than any other,’ was Charles’s warning to designers.

Yet the Eameses themselves invented four new methods to manufacture comfortable chairs: the three-dimensional forming of plywood (the Plywood Group), the creation of a three-dimensional shell consisting of bent and welded wire (the Wire Chair), the Fiberglass Chair – they were the first to develop a single composite shell that could be mass produced – and the use of a supple panel tautly stretched between two side members in the Aluminium Group. They also made contributions to storage (ESU), airport seating (Tandem Seating), tables (Segmented Tables) and of course they designed the famous Lounge Chair. Once these were developed, the Eameses turned their minds to other issues like exhibitions and films and only occasionally came back to furniture, seeking primarily to further improve their existing designs.

Was everything the Eameses designed a success?

The trial-and-error process they pursued allowed them to eliminate most of the problematic aspects, but in our archive there are several products that were fully developed, but not considered good enough by the Eameses, such as the Wire Sofa. Some of their models reached the market and did not work as expected. A three-legged Plywood Chair was surprisingly considered by the couple, despite its obvious lack of stability when the user moves sideways.

The Intermediate Chair looked beautiful but did not find its place between the Lobby Chair and the Aluminium Chair and was discontinued a few years after its introduction. The Minimal Chair was presented at MoMA’s 1948 ’International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design’, but did not have a clear purpose and never made it to the market.

How about the Eames La Chaise? Only a small number of these are produced each year – do you see this Eames design as a flop or a success?

A flop if you judge it by the criteria of the MoMA competition to which it was submitted. It cannot be produced in the economical way the Eameses imagined. But it is a very beautiful sculpture. Charles and Ray’s intention never was to create a sculpture and as La Chaise was not viable as a low-cost product, the project was not continued. There was only this one competition model of La Chaise in the MoMA collection, and I was in love with it. So, in the mid-1980s I asked Ray whether she would agree to us producing La Chaise if we could get permission from MoMA. We did and we have been producing La Chaise in an artisanal manner since 1990. It is not low-cost at all, but it is a beautiful and comfortable lounge sculpture.

The Eames furniture designs enjoy enduring success on the market and have outlived several of their competitors – just like nature’s ‘survival of the fittest’. Why do you think the Eames designs are still relevant today?

They are often called classics. The term can be misleading as they were revolutionary in the beginning. What is a classic? It is a product from another period which still feels fresh and contemporary. If a product loses that link to our time, it becomes an antique. Think of a product like the Macintosh chairs. They are great for a collector but lack a contemporary feel. The Eames products remain up to date because they represent a paradigm which is still ours. They are part of a long wave in design which started with the modern movement. Making construction visible, using technology to render beauty and comfort accessible to many, letting the materials and structure speak for themselves and avoiding decoration and strong personal expression. Products made in this spirit at the beginning of a new period – in the case of the Eameses after World War II – keep a revolutionary energy long after their groundbreaking inception. They became classics because of their rigour and vitality, and thanks to their authors’ touch of genius (though Charles would dislike that word in this context), they survived all their epigonic competitors.

Finally, please explain why the Eames Collection is important for Vitra as a manufacturer of Eames designs?

It is a source of reference whenever we consider producing a model, a version, a colour that has not been manufactured for a long time or which was never released. And in an age when everything is supposed to be fast, it is a permanent reminder of the fact that relevant design is the result of a slow and strenuous process. It also tells us that making interesting mistakes is part of progress. And it of course provides fantastic material for exhibitions and publications.

Publication date: 14.11.2023
Author: Stine Liv Buur
Images: 1., 4., 7., 10. © Vitra, photo: Florian Böhm; 2., 3., 5., 6., 8., 9. © Vitra Design Museum, photos: Jürgen Hans, Thomas Dix, Roland Engerisser

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