Is It Vulgar or Is It Art?

A Vitra Anecdote

The Eames Fiberglass Chairs were launched in 1950 as the first-ever industrially mass-produced composite chairs. The curved organic shells, which rested on a minimalist metal base, represented a carefree, free-floating type of seating never seen before – in striking contrast to the heavy upholstered furniture found in most homes of that era. In many ways Charles and Ray Eames were ahead of their time, surrounding themselves with friends who shared their visionary perspective. One of these cohorts was the American cartoonist Saul Steinberg, who was especially known for crossing borders into uncharted visual territories.
Shortly after the Eames had developed the Fiberglass Chairs, Saul Steinberg came to visit their office in Los Angeles at 901 Washington Boulevard. During the visit, Steinberg picked up a brush and drew a number of lively cartoons around the office interior. Steinberg extended the series of cartoons from one object or surface to another, continuing a sketch that started on a piece of furniture up along the walls or down onto the floor. One of the cartoons turned into an undressed woman lounging on a La Chaise mould; another depicted a cat sleeping on a newly produced Eames Fiberglass Armchair. Steinberg also drew a sitting female nude, whose upper body occupied the seat shell while the outlines of her legs extended across the floor.
The ‘nude woman’ later had Long Beach art critics in an uproar when she made her first appearance at the opening of the Municipal Art Center in 1951. The directors of the show had given the chair a prominent place among other art objects. The furore began when members of the Municipal Art Committee spotted the nude and turned her towards the wall, prompting the directors to turn the chair back around again. The head of the Committee then demanded that the chair be removed, based on the opinion that it was ‘vulgar’ and ‘not art’ – but the directors refused. Today it is hard to imagine that a simple drawing of a nude woman on a chair shell could cause such an uproar, but yet again the year was 1951, and times were different. Shortly afterwards, an article in the Los Angeles Herald-Express reported on the controversy with a photo of the chair and the questioning caption: ‘Is It Vulgar or Is It Art?’
Charles and Ray Eames did not think of the cartoon as vulgar. As much as Steinberg admired the seminal work of the Eameses, they admired Steinberg’s practice of crossing borders between media. Charles and Ray Eames later ‘invited the nude woman to dinner’, placing the chair in one of their collage settings for a photo shoot. The photo was taken by Charles Eames.

Today the chair with the cat is part of the Eames Institute Collection, and the chair with the nude figure is on permanent loan from the Eames Institute to the Vitra Design Museum. The chairs are often lent out for exhibitions around the world, but occasionally the chair with the nude woman is also to be seen at the Vitra Schaudepot.

More information on the topic of Eames furniture is found in the "Eames Furniture Sourcebook" and “Essential Eames”, two new publications by the Vitra Design Museum, available in German and English editions from booksellers or directly from the VDM publishing house.

Limited Edition: Eames Fiberglass Armchair with Steinberg Cat

On 14 June, Vitra is launching a limited edition of the Eames Fiberglass Armchair with Steinberg Cat. This edition of 500 pieces reproduces a drawing that was done on an Eames Fiberglass Armchair shell by the Romanian-American artist Saul Steinberg in the 1950s. The Eames Fiberglass Armchair with Steinberg Cat is sold by Vitra in Europe only. For customers in North America and Japan, please visit The Steinberg Cat drawing is used with permission of The Saul Steinberg Foundation.

More details

Publication Date: 04.08.2016
Author: Stine Liv Buur
Images: © 2016 Eames Office, LLC (

This might also interest you