Is It Vulgar or Is It Art?

A Vitra Anecdote

The Eames Plastic Chairs were launched in 1950 as the first-ever industrially produced plastic 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 Plastic 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 Plastic 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 plastic 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 belongs to the Eames Office and family, and the chair with the nude woman is on permanent loan from the Eames Office and family 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.


Publication Date: 04.08.2016
Author: Stine Liv Buur
Images: © 2016 Eames Office, LLC (www.eamesoffice.com)