What kind of nothing?

A Vitra Anecdote

In the mid-1950s the Aluminum Company of America, ALCOA, organised an extensive Forecast Program to promote the use of aluminium in design and architecture. For this venture ALCOA focused on the designer as ‘the man to stimulate the consuming public with inventive projects for the home’, and invited a range of designers including Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Girard, Charles and Ray Eames and many others to participate. What Alcoa wanted from the designers was not a product to manufacture, but a concept to promote.

For the Forecast Program, Noguchi designed the sculptural Prismatic Table, and Girard created a room divider with variable sizes, colours and storage options.

The ‘Solar Do-Nothing Machine‘ was designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1957 as a kinetic aluminium sculpture – a toy powered by sunlight alone. A solar collector tracked the sun across the horizon, motors responded, wheels turned, pistons rose and receded, colours flashed and blended. The Eames described their invention as ‘a device that will do nothing’ – and spoke about natural resources and the means for teaching the younger generation. The Eames ‘Solar Do-Nothing Machine‘ is not supposed to do, as the Eames stated, it is supposed to be. Its whole function is in its being. Whoever asks what the function of a sunset is?

About its creation Charles Eames said: ‘And this, I would say, would be a good test for any design. Does it make somebody aware of something that it is important for him to be aware of? And does it do it in a manner that is delightful (which is the opposite of pedantic)? In fact, this could be a good starting point for somebody wanting to make a design: to think first about what he wanted to make people aware of, and then to move toward the most effective and pleasing way of bringing this about.’

Eames Demetrios, grandson of the Eameses, later discovered unedited footage of the ‘Solar Do-Nothing Machine‘ and made a film.

The film is also part of “The World of Charles and Ray Eames” at Barbican Center, London. Read more about this exhibition in our interview with curator Catherine Ince.


Publication Date: 11.5.2015
Author: Stine Liv Buur
Images: The ‘Solar Do-Nothing Machine‘ designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1957. © Eames Office LLC