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Yves Béhar on the Eames rocking chair

Yves Béhar on the Eames rocking chair

Few pieces of design reflect their era as successfully

Few pieces of design reflect their era as successfully

December/January 2019

One of the most important questions for a designer is how their work reflects its era. Few pieces represent their time as successfully as this rocking chair, designed by Charles and Ray Eames in the 1950s when the domestic environment was undergoing a transformation. The living rooms of 19th-century houses were being replaced by the wide-open spaces and flowing interiors of mid-century architecture, and furniture was going from dark and heavy to light and mobile. The Eames rocker is at the heart of this revolution.

The Eameses moved from Michigan to Los Angeles in the early 1940s, shortly after they got married, and California had an immense influence on them. Their arrival coincided with the era of Case Study houses – boxy, open-plan dwellings built in the Hollywood hills by architects (including, eventually, the Eameses themselves) who were determined to reconfigure the way we live.

Yves Béhar is the founder of Fuseproject, a  design studio in San Francisco. He was talking to Simon Willis

This spirit of experimentation inspired them, as did LA’s pervasive culture of entertainment. Working in a studio in Venice Beach, they applied new technology to the business of making furniture to create a radical collection of sofas, couches and chairs whose wooden, fibreglass and plastic forms were moulded to the curvaceous contours of the human body.

This had several advantages. The fibreglass shell of the rocking chair was light, which made it simple to move around a room, and it was very easy to produce in different colours, so it could be personalised. And because it was fibreglass, it could be used both inside and outside – an idea that occurs to you in the southern-California climate as it might not in the Midwest. There are photographs of Charles and Ray sitting in the chair’s fibreglass seat, without its legs or rockers, on the beach.

What I admire about the Eameses’ work, and the thing that influences the work I’ve done, is the way that innovation is at the service of the human body. Sculpting materials in more traditional ways is time-consuming and expensive, as is upholstering them to soften their sharp edges. Moulding materials allowed them to make furniture that is both decisively modern and extremely comfortable. The results are also fun. With its wooden rockers, which resemble those of a child’s rocking horse, this is a playful, innocent-looking object that immediately makes me smile.

More than that, the rocker shows how comfortable they were in a world that, like ours, was becoming increasingly technological. That combination of product design and advanced technology is something I try to carry through into my own work. The Snoo, a smart crib I designed in 2016, is a good example. The object itself, which is made of new materials such as tensile fabrics, is a classic piece of product design. But I also incorporated AI and robotics. The AI enables the Snoo to listen for a baby’s cries. The AI then triggers robotic elements in the crib to automatically rock the baby back to sleep. Like the Eames rocker, it is a product of its time.