Every day of my life, I’ve thought of my grandparents, Charles & Ray Eames. I’m the youngest of their five grandchildren. But I’ve seldom thought of them as much as I have since the coronavirus took hold.
What they would be doing right now? What would they be focused on? Who would they be collaborating with?
We have some sense, looking back at a wartime project that changed the entire trajectory of their careers. It wasn’t one of their now-iconic chairs, nor one of their films or toys or their many other creations. It was a wooden leg splint. Yes, a leg splint.
In 1942, the world fell deep into war. The mass produced chairs Charles & Ray, dreamed of were put on hold. It was surely crushing, but it was also a blessing; figuring out how to mass produce the leg splint would hone their understanding of how to master the art of molded plywood.
FIGURING OUT HOW TO MASS PRODUCE THE LEG SPLINT WOULD HONE THEIR UNDERSTANDING OF HOW TO MASTER THE ART OF BENT PLYWOOD.
According to the Eames Office website, “Charles’ friend Dr. Wendell Scott…mentioned that the Medical Corps was struggling with a problem: The standard metal splints used to brace wounded servicemen were actually causing further injury. The problem stemmed from the metal stretcher bearers, which amplified vibrations in the brace. Upon hearing of this dilemma, Charles and Ray immediately started experimenting with ways to address it; by 1943, the Eameses had made their first Molded Plywood Splint.”
It was that splint that gave them the experience they needed to go on to make the breakthroughs they did with their furniture. The splint led to more projects with the Navy during the war, like a molded plywood body litter.
SEEING HOW DESIGN IS A METHOD OF ACTION TO FACE TODAY’S CHALLENGES IN SO MANY EXAMPLES IS NOTHING SHORT OF INSPIRING.
In total, over 150,000 of my grandparents’ splints were produced to help the war effort. I have looked at the photos and film of battlefield dressings, and they take my breath away. The splint was also beautiful, even sculptural; it is part of the permanent collection at MoMA. They never compromised on design, but they always embraced the constraints, and there were many at that time, as there are now.
I’ve been so moved to see the concepts and prototypes featured in the COVID-19 Design Directory. Across the entries, I consistently see little hints—and sometimes clear references—to Charles & Ray. Seeing how design is a method of action to face today’s challenges in so many examples is nothing short of inspiring.
IN THIS TIME OF GLOBAL NEED AND IN THE SPIRIT OF MY GRANDPARENTS, I ASK, ‘DESIGNERS, WHAT IS YOUR LEG SPLINT?’
Charles & Ray’s legacy and their process feel more relevant than ever—their commitment to solving problems by addressing the need, their honest use of materials, their relentless iteration, and their playfulness. As good as they were as designers, I always say Charles & Ray were even better grandparents.
In this time of global need and in the spirit of my grandparents, I ask, “Designers, what is your leg splint?”
Llisa Demetrios is a board member of the Eames Foundation and a founding member of The Design Vanguard.