Sitting Pretty: How a Leg Splint Influenced Charles and Ray Eames’s Iconic Chair
Medical tool, but make it design.
Nika Vee from Montreal, Canada
It’s one of the most renowned—and copied—chairs today: the LCW, or Lounge Chair Wood, an elegant, curving perch designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1945. Although it looks simple, the couple struggled to manipulate plywood and reach this final form, particularly for mass production. In a guestroom of their Los Angeles home, they spent countless evenings tinkering with the material, finally refining their techniques by developing an unexpected object: a wooden emergency transport leg splint, which the US Navy deployed in combat zones during World War II.
Durable, yet light, the medical tool stands as a little-known precursor of much of the Eameses’ celebrated plywood furniture. The long, slim support served as a universal splint that can fit a person’s lower right or left leg—even with trousers and shoes on. Given that the Eameses focused on molding wood to the human body rather than drawing on former notions of a chair, the lightness and comfort of their later furniture designs is unsurprising, as Eames Office consultant Daniel Ostroff writes in An Eames Anthology.
The Eameses decided to contribute to the war effort after learning that standard metal splints caused further injury to wounded soldiers. “When war was declared in December 1941, the question for all creative people was ‘bombs or bandages,’” Ostroff tells GARAGE. “‘Bandages’ was the Eameses’s choice. With the help of a friend from St. Louis, a medical doctor who was serving in the Navy, Charles and Ray identified a better, more effective and comfortable splint as a need.”
At the time, the Eameses (then newlyweds) had just moved to California and were using a curious device they made called the Kazam! Machine to experiment with bending plywood and make a single-shell chair. The process was labor-intensive: thin sheets of veneer, glued together in layers, were fed into this contraption, and air from a bicycle pump compressed the wood against a curving plaster mold; the plies would eventually take on that form. Using this knowledge of how wood and resin respond to heat and pressure, the Eameses created a splint shaped to Charles Eames’ leg—a painful process, as his leg hair was apparently ripped out when the cast was removed.
In November 1942, they presented their finished splint to the US Navy: a waterproof, warp-proof, and comfortable device weighing just one-and-half-pounds. The military accepted it and ordered thousands; with this contact in hand, the Eameses approached the Evans Product Company, a Detroit-based purveyor of wooden goods that provided the project with the necessary financial support and production facility. Evans formed the Evans Molded Plywood Products Division in California, giving the Eameses an annual contract to run it, according to Ostroff, plus royalties on any products made using their plywood molding process.
More than 150,000 wooden splints were made by the end of World War II, making this the couple’s first mass-produced product. Access to better resources also enabled them to gain a better understanding of plywood and its capabilities, like realizing that they couldn’t push the material to conform to the shape of a single-shell seat.
“The Eames were previously able to develop technology for bended plywood, but never in such large quantities,” Zoë Ryan, the Art Institute of Chicago’s chief architecture and design curator, tells GARAGE. “Having access to this technology and manufacturing facilities allowed them to build on their earlier experiments and move forward in leaps and bounds.” After more prototyping and testing, the Evans Molded Plywood produced the LCW, a chair with compound curves, until Herman Miller took over in 1947.
The Art Institute of Chicago is just one of many museums that now owns a wooden leg splint (and theirs is currently on view, in its Architecture and Design Galleries). Over the years, this utilitarian object has become a highly sought-after artwork by both cultural institutions and design aficionados; the Eames Office even sells vintage ones, still in their original wrapping, for $975.
A bit pricey for a splint, yes, but this one rightfully remains a treasured symbol of groundbreaking design.