Monday, June 01, 2015

Design’s Best-Kept Secret: Eames Radios

By James Gaddy
Wall Street Journal -
May 28, 2015

Is there anything about the work of Charles and Ray Eame sthat hasn’t already been exhaustingly dissected? Surprisingly, yes: the Eameses used their revolutionary bent-plywood process for geekier projects as well: radios.
These little-known artifacts, which date from the mid- to late-1940s, are among the Eameses’ earliest experiments with their plywood-molding process. During World War II, the U.S. Navy had commissioned the couple to develop leg splints, a task which led to a breakthrough: a method of creating multiple curves in wood to better fit the human form. “ Alvar Aalto and Marcel Breuer were both able to bend wood in two directions, but Charles and Ray figured out how to do it using compound curves,” explained Daniel Ostroff, editor of the new book “An Eames Anthology” (Yale University Press), a trove of rarely seen photographs, correspondence, notes and articles. After the release of Eameses’ then-radical LCW chair, electronics manufacturers such as Emerson, Magnavox, and Bendix, among others, realized the process could be adapted to make radio housings that were more durable, affordable and lighter than the plastic ones widely in use.
The Eameses worked on a range of technology during their career. In 1972, they created a whimsical 10-minute video for Polaroid to market its new instant film. They also designed a modernist speaker system for the high-end audio company Stephens, and had a long relationship with IBM, creating films and exhibitions that helped humanize computing technology.
What made the duo unique, said Mr. Ostroff, was that they applied their credo—“the best for the most for the least”—to every project, whether high- or low-tech. “They felt that if they couldn’t figure out the manufacturing process, they had no business designing it,” he said.
That’s perhaps what gave the Eames radios their understated elegance—a quality that effectively seduced Justin Hoffman, a vintage furniture dealer in Berkeley, Calif., who has bought nearly 25 models. His first, a Zenith 6D030, was “a little beat up but had such an interesting look to it,” he said.
The estimated 200,000 of these radios that were manufactured are enjoying a strong second (and third) life on the auction circuit as an unexpected way for the design-savvy to own an Eames original. Many sell for around $1,000. The priciest one, a mint-condition prototype that never went into production, went for $17,500 two years ago, according to Wright auction house founder Richard Wright. On September 10, Wright will hold its largest auction of Eames furniture, with nearly 300 lots. Seven lots will be Eames radios, the largest offering at auction.
“They’re not the most beautiful Eames products,” admitted Mr. Ostroff, but he added that the radios are among the most delicate pieces the Eameses ever produced. And the pleasures of owning one can go beyond mere aesthetics. Mr. Hoffman said his first acquisition was still functioning. “It was something from 1946 that still picked up local radio stations. I thought that was so cool,” he said.

From left: Zenith Radio 1946; Eames Office Radio for Emerson; Zenith Radio 6D030Z.
Courtesy photo F. Martin Ramin / The Wall Street Journal