Imagine attending a choral concert in a century-old church. Instead of monochromatic robes, the choristers emerge in bright, radiant color with bold geometric design. The colors of the robes are a musical key, made visual—yellow for the soprano, orange for the contralto, red for the tenor, and purple for the bass. As the choristers sing and sway, the robes come alive, a modern counterpoint to the traditional church interior.
Imagination aside, this is a scene familiar to those who have watched the Hope College Chapel Choir perform. Originally a creation of Charles and Ray Eames from the 1950s, faithful replicas of the robes continue to be used.
The Hope College Chapel Choir at Dimnent Chapel, circa 2001. Photo Courtesy of the Joint Archives of Holland.
Although husband-and-wife design team Charles and Ray Eames collaborated in nearly everything, it was Ray who showed an early and enduring interest in textiles and fashion design. The daughter of a theatre aficionado and manager, she attended the Bennett School for Girls, a two-year college in Millbrook, New York, earning a degree in Fashion Design in 1933. She completed fashion sketches throughout her life—even creating original paper dolls with custom clothing, complete with the tabs used to affix the clothing onto the doll! She designed a few textiles (one of which—“Crosspatch”—won an honorable mention in a 1946 Museum of Modern Art competition) and dedicated significant energy into the design and creation of her own clothing. The clothes she designed for herself and for Charles are quintessential Eames—functional yet beautiful, with playful delights to be found in the details.
D.J. De Pree, the founder and president of the Herman Miller Furniture Company (which produced Charles and Ray Eames’ furniture), was known for his religious fervor. Further, the company is headquartered in Zeeland, Michigan, a Dutch-American enclave with deep Protestant Christian roots. So, when an employee suggested the creation of a company-sponsored chorus in 1952 (something that might otherwise have been an unusual corporate activity), the De Prees granted it legitimacy, naming it the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus and inviting the chorus to perform at company and company-sponsored events. They soon required choral robes to outfit the company chorus and asked Charles and Ray Eames to design them.
Herman Miller Mixed Chorus Soprano and Contralto Vocalist Choir Robes, 1953-1960 / THF75585, THF75580
With Ray’s background, it is likely that she was primarily responsible for the design, although as always in collaboration with her husband. The robes are bold and colorful and make a statement, but they are also functional. Their symbolism is evidence of the Eames’ signature research-heavy process and attention to detail. The colors of the robes identify the vocal type (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and each color’s hue (from light to dark) corresponds with the vocal range (from high to low). The horizontal black lines at the center of each robe reference the musical staff. Charles and Ray may have scoured the extensive Eames Office reference library to ensure symbolic depth and accuracy. Or, perhaps, this came from an ingrained knowledge of music. They enjoyed a variety of musical types, like jazz, folk, and classical, and music was a major component of the films they produced throughout their life, often collaborating with talented composers like Elmer Bernstein. The theatrical backdrop of Ray’s childhood, her interest in textiles and fashion, and the Eames’ interest in music coalesce in these robes.
Herman Miller Mixed Chorus Tenor and Bass Vocalist Choir Robes, 1953-1960 / THF75574, THF75569
The robes were designed at the Eames Office in Los Angeles, but it is unknown whether the robes were created there and shipped, finished, to Zeeland, or if the patterns and fabric were shipped and the robes were then sewn locally.
By 1960, the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus was disbanded, and Hugh De Pree, son of D.J. De Pree, donated the robes to the Hope College Chapel Choir in the neighboring city of Holland, Michigan, where the family had deep connections. The Hope College Chapel Choir was larger than the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus, so more robes had to be made. Doris Schrotenboer and Millie Grinwis, a mother and daughter team from Zeeland, made the extra. Millie Grinwis recalls that the fabric and patterns were shipped from the Eames Office to her mother’s home, where they were painstakingly put together.
After over 44 years in use, the original robes were retired in 2004. Unwilling, however, to part with the signature design, Hope College commissioned replicas, albeit in a slightly lighter fabric. The original robes were donated to several institutions. At The Henry Ford, these robes add an extra dimension to our design collections, as well as another way to better understand the many talents of Charles and Ray Eames.
The Hope College Chapel Choir recording at Milwaukee’s WTMJ-TV, circa 1965. / Photo Courtesy of the Joint Archives of Holland.
Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. She is also an alumnus of Hope College, where she was first delighted by these robes! Thank you to Geoffrey Reynolds at the Joint Archives of Holland for graciously sharing pictures of the Hope College Chapel Choir through the years.
The Henry Ford’s Model i learning framework identifies collaboration as a key habit of an innovator. When considering inspirational collaborators from our collection, Charles and Ray Eames immediately came to mind. So, as part of The Henry Ford’s Twitter Curator Chat series, I spent the afternoon of June 18th sharing how collaboration played an important role in Charles and Ray Eames’ design practice. Below are some of the highlights I shared.
First things first, Charles and Ray Eames were a husband-and-wife design duo—not brothers or cousins, as some think! Although Charles often received the lion’s share of credit, Charles and Ray were truly equal partners and co-designers. Charles explains, "whatever I can do, she can do better... She is equally responsible with me for everything that goes on here."
THF252258 / Advertising Poster for the Exhibit, "Connections: The Work of Charles and Ray Eames," 1976
So when you see early advertisements that don’t mention Ray Eames as designer alongside Charles, know that she was equally responsible for the work. Here’s one such advertisement from 1947.
THF266928 / Herman Miller Advertisement, June 30, 1947, "Now Available! The Charles Eames Collection...."
And here’s another from 1952. I could go on, but I think you get the point!
THF66372 / Wood, Plastic, Wire Chairs & Tables Designed by Charles Eames, circa 1952
For more on Ray’s background and vital role in the Eames Office, check out this article from the New York Times, as part of their recently-debuted “Mrs. Files” series.
Charles and Ray Eames were experimenting with plywood when America entered World War II. A friend from the Army Medical Corps thought their molded plywood concept could be useful for the war effort—specifically for a new splint for broken limbs. Metal splints then in use were heavy and inflexible. Charles and Ray created a molded plywood version and sent a prototype to the U.S. Navy. They worked together and created a workable—and beautiful—solution for the military.
THF65726 / Eames Molded Plywood Leg Splint, circa 1943
Out of these molded plywood experiments and products came the iconic chairs we know and love, like this lounge chair.
But Charles and Ray Eames wanted to make an affordable, complex-curved chair out of a single shell. The molded plywood checked some of their boxes, but the seat was not a single piece—not a single shell. They turned to other materials.
Around 1949, Charles brought a mock-up of a chair to John Wills, a boat builder and fiberglass fabricator, who created two identical prototypes. This is one of those prototypes—it lingered in Will's workshop, used for over four decades as a utility stool. The other became the basis for the Eames’ single-shell fiberglass chair.
THF134574 / Prototype Eames Fiberglass Chair, circa 1949
Charles and Ray recognized when their expertise fell short and found people in other fields to help them solve design problems. Their single-shell fiberglass chairs became a rounding success. Have you ever sat in one of them?
THF126897 / Advertising Postcard, "Herman Miller Furniture is Often Shortstopped on Its Way to the Destination...," 1955-1960
While those of us not mathematically inclined might have a hard time finding math fun, mathematicians truly think their craft is fun. Charles and Ray worked with these mathematicians to develop an interactive math exhibit that is playful.
THF169792 / Quotation Sign from Mathematica: A World of Numbers and Beyond Exhibition, 1960-1961
Charles Eames said of science and play, “When we go from one extreme to another, play or playthings can form a transition or sort of decompression chamber – you need it to change intellectual levels without getting a stomachache."
THF169740 / "Multiplication Cube" from Mathematica: A World of Numbers and Beyond Exhibition, 1960-1961
Charles and Ray Eames sought out expertise in others and worked together, understanding that everyone can bring something valuable to the table. This collaborative spirit allowed them to design deep and wide—solving in-depth problems across a multitude of fields.
Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. For a deeper dive into this story, please check out her long-form article, “What If Collaboration is Design?”
In the early 1960s, designers Charles and Ray Eames set out to reveal the wonder they saw in math through an engaging and interactive exhibit they called Mathematica: A World of Numbers … and Beyond. The designers, perhaps best known for the iconic Eames lounge chair, used models and demonstrations to bring to life concepts such as probability, geometry, the Moebius strip, and more.
In 2015, The Henry Ford acquired an original Mathematica exhibit, and is currently working to restore the interactive components before installing the exhibit on the Museum floor in 2017. We’ve begun to digitize some of the signage and reading material from the exhibit, including this reading stand that discusses, among other things, the “Man Machine Interface.”
Visit our Digital Collections to view zoomable detail shots, or to see the other Mathematica signage digitized so far. Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
Although medical history is not currently a focus of The Henry Ford’s collections, we do have numerous medical artifacts because they relate in some way to a different area of our collections, such as public life, transportation, buildings and architecture, or design. New Associate Curators of Digital Content, Katherine White and Ryan Jelso, combed through The Henry Ford’s collection looking for artifacts that were medically innovative, either as physical innovations or as representations of innovations in the medical profession. The objects they found were initially acquired for their relation to a different collections area, but they tie closely to the development of today's medical technologies and practices.
A Civil War surgeon used this government-issued Field Operating Kit, initially acquired by The Henry Ford as a public history artifact, at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May of 1863. It contains all the tools needed to perform the most common Civil War medical procedure – amputation.
New Weapons Technology Leads to New Surgical Techniques In 1849, French military officer Claude-Etienne Minié invented a hollow-based cylindrical bullet, which was more accurate over long distances than its predecessors and more quickly loaded into a rifle barrel due to its slightly smaller size. The minié bullet provided a significant advantage to those on the offensive; however, the bullet was immensely destructive to those on the defensive. Due to its hollow nature, the projectile became misshapen upon impact and its ragged edges caused significantly more internal damage than the solid bullets used previously.
Both the Union and Confederate Armies utilized the minié bullet extensively during the American Civil War. The damages wrought by this particular bullet surely contributed to the war’s astronomical death count, but also contributed to the advancement of amputation surgery. While amputation had been used throughout the ages, Civil War surgeons innovated numerous surgical advancements. Immediate amputation of an injured limb before infection spread to healthy tissue became standard and drastically decreased battlefield mortality rates.
The Henry Ford's broad transportation collection covers the motorization of ambulances during World War I. Take a look at a few archival photographs that document the Model T's role in this important part of ambulance history, here.
The Motorization of Medical Care The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries spurred technological innovations that would change how wars were conducted in the decades to come. By the beginning of World War I in the early 20th century, military units had become increasingly motorized, replacing the horses and wagons of past wars. Armies employed mechanized military vehicles like tanks, airplanes and submarines along with new forms of chemical warfare to inflict mass casualties during what became known as "The Great War." With a surge in casualties, quick transportation of the wounded away from the battlefronts to safer hospitals became a life-saving priority. To meet this need, volunteer services and individual armies experimented with and developed motor ambulance corps, eventually making them commonplace.
The torn up roads, heavily shelled areas, and muddy terrain of the war-torn European continent made lighter vehicles preferable. While other makes and models were present, lightweight Ford Model Ts made up a large percentage of the ambulances in service during World War I. The vehicles’ ability to traverse the war environment along with their easy maneuverability made them popular among ambulance drivers. Other advantages of Model T ambulances included their low cost, economical fuel usage, and ease of operation for the average solider or volunteer. The standardization of Model T parts also meant that maintenance for these ambulances could be performed readily, extending each vehicle's service life and allowing medical professionals to tend to the wounded quicker than ever before.
As a part of the historic building collection in Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford, Doc Howard's office serves as an example of the 19th century origins from which modern American medicine would evolve.
A Snapshot of Mid-19th Century Medicine Representative of a typical early rural doctor's office, this mid-19th century building is where Dr. Alonson Bingley Howard (1823-1883) practiced an eclectic combination of conventional, botanical, and homeopathic medicine. Born in New York, Howard moved to Tekonsha, Michigan, and began his career as a farmer, eventually deciding that he wanted to become a physician. He first attended Cleveland Medical College from 1850-1851, later entering the University of Michigan's School of Medicine, where he took classes from 1851-1852. Although medical school records list him as a non-graduate, Howard moved back to Tekonsha and went on to practice medicine until his death in 1883.
In the 19th century, medical professionals had a limited understanding of illnesses and often relied on bloodletting or other purging methods to "balance" the body and keep diseases at bay. Along with minor surgery, these common practices were available to Dr. Howard as he traveled across his community attending to pregnancies, chronic diseases, tuberculosis, dental problems, and various wounds. To aid him in treating his patients, he relied on the early pharmaceutical medicines that could be found on the market during this period. However, he also kept a laboratory in his office where he could experiment with developing his own medicines through a wide personal stock of plants and minerals.
Experimentation with Plywood Provides Medical Solution The Museum of Modern Art held a design competition in 1940 entitled Organic Design in Home Furnishings, which aimed to spur development of modern furniture that adequately addressed the era’s changing way of life. Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen, friends and peers at Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art, entered multiple molded plywood chair designs into the competition and won two of the six categories. At the time, molding or bending plywood was still a quite progressive process and molded plywood was not yet commonly used in mass-produced goods for the public. Along with his wife, Ray, Charles Eames continued experimentation with molded plywood after the competition.
America’s entry into World War II brought shortages of many materials, including metal. Splints for broken limbs had historically been produced of metal, although metal splints were not ideal for military use due to their weight and inflexibility. Charles and Ray Eames, perpetual problem-solvers, designed a lightweight, strong, and flexible leg splint produced through their innovative method of molding plywood. The Eames molded leg splint became a highly effective solution for the military as well as a highly sculptural design object.
Represented in The Henry Ford's large American public life collection is the late 19th- and early 20th-century phenomenon of patent medicines, over-the-counter drugs that consumers used to self-medicate.
Consumerism Helps Standardize Early Medicines In the late 19th century, an increasing body of medical knowledge had begun to revolutionize the practice of medicine. However, a lack of scientific understanding of early medical drugs meant that drugs used in treatment were often inadequate and could even exacerbate illnesses. At a time when disease was still widespread, Americans sought cures for any number of maladies and tried nearly anything to get relief. Entrepreneurs took advantage, using advertising to make claims and promise cures with manufactured patent medicines. Such patent medicines rose to popularity in the last quarter of the 19th century, but the industry was unregulated and manufacturers were secretive about their recipes.
Some of these concoctions contained harmful ingredients or ingredients used in unsafe quantities. Cocaine, alcohol, opium, and heroin were some of the common ingredients that could be found in early patent medicines. These examples, as well as other additives, could result in addiction or even death, prompting national legislation that prohibited misleading health claims and required manufacturers to list their product's contents. In the United States, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 helped stop the manufacture of drugs and products considered poisonous, adulterated or mislabeled.
Some of the patent medicines in our collection were analyzed in 2013 through a partnership between The Henry Ford's conservation staff and the Chemistry & Biochemistry Department at University of Detroit Mercy. Their findings, as well as more information on patent medicines can be found here in our Digital Collections.
An artifact, especially an innovative artifact, often has multidisciplinary significance. An object that is distinctly medical in nature may be equally as significant, or even more significant, as a public history or design history artifact. The Henry Ford’s collections boast countless significant artifacts with histories that reach across subject matter boundaries, such as this grouping of medically innovative artifacts.
By Katherine White and Ryan Jelso, Associate Curators, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. This post was made possible in part by our partners at Beaumont. Beaumont is a leading high-value health care network focused on extraordinary outcomes through education, innovation and compassion. For the latest health and wellness news, visit beaumont.org/health-wellness.
Visitors to the 1964 New York World’s Fair’s IBM Pavilion were submerged in a futuristic world made possible by computers. A world imaginatively conjured up by an intricately detailed fake newspaper with the headline “Computer Day at Midvale!”
The one-of-a-kind aluminum panel was created by the Eames Office, the studio of famed designers Charles and Ray Eames. Hand-painted with imagined newspaper headlines and draped with patriotic bunting, it hung on the back of one of the pavilion’s “Little Theatres” and was surrounded by lights, intended to lure visitors.
“The themes in the Midvale panel, and the IBM Pavilion on the whole, document a critical moment where people were being exposed to the culture of computing on a mass scale,” said Kristen Gallerneaux, The Henry Ford’s curator of communications and information technology. “Accessible systems like the IBM/360 were just around the corner, whose adoption would touch (and potentially disrupt) the lives of information and office workers. IBM needed to address this wariness of technology — they needed to humanize computers. The company found their solution in the playful visual communication skills of the Eames Office.”
Last year, The Henry Ford acquired the aluminum panel from its original owners, whose father, Robert Charles Siemion, had worked as an engineer and manager at the 1964 IBM Pavilion.
“The ephemeral nature of those fairs was such that most of the displays — and even the architecture — would be dismantled after the fair was over,” said Gallerneaux, who learned about the panel in an article on antique pricing. “But Siemion, as a manager, was invited to take home part of the pavilion as a memento. We’re lucky that he chose to salvage this panel and that his children knew to hold onto it all these years.”
The Eames Office employees who designed the pavilion are listed on the newspaper’s left in a credits area. The panel is among several IBM Pavilion-related objects The Henry Ford has acquired and the third such artifact associated with Charles and Ray Eames.
“Charles and Ray Eames were fascinated with the circus and early Americana, and there’s a wonderful sense of these themes coming together with high technology in the panel,” Gallerneaux said. “The IBM Pavilion was designed to send you into another head space so you could synthesize the concepts coming together at the time. It was an interesting collision of computing history and design history happening in one place.”
From a conservation standpoint, the panel, well maintained by its owners, only required minimal treatments. “It’s interesting to think about the public as stewards of material culture,” Gallerneaux said. “We acquire a lot of interesting collection items that way.”
The “Computer Day at Midvale” panel will appear in a future exhibit at The Henry Ford about communications and information technology.
DID YOU KNOW? The 1964 New York World’s Fair featured 140 pavilions spread over 646 acres. Continue Reading
One day in 1948—or maybe ’49—a beat-up Ford pulled up outside a workshop in Arcadia, California. John Wills, the boat builder who owned the workshop, was about to play host to a then largely unknown architect and designer—a visitor on a mission related to an industrial process that Wills had developed. This battered fiberglass chair shell, perched on a trash can, was made as a result of that day’s visit. It represents an early single step in a lengthy design and production process. The result was an enduringly popular landmark design, a chair design you’ve likely sat on, a chair mass-produced to the point of invisibility.
John Wills’ visitor was none other than Charles Eames. Eames was attempting to solve a design problem that had been absorbing him and his wife Ray for the better part of a decade: how to use modern, inexpensive materials to make furniture of extreme simplicity and affordability. Charles, his wife, and a number of close collaborators had become adept at molding plywood through work undertaken for the United States Navy in World War II. After the war their plywood experiments continued, leading to their work with the Herman Miller Company of Zeeland, Michigan, who began to market the Eameses’ designs.
The profitable industrial production of single-piece plywood chair shells proved to be impractical—but what about other materials? The pursuit of a solution to this basic design dilemma led Charles and Ray to investigate other materials such as stamped metal—which proved too heavy—and fiberglass-reinforced plastic. Which is where John Wills comes in: he had developed a fiberglass-plastic formula that could harden at room temperature, without the use of pressure. To the Eameses, manufacturability was a fundamental and necessary component of any good design. By reducing the production steps—not having to heat the shells to harden the material, not having to construct the chair’s shell out of multiple parts, and by adopting a process that reduced production failures—the design could be made more cheaply and profitably. Consequently the resulting design would offer, as Ray put it, “the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least.”
Prototype chair by Charles Eames. (Object ID.95.167.1)
Charles Eames had brought Wills a craft paper mockup of the chair he wanted to prototype. Wills told him that the cost of the experimental finished shell would be $25 and that it would be ready in a week or so. Charles Eames returned to the workshop to find that Wills had in fact made two shells: each was examined and sat in, raised to a convenient sitting height by way of a makeshift base made from corrugated metal. Finally however, Eames could only afford to pay for one of the shells, leaving this example behind in Wills’ workshop where it remained, perched on a garbage can for almost fifty years.
The development and refinement of the design continued, first with Zenith Plastics of Gardena, California, and then at the Herman Miller Company. It went into production in 1950 and proved to be an instant success, spawning all manner of variants and a great many imitations. In the 1990s, environmental concerns led to the cessation of its production, pending the development of suitable recyclable plastics. In 2000, the chair, now made from a new polypropylene blend, was returned to the market by Herman Miller.
This battered-looking artifact was a very early step in this design and production story. And it is a reminder that messiness and tentative first steps are a part of every design process: the sleek Eames-designed plastic chairs that have found their way into homes, meeting rooms, cafes—indeed anywhere where affordable and durable seating is required—had to start somewhere.
Earlier this year in June, The Henry Ford acquired an original kiosk designed by Charles and Ray Eames for use in the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The kiosk, one of two known to survive, was designed to resemble a colorful tent-like structure, complete with pennants.
Constructed of iron, walnut and plastic laminate, it originally housed interactive exhibit elements that were part of a huge program created by the Eames office to explain the impact and uses of IBM’s computing technology. The kiosk was saved by the contractor who had been awarded the task of demolishing the pavilion at the fair’s end. Another example is known to have survived—used by the Eames Office to explore installation options but never used at the fair itself. It was acquired by Vitra in 2006.
The kiosk is currently with our conservation department being conserved and will be coming to the floor of Henry Ford Museum next year.
To get an idea of how the kiosks were used in the IBM Pavilion, take a look at this video from Eames Office. You'll miss it if you blink, but you can catch a very small glimpse of our kiosk at the 1:45 mark in the right corner of the video.
Make sure to check back to the blog and our Facebook page for kiosk updates.
Design lovers have been celebrating the 100th birthday of Ray Eames, one half of the renowned Eames design duo, the past few days, bringing her role into the spotlight once again.
Ray and Charles rose to prominence in an era and an industry where men stood out with their achievements, often ignoring the accomplishments of their female counterparts. However, Charles always found a way to include Ray and highlight her work. At the end of the day, Ray was crucial to all components of Eames.
Ray was trained as a painter and sculptor. She loved pattern and design - her office at 901 Washington Boulevard was filled with drawers of colorful papers as inspiration for the next project. Every design element was purposeful for Ray. Whether it be a fabric selection for a chair or the flower arrangements she placed on her own dining room table at home, every choice had been scrutinized. Ray didn't do things just to do them - she did it as part of a grander vision.
Attention to detail was just one of Ray's well-known traits and was a critical element within their work. You see that with every piece of furniture they created. When you evaluate their portfolio over time, each model was better than the previous as the two tried to find just the right combination of materials in the finished products to make it, finally, perfect by their standards.
As such a detail-oriented person, Ray's work was her life and her life was her work. Both she and Charles weren't the types of people to use "free time" to watch television or "hang out." Free time was time to start the next project or research new inspiration.
It's impossible to fully disentangle Charles' and Ray's contributions to the overall Eames design achievement. Theirs was a creative partnership so completely entwined that teasing it apart only muddies their legacy.