Happy Furniture in the Eames Era

Posted by Jimmy Gonzalez on

Among the personal papers of the architect and designer Eero Saarinen is a curious chart of the marriages of his friends, ranking their relative happiness on a scale from 0 to 100 percent. At the top — with a whopping 90 percent score — are his dear friends Charles and Ray Eames. Saarinen’s approach may strike us as rather technical, perhaps overly quantitative or schematic. Yet even as the chart gestures to mid century happiness as a product of calculation and technique, Saarinen’s high rating of the Eameses was entirely in keeping with their public image. Arguably the most influential American designers of the postwar period, the Eameses were a model happy couple whose iconic designed objects and design practice were exported globally as symbols of the cheery lifestyle afforded by U.S.-style democratic liberalism. Eamesian happiness, circulating through both images and objects, linked the “goodness” of the American good life to the “goodness” of so-called good design. The new, airy domesticity of good-life modernism was theorized in manifestos for postwar living, such as George Nelson’s and Henry Wright’s Tomorrow’s House: A Complete Guide for the Homebuilder , and promulgated through architectural schools, banking establishments, construction industries, museums, and influential lifestyle magazines like House & Home .

Design have recently cast “good design” — with its promise of happiness through consumption and democratic futurity in the American model — as a form of “soft power.” This mode of propaganda and information-handling persuades by attraction rather than coercion, “enlisting support through intangibles like culture, values, belief systems, and perceived moral authority.” Model homes, like model families or model couples, become normalizing instruments, implementing “the lives of free individuals” in a Cold War pedagogy of democratic lifestyle. Eamesian happiness can thus be described as one of the mid century’s more powerful normative horizons for orienting audiences and consumers toward designed objects and “ways of life” deemed “good.” Images of the Eameses and by the Eameses circulated as signs of the postwar good life.

I take a different tack, arguing that Eamesian happiness is ultimately more instructive as a model of production. Within a postindustrial reorganization of the boundaries of work and leisure, designers turned to film and other technical media to model versions of creative, happy making. They worked to find pleasure in an everydayness newly saturated by technics and revolutionary technologies. They sought a human-scale environment of the future in a new world demanding relentless communication, and they intervened in the building and management of that environment at various scales, including in the production of knowledge and the training of future knowledge workers.

These film and media practices compel our attention because they have shaped our present moment of informatic abundance. Midcentury happiness by design anticipated the contemporary condition that Jodi Dean has called “communicative capitalism” — for her, the “technological infrastructure of neoliberalism.” The political is subsumed into consumption, personalization, and the commodification of lifestyles, which we display and perform through the circulation of messages in a nonstop data stream. So much depends upon what it means to domesticate media, to make it a lifestyle. In the Eames Era, these lessons begin with the revolutionary medium of the chair.