Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Breaking the Mold

Illustration by Viktor Hachmang.

For the new Eames Institute publication Kazam! I trace the history of a chair-making machine.

It was Ray Eames, with her typical flair, who nicknamed the machine Kazam! after the sorcerer’s incantation alakazam, because it could form bent plywood “like magic.” This couldn’t have been farther from the truth. The Kazam! made complex curves out of flat planes through hard work—physical, mental, electrical—as Ray and Charles Eames never gave up on the idea that plywood could bend in multiple directions to better cradle the human body and harness industrial innovation in service of value. The Kazam! and the bestselling series of chairs that were its eventual commercial offspring serve as an ideal illustration of the practical magic the Eameses and their collaborators brought to a task. Those chairs also underline the many humble handmade and hand-finished attempts required to produce the seemingly hands-free designs that have become modern pin-ups. “The problem of designing anything is in a sense the problem of designing a tool,” the Eameses wrote in 1953. To make a mass-produced molded plywood chair, then, the key was to invent the tools to create the tool.