One of the most curious pieces of furniture on display at the newly opened exhibition, “The House That Modernism Built” is a steel and leather chaise designed by renowned mid-century modern American design team of Charles and Ray Eames.
Inspiration for the chaise — a curved, lazy, “S”-shaped minimalist frame topped by a shiny-cool black leather rectangle — came from the couple’s friend, legendary Hollywood film director Billy Wilder.
Wilder, winner of six Academy Awards, is well known for work on classics such as “Ninotchka,” “Stalag 17,” “The Fortune Cookie,” “Sabrina,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and “Some Like it Hot.”
An admirer of the Eames’ design work, he befriended the couple and asked them to create a chaise he could use for naps off-set while working grueling film schedules of up to 12 hours a day.
Eames Demetrios, grandson of the Eames and director of Eames Office, an organization dedicated to communicating preserving and extending his grandparents’ work, was on hand at the Bechtler recently for an exhibition preview.
“Charles used to say he learned more about architecture from watching Billy Wilder on the set than he did from most architects because of the systems aspect he used in making movies,” said Demetrios.
“The Jimmy Stewart movie, ‘The Spirit of St. Louis,‘ where Charles did the second unit (he was a filmmaker in addition to being a designer). They were in Nova Scotia because they were filming aerial shots and they visited a lighthouse where there was a bench that impressed them. It was so simple, it was very narrow and elegant, and both Wilder and Charles admired it.
“Fifteen years later, Wilder asked to design for him a couch where he could nap, on his back with his hands folded across his chest,” Demetrios continued. “When his arms fell down to his sides, this would wake him up and he’d have his nice 15 minute power nap and he’d be all set.
“They remembered the bench, and based its scale on that.”
Demetrios, who met and interviewed Wilder before his death in 2002, added that “Billy said the real advantage of the couch, especially in Hollywood, is there was no danger of it being considered a ‘casting couch, unless of course the woman was a Giacometti.’”
Demetrios said the piece is still in production today, though the frame is made of aluminum. It’s available through Herman Miller for about $6,000.
Visitors to the exhibition, which runs until Sept. 11, can view many Eames works alongside furniture, textiles and ceramics from acclaimed designers and artists such as Victor Vasarely, Roy Lichtenstein, Alexander Girard and Maija Isola.
Photos: Michael J. Solender; Courtesy of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art.