Before Charles and Ray Eames sculpted plywood into undulating furniture, they refined their techniques on medical devices. During World War II, the United States Navy engaged the American design duo in creating a new leg splint. The result was an object both beautiful and practical, with its biomorphic curves that delicately protected a wounded leg.
The Body Extended: Sculpture and Prosthetics at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, England, includes one of the Eames leg splints in its exploration of prosthetics and modern art. Nearby is Louise Bourgeois’s 1985 “Henriette” bronze disembodied leg sculpture, a tribute to her sister’s disability, as well Martin Boyce’s “Phantom and Fall” that uses pieces of an Eames leg splint in an Alexander Calder-like mobile. It responds to the brutality and playfulness of the 1930s and 40s, as well as the uncomfortable dissociation of form from function in our appreciation of postwar design. Alongside are objects by artists who turned their craft to military service, such as Anna Coleman Ladd (whose work was previously covered on Hyperallergic), a neoclassical sculptor who made new faces for soldiers mutilated by World War I.
Lisa Le Feuvre, The Body Extended curator and head of sculpture studies at the Henry Moore Institute, told Hyperallergic that at the time the Eameses reached out to the US military, many wartime amputations were due to the inability to remove the wounded from battlefields. Existing metal splints could also cause more damage with their vibrations. A set of perforated metal Levis splints from around 1890 are exhibited alongside the Eames splint in The Body Extended, demonstrating the technology that preceded their design.
“They developed three devices: first in 1942 a leg splint, then an arm splint and a body litter — the latter two going no further than prototype,” Le Feuvre said. “Made of plywood, the splint was bonded with resin glue and shaped to Charles Eames’ own leg using heat and pressure. Its slatted form enabled medical workers to pass cloth through the splint and secure the patient’s leg. Lightweight, it was utilitarian and modular, simple to manufacture and transport in large numbers.”
Some 5,000 were ordered by the Navy annually, each model, created by Molded Plywood Division, stamped with the label “Eames Process.” According to BBC, around 150,000 were manufactured throughout World War II. Alex Ronan wrote last year for Dwell that its success, including a large order from the Air Force, “allowed Charles to quit his day job and the practice of shaping plywood facilitated the subsequent development of the LCW.”
The LCW, or Lounge Chair Wood, designed from 1945 to 46 demonstrates the evolution of their plywood molding post-World War II. Its three bending planes, each created from plywood, would continue to inform the Eameses’ work throughout their careers. You can even see a shadow of the leg splint in their enduring lounge chair. Introduced in 1956, its leather cushions are cradled by molded plywood, the curving shape having a delicate touch and concern for the human body that echoes the medical design.
The Body Extended: Sculpture and Prosthetics continues at the Henry Moore Foundation (74 The Headrow, Leeds, England) through October 23.