Charles and Ray Eames’s work transformed homes, schools, and offices all over America in the 1950s and ’60s, but not all of the prolific duo’s designs made it into production. Now, the retailer Vitra and the Eames Office are collaborating to manufacture a design that’s never been made before: a radio with a molded plywood frame.
The Eameses designed the radio in the 1940s, after the end of World War II. At the time, their office was more of a manufacturer than a design studio, according to Eames Demetrios, the office’s current director and the duo’s grandson. The duo were perfecting their molded plywood technique, which they used to create splints for injured soldiers, a now-classic chair, and even airplane wings. Many conventional materials were scarce after the war–including among makers of electronics, like radios.
“As a result there was a real need for radio manufacturers to use a tried and true technology–the molded plywood that [the Eameses] invented,” Demetrios says.
Radio companies were soon asking the office to manufacture molded plywood cabinets for their radio designs, of which the Eames Office ended up manufacturing hundreds of thousands.
Unsurprisingly, the Eameses also came up with their own radio designs–including the 1946 model that Vitra is finally realizing. At the time, however, radio producers ultimately rejected the duo’s work in favor of their own designs, and the Eameses’ radios were never mass-produced. “They were too modern, you might say,” Demetrios says. “I think people look at the Eameses work today and it’s so iconic that people think that they were successful since the beginning. But in the 1940s, they were like any startup today trying to make things work.”
To revitalize the stylish design, which has a rounded plywood frame, a classic black face with 16 speaker holes, and a few knobs and dials, the Eames Office and Vitra partnered with the British manufacturer Revo, which has expertise in producing speakers. The new design uses the molded plywood technique, but it has some modern twists: It’s outfitted with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth so you can stream your digital music easily.
The process was not without challenges: The team had to slightly tweak the design to ensure that music would properly play through the holes in the wood at high sound quality. But according to Demetrios, it’s all part of the revival process–updating it actually stays true to the Eameses’s philosophy.
“When they designed things, they were always improving them and trying to make them better,” he says. “It wouldn’t make sense to make a radio with vacuum tubes in it.”
The radio costs $999. Only 50 are available for purchase at the MoMA Design Store through the end of 2018. It will be sold in a limited run at Vitra stores in 2019.