When Artist Saul Steinberg Reimagined an Icon

The Eames Institute of Infinite Curiosity recently debuted ‘Steinberg Meets the Eameses,’ an exploration of the designers’ relationship with the 20th-century modernist.

Observer described him as “the best-loved nonwriter in the history of The New Yorker.” Herman Miller’s WHY dubbed him an “enthusiastic indoorsman.” Interiors magazine said he was a “chronicler of the absurd.” And legendary design duo Ray and Charles Eames called him a friend.

Steinberg’s shell chair sketches. Library of Congress; P&P

I’m referring, of course, to Romanian-American artist Saul Steinberg—he of the minimal modernist cartoons with a distinctive style that most people of a certain age will recognize, even if they cannot pair it with a name.

The friendship between the artist and the designers was a collaborative one. It began in the summer of 1950, when Steinberg and his wife, the artist Hedda Sterne, landed in Los Angeles after Steinberg’s aborted attempt to work as Gene Kelly’s hand double on “An American in Paris.” Kelly and the couple remained on friendly terms, and their California social circle grew to include Igor Stravinsky, Christopher Isherwood, Billy Wilder and Oscar Levant.

The fiberglass shell chair with the Steinberg Cat. Vitra, Tom Ziora

Steinberg and Sterne were already acquainted with the Eames, having been introduced, via letter, by Bernard Rudofsky prior to their relocation to the West Coast. Their correspondence was cordial, but once the artists arrived in L.A., a deeper friendship with creative undertones took root. They played with filmmaking and photography—once projecting Saul’s drawings onto Ray and Hedda and capturing the results in pictures that are, in some cases, close to becoming Cubist portraits. Steinberg, known for whipping up ‘false documents’ for friends, made ersatz diplomas for Charles Eames. And one day, at the Eames Office in Venice in the makeshift photo studio where the Eameses documented their designs, Charles gave Saul free rein to draw what he liked, on whatever he liked.

That particular encounter forms the foundation of Steinberg Meets the Eameses, an exhibition currently at the Eames Institute of Infinite Curiosity. While relatively small, it presents a striking collection of artifacts and ephemera documenting and exploring the relationship between these creative powerhouses.

Steinberg’s shell chair nude. Vitra, Tom Ziora

“The interconnection of Steinberg’s ideas and how this overlapped into the designs of my grandparents is incredible,” Llisa Demetrios, the Eames’ youngest granddaughter and the Institute’s Chief Curator, in a statement. “I think this collaboration is exemplative of how they liked to create—always open to another creative iteration, going beyond what’s expected.”

The exhibition catalog. Nicholas Calcott / Eames Institute of Infinite Curiosity

The show is a particular treat for those of us who are both art lovers and Eames lovers. Highlights include images of an early prototype of the La Chaise lounge draped with a Steinberg nude, a fiberglass shell chair cuddling a cozy curled-up cat and another shell chair transformed into a woman, her drawn legs stretched out and demurely crossed at the ankles. Steinberg actually created an entire vignette, sketching a face on an LCW that supported a little person balancing on one hand and another cat on a cloth-covered folding chair, along with several other silly characters.

Today, only two of the original Steinberg-painted chairs—the chair with cat and the shell nude—remain in the Eames Collection (and have been widely shown), but the photographs are an affecting reminder of the magic that can happen when creative minds meet.

The World Of Charles And Ray Eames
The Steinberg chairs at The World of Charles and Ray Eames exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery in 2015. Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Barbican Art Gallery

Steinberg Meets the Eameses will be on view at the Eames Institute in Petaluma, California (and on the institute’s website) indefinitely. The June opening of the exhibition coincided with the launch of Herman Miller’s limited-release recreation of the Eames Fiberglass Armchair with Steinberg Cat, which has sadly since sold out.

When Artist Saul Steinberg Reimagined an Icon