Debate Style

In honor of tomorrow night’s third and final Presidential debate of this election, I thought I’d take a look back at a couple of the past debates and point out the true winners …in design.

1960 Presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon

The first televised debate, in Chicago, Illinois, 1960,  is famously known for staging the cool, calm John F. Kennedy Jr. against the sweaty Richard M. Nixon.  But, did you know it also featured the elegantly designed chairs of Hans Wegner?  Known simply as The Chair, it was designed in 1949.

The Chairs, 1949, used in the 1960 debate are now a part of The Smithsonian Museum’s collection.

Hans Wegner was born in 1914 and lived until 2007.  He was a Danish designer known the world over for his sleek, sometimes historically referential  and always modern designs.  Also visible in the picture below are four gentlemen seated just in front of the stage, though the picture is quite dark, they appear to be seated in office armchairs designed by Charles and Ray Eames.

1960 Presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon, full stage view

If not by Eames, these four chairs were certainly influenced by his Office series furniture.  These particular chairs, known as DAT-1, were introduced in 1953.  D.A.T. stands for Desk Armchair Tilt.  They were part of the Eames Office series and were the first chair to offer the ability to tilt back in your seat.

1953 Eames DAT-1 chair, shown here in a lighter color than was used at the debate.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN SEYFRIED

This was not the last time an Eames chair would make an appearance at a Presidential debate.  After the 1960 debate, there was not another until 1976 – and Eames was there.  In San Francisco, California, 1976, it was incumbent Jimmy Carter debating President Gerald Ford.

Carter and Ford at their podiums with Eames chairs behind them.

The chair behind each gentleman is the EC 118 by Eames.  It was introduced in 1970.  It is very similar in appearance to the DAT-1, although it is at a taller height and has a round foot rail near the base.

The Eames EC 118, 1970
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN SEYFRIED

While the podiums from the 1976 debate appear to be in The Smithsonian’s collection, I was unable to find the chairs.  These same chairs were in the Vice Presidential date of that year, with Bob Dole and Walter Mondale in Houston, Texas.

Mondale and Dole debate with the E 118 in the background
AP PHOTOS

In both of the above cases, the chairs that were used, were relatively new designs.  In 1960, they were using designs from 1949 and 1953.  At the 1976 debate, they used chairs that had been designed only 6 years earlier.  But the iconic designs of Charles and Ray Eames have made it into the 21st Century.  Upon first glance at the set for the first debate between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, I was totally bored!  There was nothing.  No chairs,and the podiums were standard issue.  Then the camera zoomed out and we caught a glimpse of Jim Lehrer’s chair.

Jim Lehrer and his chair steal the show at the first residential debate of 2012 between Obama and Romney.

How exciting! An Eames chair!  All the way from 1958!  Mr. Lehrer is seated in the Eames Aluminum Management Chair, part of a series of aluminum furniture created by Charles and Ray Eames.  Originally designed for the residence of J. Irwin Miller, designed by the architects Eero Saarinen and Alexander Girard.

The Eames Aluminum Management Chair, part of the Eames Aluminum Group series, 1958, produced by Herman Miller

This is a little sidetrack, but I wanted to include a picture of the house that J. Irwin Miller had built by Saarinen and Girard and where this chair originally went.  Miller was an interesting and important figure in the patronage of Modern architecture in the 1950s and 60s, and he and his house deserve a mention.  The house is now a part of the collection at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

The Miller House, 1957
INDIANAPOLIS MUSEUM OF ART

The set of the second debate between Romney and Obama left me wanting more.  All it takes is an Eames chair, so I think I’m pretty easily satisfied!  But the wooden bar stools with blue upholstery and the tall metal plant stand-looking tables left me thinking, who designed this?  I’m still trying to figure out where they’re from.  Does anyone have them at home?

The second Presidential debate set at Hofstra University.
BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES

Perhaps I shouldn’t judge too harshly; maybe it was the simplicity of the second set which allowed for a more exciting debate.  Although, I like to think that good design excites the mind and creates a better dialogue.  Happy debating!

4 Comments

Filed under As Seen On TV

4 responses to “Debate Style

  1. Matthew

    AWESOME. You should let Kai Ryssdal know about this (Marketplace host)

  2. Pat Richardson

    Very interesting and think this deserves some notice and debate.

  3. Michael

    Very interesting! How is it that the set decorator has a tie with Eames? Who has the commercial manufacturing rights to these chairs, or are there a lot of “Eames-style chairs” out there?

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