Miles Davis, and a piece of modernist furniture – So What!
Click here to listen to a recording - Miles Davis (So What)
Imagine yourself listening to this recording late at night, single malt in one hand, a fine
cigar in the other. If you had to pick a chair from the canon of 1950s classics to enjoy it
from, which would it be? The answer is obvious. The only suitable luxury for such aural
delights is the Eames Lounge. But there is more uniting these two works of art than
immediately meets the eye...or ear.
Kind of Blue is a monument to experiments in modal music. Modes were a way of
limiting the number of notes a musician could use; it is essentially the same basic
harmonic structure as Gregorian chant. A stark contrast to the frantic, mathematic
improvisations of bebop and with the electronic fusion of the late 60s and 70s. Indeed,
the album is arguably jazz at its purest moment, a time where what we hear is an
organic, faithful representation of what the musicians recorded, before the engineers
took over with their scissors a decade later.
The famous So What! 1959 video recording shows how Davis allows space between his
phrases. Davis' approach to improvisation on Kind of Blue as being 'economic' with
sound. Whilst the Eames Lounge was historically expensive, it fits the criteria of the
modern aesthetic because it is economic in style, like so many other classics from the
period. The simplicity of its silhouette make it instantly recognizable, like Davis' muted
But both the chair and the music defy any attempt to summarize it as neatly as I have
just attempted to do. The rich, dark colours of black leather and rosewood veneer are
almost an entire universe away from Saarinen's Pedestal breakthrough, which utilizes
cold plastic, aluminium and an upright sitting position. The Pedestal furniture is perhaps
a more appropriate singular icon for modern design. Or is it? Charles and Ray's creation
is hugely innovative, complex and time absorbing to assemble, and, it is luxurious. This
is perhaps its most problematic feature; a chair intended not just for mere comfort, but
an opulence of comfort. Designed to elevate the sitter's feat, supporting all parts of the
body; head, arms, back, shoulders.
In the same way, So What! also features the soloing of John Coltrane, whose style is
abrasive to some, like the star shaped legs of the chair, and whose 'sheets of sound'
approach to improvisation contrasts with Davis' 'less is more' philosophy. Whilst
Saarinen achieved his goal of clearing the 'storm' of legs with his pedestal, adhering to
the modernist aesthetic of simplicity and unity of form, the Eameses' is almost a vision
of American capitalist excess; leather, rosewood, steel. It suggests industrial success.
Moreover, it has often been found sat in the offices and homes of wealthy businessmen
and artists alike. It might not surprise us that Miles Davis himself owned an Eames
Thomas Hine, in a book celebrating 50 years of the Eames Lounge chair, writes a
chapter discussing sightings of the chair. The chair, and everything it symbolizes, has, in
its relatively brief lifetime, permeated into the modern consciousness, much like the way
in which Davis' music crops up in Tom Cruise films, U2 lyrics and preachers' sermons.
Both chair and album have a wider appeal than jazz buffs and modern design experts.
Kind of Blue is both popular, being the most downloaded jazz album from iTunes, and
heralded as a crucial point in Twentieth Century musical innovation. Design historians
canonize the chairs, and designers, of the decades preceding the 1950s as leading
towards the ultimate; the Eames Lounge. Such a writing of history itself seems to be
It is the cultural conflict they both embody that gives them such wide appeal, and why
they both remain emblematic of the 1950s, and such evocative forces today.