Charles and Ray Eames

Recognition

1977 AIGA Medal

Born

Charles: 1907, St. Louis, Missouri
Ray: 1912, Sacramento, California

Deceased

Charles: 1978, St. Louis, Missouri
Ray: 1988, Los Angeles, California

Recognized for helping to shape the forms of American design in our time

No American designer—or studio—dominated the fertile decades after World War II like Charles and Ray Eames. Their molded plywood chairs, first released in 1946, were declared the “design of the century” in a 1999 issue of Time magazine. The Eames lounge chair, introduced in 1956 by Herman Miller, is still in production; so too are their Aluminum Group (1958) and Executive Seating (1960) collections. As Daniel Ostroff, the editor of An Eames Anthology noted, among the 25 product lines introduced by the husband-and-wife team between 1947 and 1984, 19 are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and 17 are still being made today.

Beyond furniture, the Eameses’ clients included IBM, which hired them to design the company’s pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. In 1972, the duo introduced the world to instant photography with a whimsical promo for the Polaroid SX-70. And at the height of the Cold War, in 1959, the United States government even sent them to Moscow with a 13-minute multiscreen film, Glimpses of the U.S.A. At a certain point, they became not designers, but ambassadors for the American way of life.

In 1938, Charles Ormond Eames, Jr., had a moderately successful architecture practice and a family (his first wife, Catherine, and their daughter Lucia) in his native St. Louis, Missouri. A church he’d designed in 1935 with his partner, Robert T. Walsh got the attention of Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, who became a mentor to Charles. In 1938, Saarinen offered Eames a fellowship to study architecture and design at Cranbrook Academy of Art, in Michigan. Among Charles’s fellow students at Cranbrook were Florence Schust (later Knoll), Benjamin Baldwin, Harry Bertoia, and Eliel Saarinen’s son, Eero, who years later would design St. Louis’s Gateway Arch.

Meanwhile, Bernice Alexandra “Ray” Kaiser, born and raised in Sacramento, California, had spent six years in New York, studying abstract painting with German painter Hans Hofmann. After her mother passed away, Ray’s friends suggested she attend Cranbrook Academy. She applied, and began attending in the fall of 1940. By then Charles Eames was the newly-appointed head of the Industrial Design department at Cranbrook. He and Eero Saarinen had found success with their experiments using molded plywood. On a commission for the U.S. Navy, they patented a technique for “plyformed wood,” as Charles described it in a 1943 essay. “The copyrighted name is given to wood veneers that are bonded together by a resin glue and ‘molded’ or shaped to any form by a process involving heat and pressure. By this process it is possible to shape the bonded veneers into compound curves without straining or breaking the strips of veneers... It is light but very strong for its weight.”

At some point in 1940, Charles’s and Ray’s paths crossed, and they fell “quietly but quickly” in love. Around this time, Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen entered a competition, announced by MoMA, for “Organic Design in Home Furnishings.” Cranbrook students Don Albinson, Harry Bertoia, and Ray Kaiser prepared the models and entry drawings. The team entered in two categories, molded shell chairs and tables, winning first prize in both. In 1941, after divorcing Catherine, Charles married Ray, and the couple moved to Los Angeles to establish their studio. While there, they began to expand on their unique, generous philosophy of design. The role of the architect “is that of a very good, thoughtful host,” Charles said. “One whose energy goes into trying to anticipate the needs of his guests—those who would enter the building and use the objects later.”

The Eameses were modern, but “not -ists of any kind,” Charles remarked. In a 1941 essay published in California Arts & Architecture—a magazine for which Ray would design many covers in the following years—he wrote: “Design today presents the same problem as it always has. The need has changed but the equipment necessary to solve the problem is still the same. The designer should be capable of forming in his own mind a clearer conception of the NEED he is to fill and he should possess a vocabulary of facts regarding materials and techniques adequate enough to enable him to fill the need appropriately and with feeling.”

Their Lounge Chair Wood (LCW) chair, a low-slung molded plywood seat with rubber shocks, made an immediate impact when it was released. “We found that comfort depended less on the perfect molding to the body shape than it did on the way the bone structure was supported,” said Charles, in a 1953 discussion on the San Francisco public television show Discovery. “And that if the structure was supported properly, a hard and rigid material like molded plywood could provide a remarkably high degree of comfort. We limited the solution to a hard surface and concentrated on plywood.”

What they ended up with was two pieces—a seat and a back—in petal-like forms, connected by a central spine and four attached legs. This basic form would be reiterated over and over in the chairs that would follow, whether in aluminum, fiberglass, or leather. Both Charles and Ray often used the phrase “nuts and bolts” when talking about their work, and they proudly developed the techniques and machines with which their products are still produced today. For them, design was not an act of creative self-expression but rather a process of problem-solving, a combination of craft and technology that’s part Bauhaus, part Silicon Valley. “Design depends largely on constraints,” Charles wrote in an essay for a 1969 exhibition at the Louvre Museum.

One constraint was mass production. “To keep the quality in mass production is the only reason we’ve been working so hard. To figure out a way that the hundredth, and the five hundredth, and the thousandth [product] would have the original character,” Ray said in a 1973 interview. It was important that the product would “have in its appearance the essence of the method that produced it,” and that it “would be produced by people working in a dignified way.”

In 1989, The New York Times called Charles “the Benjamin Franklin of American design,” and the Eameses’ brand of modernism “democratic yet still elite.” Even the Eameses’ most famous and expensive creation, the 1956 Lounge Chair, was inspired by more humble origins: “the warm, receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt,” according to Charles. They were just as obsessed with the simple top toy as much as with Mayan temples and Chartres Cathedral. They loved the Windsor chair and the hand ax as much as Native American Kachina dolls and Paul Revere’s silverware. Good design was universal.

A typical example of their homespun philosophy is found in a response to a mother’s letter, asking which design school her son should choose. “If he is really interested in design,” Charles wrote back, “there is no particular need in rushing into specialized design education. Looking, reading, drawing, and drawing, and drawing, and working in the summer if he can.”

In the greater realm of the arts, they went on to make dozens of films, including the extraordinary Powers of Ten in 1977. An exact duplicate of Mathematica, their ingenious exhibition detailing the logic behind numbers, is still on permanent display at the Museum of Science in Boston. And Charles, who wrote hundreds of essays—together the duo penned more than 130,000 documents that are archived at the Library of Congress—also taught and delivered lectures on design until his death from a heart attack in 1978. Ray completed their unfinished projects, and then spent her remaining years organizing, cataloging, and writing about their work. She died on August 21, 1988—exactly ten years after her husband.

Though Charles largely served as the public face of the Eameses, it is important to note the duo’s work as equals. “She [Ray] is equally responsible for everything that comes out of this office,” Charles said. She would sometimes write out their speeches in longhand, which would then be delivered by Charles; and it was this symbiosis that resulted in the finished products. Or, as Charles put it, “The formula is the same for everything.” When asked why she gave up painting, Ray said, “I never gave up painting. I changed my palette.”


Timeline:

1907 Charles Ormond Eames, Jr., born in St. Louis, Missouri

1912 Bernice Alexandra Kaiser (called Ray-Ray, and later Ray) born in Sacramento, California

1925–1928 Charles receives architecture scholarship, enters Washington University (St. Louis); leaves Washington University after sophomore year

1929 Charles marries Catherine Dewey Woermann; visits Europe

1930 Charles and Catherine’s daughter, Lucia Dewey Eames, is born

1930–1933 Charles opens architectural office, Gray & Eames Architects (later Gray, Eames & Pauley) in St. Louis

1931 After graduating from high school in Sacramento, Ray moves to New York with her mother; enters May Friend Bennett School

1933–1939 Ray graduates from May Friend Bennett School; joins Art Students League; studies painting with Hans Hofmann until 1939

1935 Charles opens new architectural firm, Eames & Walsh, in St. Louis; corresponds with Eliel Saarinen

1936–1937 Ray becomes a founding member of American Abstract Artists; exhibits paintings at AAA’s first show in New York

1938 Charles begins studies at Cranbrook Academy of Art with Eero Saarinen

1940 Ray spends four months studying at Cranbrook; Charles and Ray meet and fall in love; Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen enter MoMA’s organic furniture design competition and win two first prizes for their molded wood product designs

1941 Charles divorces his first wife, Catherine; marries Ray Kaiser in Chicago, Illinois; Charles and Ray drive cross country to Los Angeles

1945 Sketches of Case Study House No. 8, later to be known as Eames House, by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen

1945-1946 LCW (Lounge Chair Wood), LCM (Lounge Chair Metal), DCW (Dining Chair Wood), and DCM (Dining Chair Metal) produced

1949 Eames House completed

1950 Eames fiberglass chairs, as well as storage units and wire base tables, are introduced via Herman Miller

1956 Eames Lounge 670 and Ottoman 671 (Eames Lounge Chair)

1959 Glimpses of the U.S.A. film for Moscow exhibition

1961 Mathematica: A World of Numbers… and Beyond exhibition at the California Museum of Science and Industry, Los Angeles

1964 IBM Pavilion for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, in Queens

1971 A Computer Perspective: Background to the Computer Age exhibition 

1977 Powers of Ten short film

1978 Charles Eames dies in St. Louis, Missouri

1988 Ray Eames dies in Los Angeles, California

 


Sources:

Eames, Charles and Ray. An Eames Anthology: Articles, Film Scripts, Interviews, Letters, Notes, and Speeches. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015.

Demetrios, Eames. An Eames Primer: Updated Edition. New York: Universe Publishing, a division of Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., September 2013.

Lange, Alexandra. “How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Eameses?” Design Observer, January 17, 2011. http://designobserver.com/feature/how-do-you-solve-a-problem-like-the-eameses/24008.

Moore, Rowan. “The World of Charles and Ray Eames: Barbican Art Gallery,” The Guardian, October 18, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/oct/18/world-charles-ray-eames-review-barbican-rowan-moore.

Neuhart, John and Marilyn; with Ray Eames. Ray Eames Design: The Work of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, October 1989.

Ostroff, Daniel. Eames + Valastro: Design in the Life of an American Family. Los Angeles: The O Team, 2011.


This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.