Charles and Ray Eames

Eames Aluminum Group

Charles (1907–1978) and Ray Eames (1912–1988) were husband and wife American designers who made significant historical contributions to the development of modern architecture and furniture. Among their most well-known designs is the ‘Eames Lounge Chair.’ They also worked in the fields of industrial and graphic design, fine art, and film.

Charles was an American designer, architect and filmmaker. He and his second wife Ray Kaiser are responsible for groundbreaking contributions in the field of architecture, furniture design, industrial design, manufacturing and the photographic arts.

He briefly studied architecture at Washington University in St. Louis on an architecture scholarship. After two years of study, he left the university. Many sources claim that he was dismissed for his advocacy of Frank Lloyd Wright and his interest in modern architects. The university reportedly dropped him because of his ‘too modern’ views. Other sources, less frequently cited, note that while a student, Charles Eames also was employed as an architect at the firm of Trueblood and Graf. The demands on his time from this employment and from his classes led to sleep-deprivation and diminished performance at the university.

While at Washington University, he met his first wife, Catherine Woermann, whom he married in 1929. A year later, they had a daughter, Lucia Jenkins. In 1930, Charles began his own architectural practice in St. Louis with partner Charles Gray. They were later joined by a third partner, Walter Pauley.

Charles Eames was greatly influenced by the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen (whose son Eero, also an architect, would become a partner and friend). At the elder Saarinen’s invitation, Charles moved in 1938 with his wife Catherine and daughter Lucia to Michigan, to further study architecture at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he would become a teacher and head of the industrial design department. In order to apply for the Architecture and Urban Planning Program, Eames defined an area of focus—the St. Louis waterfront.

Together with Eero Saarinen he designed prize-winning furniture for New York’s Museum of Modern Art ‘Organic Design in Home Furnishings’ competition. Their work displayed the new technique of wood moulding (originally developed by Alvar Aalto), that Eames would further develop in many moulded plywood products, including chairs and other furniture, and splints and stretchers for the US Navy during World War II.

In 1941, Charles and Catherine divorced and he married his Cranbrook colleague Bernice ‘Ray’ Kaiser, who was born in Sacramento, California. He then moved with her to Los Angeles, where they worked and lived until their deaths. In the late 1940s, as part of the Arts & Architecture magazine’s ‘Case Study’ program, the Eames designed and built the groundbreaking Eames House, ‘Case Study House #8,’ as their home. Located upon a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean and hand-constructed within a matter of days entirely of pre-fabricated steel parts intended for industrial construction, it remains a milestone of modern architecture.

In 1970 and 1971, Charles Eames gave the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University. At the lectures, the Eames viewpoint and philosophy are related through Charles’ own telling of what he called ‘the banana leaf parable,’ a banana leaf being the most basic eating utensil in southern India. He related the progression of design and its process where the lowest castes have only the banana leaf to eat with, and as you move higher through the caste system the eating utensils and dishes become more ornate, moving from plants, to ceramics, to precious metals. But, he observed, at the very highest level of society, individuals sometimes eschew the finery and resort back to using simple banana leaves.

Ray Eames was an American artist, designer, and filmmaker. She credited her parents with teaching her the value of enjoyment which later led to inventions in furniture design and toys. Her parents also instilled an appreciation of nature. After having lived in a number of cities during her youth and after her father’s death, in 1933 she graduated from Bennett Women’s College in Millbrook, New York, and moved to New York City, where she studied abstract expressionist painting with Hans Hofmann. She was a founder of the ‘American Abstract Artists’ group in 1936 and displayed paintings in their first show a year later in 1937 at Riverside Museum in Manhattan. One of her paintings is in the permanent collection of The Whitney Museum of American Art (as is one by Hans Hofmann). Ray lived alone in New York City until she was called home to be with her ailing mother, who died in 1940.

Afterward her mother passed, on the advice of Ben Baldwin, an architect and friend, she began studies at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. She learned a variety of arts, not limiting herself to abstract painting. She worked with Harry Bertoia, Eero Saarinen, Charles Eames, and others on the display panels for the exhibition ‘Organic Design in Home Furnishings’ at Museum of Modern Art. Ray married Charles Eames in 1941. Settling in Los Angeles, California, Charles and Ray Eames began an outstanding career in design and architecture.

The design process between Ray and Charles was strongly collaborative. After marriage the couple moved to California to continue their molded plywood furniture design and, in a later period, plastic. The graphic and commercial artwork can be clearly attributed to Ray, she designed twenty-six cover designs for the journal ‘Arts & Architecture’ during 1942 to 1948, and a major part of the Eames furniture advertisements at Herman Miller (a company which is still considered the most prolific and influential producer of furniture of the modernist style).

In the late 1940s, Ray Eames created several textile designs, two of which, ‘Crosspatch’ and ‘Sea Things,’ were produced by Schiffer Prints, a company that also produced textiles by Salvador Dalí and Frank Lloyd Wright. Two of her textile patterns were distinguished with awards in a textile competition (organized by MoMa). She worked on graphics for advertising, magazine covers, posters, timelines, game boards, invitations, and business cards. Original examples of Ray Eames textiles can be found in many art museum collections. The Ray Eames textiles have been re-issued by Maharam as part of their Textiles of the Twentieth Century collection.

In the 1950s, the Eameses continued their work in architecture and modern furniture design. As with their earlier molded plywood work, they pioneered technologies, such as fiberglass furniture, plastic resin chairs, and the wire mesh chairs designed for Herman Miller. From the beginning, the Eames furniture has usually been listed as by Charles Eames. In the 1948 and 1952 Herman Miller bound catalogs, only Charles’ name is listed, but it later became clear that Ray was deeply involved and was an equal partner with her husband in many projects.

Charles and Ray channeled Charles’ interest in photography into the production of 125 short films. From their first film, the unfinished ‘Traveling Boy’ (1950), to ‘Powers of Ten’ (re-released in 1977), to their last film in 1982, their cinematic work was an outlet for ideas and a vehicle for experimentation and education. The couple often produced short films in order to document their interests, such as collecting toys and cultural artifacts on their travels. The films also record the process of hanging their exhibits or producing classic furniture designs. Some of their other films cover more intellectual topics. For example, one film covers the purposely mundane topic of filming soap suds moving over the pavement of a parking lot. ‘Powers of Ten’ (narrated by physicist Philip Morrison), gives a dramatic demonstration of orders of magnitude by visually zooming away from the earth to the edge of the universe, and then microscopically zooming into the nucleus of a carbon atom.

The Eameses also conceived and designed a number of exhibitions. The first of these, ‘Mathematica: A World of Numbers… and Beyond’ (1961), was sponsored by IBM, and is the only one of their exhibitions still extant. The exhibition is still considered a model for science popularization exhibitions. It was followed by ‘A Computer Perspective: Background to the Computer Age’ (1971) and ‘The World of Franklin and Jefferson’ (1975–1977), among others.

The design office of Charles and Ray Eames functioned for more than four decades (1943–1988) in the former Bay Cities Garage at 901 Washington Boulevard in Venice, California. Through the years, its staff included many notable designers: Henry Beer and Richard Foy, now co-chairmen of CommArts, Inc.; Don Albinson; Deborah Sussman; Annette Del Zoppo; Peter Jon Pearce; Harry Bertoia; and Gregory Ain, who was Chief Engineer for the Eameses during World War II.

Eames products were also manufactured on Washington Boulevard until the 1950s. Among the many important designs originating there are the molded-plywood DCW (Dining Chair Wood) and DCM (Dining Chair Metal with a plywood seat) (1945); Eames Lounge Chair (1956); the Aluminum Group furniture (1958); the Eames Chaise (1968), designed for Charles’s friend, film director Billy Wilder; the playful Do-Nothing Machine (1957), an early solar energy experiment; and a number of toys.

Not limiting themselves to furniture design, Ray and Charles developed a leg splint using the material they had for the furniture in the guest bedroom of their apartment. With the introduction of plywood splints, they were able to replace problematic metal traction splints that had side effects of inducing gangrene due to impairment of blood circulation.

Charles Eames died of a heart attack in 1978 while on a consulting trip in his native Saint Louis, and was buried in the Calvary Cemetery there. After Charles’s death, the Eames Office was disbanded. Ray worked on several unfinished projects (e.g. a German version of the ‘Mathematica’ exhibition), was a consultant to IBM, published books, and administered the Eames archive and estate. Ray Eames died in Los Angeles in 1988, ten years to the day after Charles. They are buried next to each other in Calvary Cemetery. Charles once said of his wife: ‘Anything I can do, Ray can do better.’

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