Charles (1907-1978) and Ray (1912-1988) Eames were a husband-and-wife design team that are widely regarded as some of the most influential practitioners of modern design in the 20th century. Based in the same California studio they kept throughout their career, they created an astonishingly diverse body of work that included moulded plywood splints, chairs, short films, exhibition designs, lesson plans, and even children’s toys. Even their house, built as part of an initiative for the design of post-war housing, has become an established symbol of American Modern Design. Although united by an intense passion for design and a romantic partnership, before they met Charles and Ray’s paths were very different.
Before they met: Charles Eames
Born in 1907, Charles Ormand Eames grew up in St Louis, Missouri where his father, a keen amateur photographer, worked in railway security. When Charles was seven, his father was shot in a robbery, and eventually he died six years later. Charles helped to support the family with part-time jobs, but still excelled at school. His class yearbook described him as ‘a man with ideals, courage to stand up for them and ability to live up to them.’ After high school, he won an architecture scholarship to Washington University in St Louis where he met a fellow student, Catherine Woermann. The two would marry in 1929. Catherine’s father paid for them to honeymoon in Europe, where they saw the work of Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe and Walter Gropius. A year later, their daughter Lucia was born (1930-2014).
Back in St Louis, Charles opened his first architectural office. Although initially this office won commissions for houses, it folded in the Depression era. After eight months away, on what Charles called his "On The Road tour" in Mexico, he eventually set up another practice in 1935. At the time, Charles was asked to design a house for the Meyers, friends of theirs. He sought the advice of the architect Eliel Saarinen who had offered him a fellowship at Cranbrook Academy of Art, where Charles soon became head of the Department of Industrial Design. At Cranbrook, Charles deepened his working relationship with Eliel's son Eero—with whom he would win the 1940 Museum of Modern Art Organic Furniture Competition—and found new collaborators notably Harry Bertoia and, later, Ray Kaiser.
Before they met: Ray Eames (née Bernice Alexandra Kaiser)
Born in Sacramento, California in 1912 as Bernice (Ray) Alexandra Kaiser, Ray came from a close, creative family. Her father was a theatre manager-turned-insurance salesman and both parents encouraged her love of art, film and dance. After her father's death in 1929, Ray and her mother moved to New York's Bennett College to be closer to her brother, an army cadet at West Point. After graduating, Ray moved to Manhattan and enrolled at the Art Students League and studied painting under Hans Hofmann. While at the Art Students League she was involved with the American Abstract Artists Group, and had her first show at the Riverside Museum, in New York. When her mother died in 1940, Ray enrolled at Cranbrook, where she audited a variety of subjects. While at Cranbrook, Ray and Charles met and fell in love. Charles divorced Catherine in May, 1941, and married Ray, in Chicago, a month later.
The Beginnings of Charles and Ray Eames
The newly married duo set off for a long honeymoon drive to their new home in Los Angeles. In LA, Charles found work as a set architect on MGM movies like ‘Mrs. Miniver’. Ray started painting but would soon be working on cover designs for the California Art & Architecture magazine. (By 1947, Ray had created 26 covers for the publication, often relying on collaging techniques.). At night, they conducted plywood experiments in their apartment. The last thing the landlord expected when he rented a modest Richard Neutra-designed apartment on Strathmore Avenue, in the Los Angeles suburb of Westwood, to a newly married couple in 1941 was for the spare bedroom to be turned into a workshop. No sooner had Charles and Ray Eames moved in than they kitted out that room with a home-made moulding machine into which they fed the woods and glues that Charles sneaked home from his day.
It was on this machine—dubbed the "Kazam!" after the saying "Ala Kazam!" because the plywood formed in the mould like magic—that the Eames produced their first mass-manufactured product, a moulded plywood leg splint based on a plaster mould of Charles' own leg. A year later, the US Navy, then in the midst of WW2, placed an order for 5,000. (It is estimated that by the end of World War II over 150,000 splints had been made for the Navy.)
That first US Navy order enabled the Eames to rent an office on Santa Monica Boulevard in 1942, where they established their studio, and to gather talented staff including Harry Bertoia (who had designed Ray's wedding ring), and Gregory Ain. Continuing their experiments, they produced sculpture, chairs, screens, tables and even toy animals in moulded plywood. All the Eames' plywood designs combined an elegant organic aesthetic with a love of materials and technical ingenuity. George Nelson, head designer at Herman Miller, the US furniture group, persuaded the company to put some of the Eames’ designs into production.
Case Study: Houses
The same love for materials, mastery of techniques, and understanding of design problems were also apparent in the showroom they designed for Herman Miller in 1949, and in the Case Study Houses, a low cost housing project sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine. Case Study House 8—a steel structure with sliding walls and windows— would become ‘The Eames House’. Designed for cheap, speedy construction, it took five men 16 hours to raise the steel shell and one man three days to build the roof deck. Spacious, light and versatile, the vividly coloured Eames House was described by the design historian Pat Kirkham as looking like ‘a Mondrian-style composition in a Los Angeles meadow’.
Unsurprisingly, the house and its contents epitomised Charles and Ray's approach to design and their ‘good life’ concept of celebrating the beauty of everyday objects as well as precious ones. At the house, a dried-out tumbleweed they picked up while on their honeymoon hung alongside a Franz Kline painting. Toys, masks, and other folkloric souvenirs collected from their travels were laid out on tables next to stones, buttons, pieces of bark and favourite books. The British architects, Peter and Alison Smithson, described the house as ‘a cultural gift parcel’. Its fusion of the mass-manufactured and folkloric appeared in the Eames films and graphic projects, like their 1952 interlocking House of Cards game, for which Eliel Saarinen coined the term ‘spiritual function’.
Charles and Ray sustained this spirit also in the way they dressed: he in open-necked shirts and loose pants, she in a bohemian version of a conventionally feminine wardrobe of short-sleeved blouses and full skirts. Charles and Ray were best man and maid of honour at the Las Vegas drive through chapel wedding of the film director Billy Wilder and his wife Audrey. The Wilders, who later commissioned a sadly unbuilt house from them, remarked that Ray's idea of formal dress was to put on a clean blouse and Charles' take on black tie was literally to wear a black tie.
Besides plywood, the Eameses focused on equally zealous experiments with other materials by creating furniture in fibreglass, plastic, aluminium, and, for the 1956 Lounge Chair, leather and a very opulent plywood. The Lounge Chair became an icon of the 1960s and 1970s—no ambitious executive had made it until there was one in his, (or very occasionally) her office—but what characterizes all the designs is the Eameses belief that the role of the designer was that of a good, thoughtful host, anticipating the needs of the guest. Their collaboration with Herman Miller continued and, in 1957, extended to Vitra, its European manufacturing partner.
The tireless and ever curious Eameses also began a long-lasting relationship with IBM. For IBM, Eames Office developed exhibitions focused on computers and mathematical ideas, and even gardens, such as Mathematica (1961), A Computer Prospective (1971), and The Philosophical Gardens (1974). Remarkably, they also worked on the IBM pavilion for the New York World’s Fair of 1964, which Charles, Ray and Eero Saarinen began working on as early as 1960. The Eames Office was also responsible for creating the displays, graphics and film featured at the pavilion, which went alongside IBM products and the exhibition Mathematica: A World of Numbers and beyond.
The Eames were also seemingly blessed with good timing. There were no shortage of empathetic corporate partners in the expanding US post-war economy at a time of rapid advances in materials and production processes and their democratic view of design struck a chord in an era of growing affluence. Throughout the 1950s, their furniture was exhibited in the Good Design displays with which MoMA (New York), sought to raise the public's awareness of design.
A Message to Share
The Eames' furniture, especially elegant office chairs such as the Lounge and Aluminium Series, now seem synonymous with mid-20th century Corporate America. However, Charles and Ray were equally influential at making respectable the then-neglected folk crafts not only in the US but also in India, for which they produced the 1958 India Report on how Design issues could help India address modernization without a) losing the nation's core values or b) romanticizing the past to the point of inaction. These concerns dominated their later work in the 1970s when, in addition to a program of constant improvement of their successful furniture designs as well as new pieces, Charles and Ray Eames continued to expand the scope of their practice, propagating their design ideas in exhibitions, books, films and lectures.
Design always remained the centre of their lives, with working days running from 9am to 10pm and a full-time cook on hand so they needn't leave the studio to eat. After Charles' death in 1978, Ray worked hard to complete any unfinished projects but, having done so, did not seek new ones beyond her two remarkable books. She devoted the rest of her life to communicating their ideas through talks and writing. Ray Eames died of cancer on 21 August 1988, ten years to the day after Charles.
To celebrate the extensive work and particular design philosophy produced by Charles and Ray Eames, Charles’s daughter Lucia and her family have created the Eames Foundation to preserve the Eames House and continue to run the Eames Office as a family business with the mission of communicating, preserving and extending the work of Charles and Ray Eames. Scholarship has and continues to celebrate Charles and Ray’s work through monographs and new exhibitions that explore the legacy of this dynamic and influential designer duo.
(Portrait) Ray and Charles Eames, © Eames Office, LLC (eamesoffice.com).
A detail of the Eames House (also known as Case Study House No. 8), built in 1949, designed by Charles and Ray Eames, © Eames Office, LLC (eamesoffice.com).
Detail of Charles and Ray Eames design of a Splint (in original packaging), Design Museum.
Detail of Eames Elephant, designed by Charles & Ray Eames, © Vitra.
Detail of La Chaise, designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1948, Design Museum.
Detail of Eames House Bird, designed by Charles and Ray Eames, © Vitra.
Detail of House of Cards, designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1986, Design Museum.
Detail of Hang It All, by Charles and Ray Eames, 1953, Wikimedia Commons.
Detail of DCW Side Chair, designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1946, Design Museum.
Charles Eames Jr. is born in St Louis, Missouri, the second child of Adele and Charles Sr., a railway security officer
Bernice Alexandra Kaiser, nicknamed Ray, is born in Sacramento California. Her father is an insurance salesman
While working in Virginia, Charles Eames Sr. is shot by trainrobbers. Injured, he ekes out a living as a journalist only to die in 1919
On graduating from high school, Charles wins an architecture scholarship at Washington University, St Louis
After marrying a fellow student, Catherine Woermann, Charles honeymoons in Europe and discovers the buildings of Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe and Le Corbusier
Back in St Louis, Charles opens an architectural office with Charles Gray. Ray and her widowed mother move to New York
She studies painting with Hans Hofmann and continues until 1939
With a new architectural partner, Robert Walsh, Charles designs the modern-style Meyer House in collaboration with Eliel Saarinen who becomes a friend and in 1938 offers him a fellowship at Cranbrook
Ray enrols at Cranbrook where Charles is teaching industrial design. Charles collaborates with Eero Saarinen on cabinets and chairs for an Organic Design competition at MoMA, New York
Having divorced Catherine, Charles marries Ray in Chicago and they drive to California. They turn a spare room into a plywood workshop
After winning an order from the US Navy for plywood leg splints, the Eames open a design studio on nearby Santa Monica Boulevard
The Plywood Chair goes into production
Charles is the subject of a "one man show" at MoMA, New York at which George Nelson persuades the Herman Miller company to hire him
Charles and Eero Saarinen win MoMA's Low Cost Furniture Competition with a design for a fibreglass chaise longue
Construction begins of the two Case Study Houses designed by the Eames in Pacific Palisades: one for themselves, the other designed with and as a home for the architect John Entenza
The Good Design exhibition series starts at MoMa featuring many of the Eames' designs. They design the (unbuilt) Billy Wilder House
Launch of the first version of the interlocking House of Cards. Henceforth, the Eames are increasingly preoccupied with films, games and puzzles
Lounge Chair goes on sale
The Eames complete an official report into design education in India. Launch of the Aluminium Series of office furniture
After years of making educational and promotional films for IBM, the Eames design the IBM Pavilion at the New York World's Fair
Power of Ten, one of the Eames' most influential films, is produced
Charles Eames dies in Los Angeles
Ray Eames dies ten years to the day after Charles' death
The World of Charles and Ray Eames
Authors: Catherine Ince & Lotte Johnson
Publisher: Thames & Hudson (2015)
Charles and Ray Eames: Objects and Furniture Design
Authors: Patricia de Muga, Sandra Dachs, & Laura Garcia Hintze
Publisher: Ediciones Poligrafa (2007)
Powers of Ten
Authors: Philip Morrison, Phylis Morrison & the Office of Charles & Ray Eames
Publisher: Scientific American Library (1982)
In the Design Museum Collection
House of Cards, Designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1986, Manufactured by Ravensburger, for the Museum of Modern Art (New York).
H 95 x W 60 x D 20 mm.
La Chaise, Designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1948, Manufactured by Vitra.
H 900 x W 1500 x D 800 mm.
Splint (in original packaging), designed by Charles and Ray Eames, Manufactured by Evans Products Company Moulded Plywood Division.
H 100 x W 1800 x D 200 mm.
LAR armchair, Designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1948, Manufactured by Herman Miller.
H 615 x W 630 x D 620 mm.
Coffee Table, Designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1949, Manufactured by Herman Miller.
H 390 x W 865 x D 865 mm.
Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe