Not only did CHARLES EAMES (1907-1978) and his wife, RAY (1912-1988) design some of the most important examples of 20th century furniture, they also applied their talents to devising ingenious children’s toys, puzzles, films, exhibitions and such iconic mid-20th century Los Angeles buildings as the Eames House and Entenza House in Pacific Palisades.
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 job as a set architect on MGM movies like Mrs Miniver.
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 plywood leg splint based on a plaster mould of Charles’ own leg. A year later, the US Navy placed an order for 5,000 splints and the Eames moved their workshop out of their apartment into a rented studio on nearby Santa Monica Boulevard.
The combination of visionary design and ingenuity that had prompted Charles and Ray Eames prototype a mass-manufactured product in their spare room was to characterise their work over the next four decades. Together they not only designed some of the most influential and innovative furniture of the late 20th century, but through their films, teaching, writing and their life together in the house they designed in Pacific Palisades, they defined an open, organic, emotionally expressive approach to design and lifestyle.
Both Charles and Ray were the youngest of two children in middle-class families and gifted students with a flair for art: otherwise their backgrounds were very different. 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 eight, his father was injured in a robbery and died four 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, whom he married in 1929. Her father paid for them to honeymooon in Europe where they saw the work of Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe and Walter Gropius.
Back in St Louis, Charles opened an architectural office which won commissions for houses only to fold in the depression. After eight months away on what he called his “On The Road tour” in Mexico, Charles set up another practise in 1935 and was asked to design a house for the Meyers, friends of Catherine’s. He sought the advice of the architect Eliel Saarinen who offered him a fellowship to study architecture and design at Cranbrook Academy. There, Charles deepened his friendship with Eliel and his son Eero – with whom he won the 1940 Museum of Modern Art Organic Furniture Competition – and found new collaborators notably Harry Bertoia and, later, Ray Kaiser.
Born in Sacramento, Calfiornia in 1912 as Bernice 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 to be closer to her brother, an army cadet at West Point. Ray enrolled at the Art Students League and studied painting under Hans Hoffman. When her mother died in 1940, Ray moved to Cranbrook, where she met and fell in love with Charles. He divorced Catherine in May, 1941 and married Ray in Chicago a month later. They set off for a long honeymoon drive to their new home in Los Angeles. On the journey, they picked up a tumbleweed from the road which still hangs from the ceiling of the Eames House today.
In LA, Charles found work at MGM and Ray created covers for California Art & Architecture magazine. At night, they conducted plywood experiments in their apartment. The US Navy order enabled the Eames to rent an office on Santa Monica Boulevard in 1942 and to gather a group of collaborators 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 plywood. Herman Miller, the US furniture group, was persuaded to put some of these pieces into production by George Nelson, its head of design. All the Eames’ plywood combined an elegant organic aesthetic with a love of materials and technical ingenuity.
These qualities were also apparent in the showroom they designed for Herman Miller in 1949 and the Case Study Houses, a low cost housing project sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine which included the Eames House, a steel structure with sliding walls and windows. 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. The dried-out tumbleweed from their honeymoon hung alongside a Robert Motherwell 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 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. The film director Billy Wilder and his wife Audrey, who befriended the Eames after commissioning 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. Ray’s self-consciously feminine guise underscored the role she adopted within their relationship of Charles’ younger, adoring protege and underplaying her contribution to their work, which contrasts with the picture of painted by Charles himself of a gifted, energetic woman.
After plywood, the Eames 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 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 Charles always expressed a preference for his earlies, less expensive plywood designs.
Their collaboration with Herman Miller continued and extended to Vitra, its European partner. The Eames also began a long-lasting relationship with IBM for which they made films and designed exhibitions. Like all important designers, the Eames were 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 shows with which MoMA, New York sought to raise the public’s awareness of design.
The Eames’ furniture, especially elegant office chairs such as the Lounge and Aluminium Series, now seem synonymous with mid-20th century Corporate America, but Charles and Ray equally influential at making respectable the then-neglected folkcrafts not only in the US but in India, for which they produced the 1950s Eames Report on raising standards of design training. These concerns dominated their later work in the 1970s when, able to live comfortably on their Herman Miller and Vitra royalties, they concentrated their creative energy on propagating their ideas in exhibitions, books and films.
Work 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 – until Charles’ death in 1978. Ray then worked hard to complete any unfinished projects but, having done so, did not seek new ones. 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.