Charles and Ray Eames were more than just designers. One of the visual art’s most famous and influential married couples, they redefined much of the world we now surround ourselves. They also touched multiple disciplines, leaving their mark on architecture, furniture design, interior design, exhibition design, toy design, fine art, photography, and film. They saw themselves as educators and they were definitely innovators.
Despite the many types of applied art they had a part of Charles Eames saw himself as an architect first and foremost, while Ray self-described as a painter (although she didn’t really paint much). Like Alexander Calder, they took a playful attitude toward their work in a mission to make work and fun a harmonious unity. They were incredibly successful throughout their career and helped to redefine how people understand information and how it could be displayed. In short, they were two of the most important figures of the last century.
The Eameses are most known for their chairs, many of the designs of which can still be found in corporate offices throughout the world. They were among the first designers to use the new materials plywood and fiberglass in their chair designs. They were also a part of a new movement of designers in the forties and fifties who were turning away from modernism’s fetish for the machine and towards simple organic and natural forms. The styles of chairs they developed for the Herman Miller company would become their trademark and made the career of the Eameses for thirty years afterward. The beauty and functionality of these designs speaks to Eameses’ concern for both aesthetic and technical quality and the pursuit of a central idea which they would work through as they developed their process.
Three of the most popular and innovative Eames chair designs:
The Eameses were not only designers, of course. They made influential experimental films as well as those for educational purposes, their most famous being Powers of Ten, made for IBM and still used in many classrooms today. They designed huge film installations including a beautiful (if such a word is appropriate) propaganda film for the US to be shown in Russia during the height of the Cold War and one on new technology for The New York World’s Fair in 1964.
Both of these were multi-screen projections and pushed the boundaries of what was technologically possible at the time. The Eameses were also the first to use cartoons as a tool for corporate public relations. Charles was able to get the kind of support and freedom from clients for these projects and others which was rare at the time and even rarer now. It was mainly because they knew they were going to get a quality product and that it would be revolutionary in some way, pushing their brand in new and interesting directions.
Powers of Ten:
Glimpses of the USA, American National Exhibition, Moscow:
One area of the Eameses’ work that is often overlooked is the importance of their influence on exhibition design, part of their over-arching mission to find new and creative ways to educate the public. Coming out of the new development of design which mandated a multimedia, exciting, almost over-the-top approach to presenting information, the Eameses began to incorporate in pictures, films, sound, text, and technology to their exhibition projects. They famously designed the successful Mathematica exhibition that can still be found today and many small exhibitions for IBM. The goal was to offer a complex vision that viewers could submerge themselves into and take what they wanted away with them. Their exhibitions were incredibly inclusive although sometimes problematically over-flowing with objects and information, what they proudly described as “information overload.”
Part of what made the Eameses so unique as well as so successful was their approach to process. They did not believe inspiration, stating that hard work was the only way to have consistency in creative pursuits. They believed whole-heartedly that you start with a bunch of bad ideas and work slowly towards a working solution. Depsite their innovative solutions to problems, they believed innovation was the last thing a designer should resort to. One motto was always to design by doing. Another was “to make the best for the most for the least.”
The Eameses took pride in their understanding of the fundamentals of Modernism: the form of an object was always solidly rooted in its function. They believed wholeheartedly in the utopian concept of good design as a tool for improving life and thought that technology was beneficial and would lead to social progress. At the same time they did not disregard the past, looking to it for guidance. They not only tried to revolutionize design but also designing and its relationship to daily life. They wanted to collapse the distance between working and fun, to make them one and the same seamless experience. Life would become rewarding because of work. Charles was famous for putting it succinctly: “Take your pleasure seriously.”
The Eames office in Venice California was its own kind of playful environment, covered over with art and decoration, both finished and in progress. It was often compared to a circus (something which Charles was obsessed with). It was constantly changing form and mutating. When the Eameses were making a film the whole office would transform into a set and then transform back the next day. This playful atmosphere was echoed by many of the objects they created. They were obsessed with making toys for children and adults, masks, and decorative objects which lined the walls of their office. They saw toys as a creative way to teach design principles and craftsmanship and used decoration as a means enlivening their world with brilliant color and shape.
Eames toy blocks:
Detail of the Eames Office, Venice Beach, California:
This playful, colorful atmosphere could also be found in their home in Pacific Palisades, which they designed themselves. It would become the blueprint of the postwar Modernist home, precisely by moving away from the sterility and rigidness of prewar architecture. It was lively and colorful unlike the metallic monochrome of 20’s and 30’s modern houses.The visual culture of the world was very important to them and surrounding themselves with art objects and knick-knacks of all descriptions provided them a potent environment for creativity in both their work and home life.
Exterior and interior of the Eames House, Pacific Palisades, California:
The partnership between the Eameses was strong and lasting, despite at least one infidelity by Charles. It is essentially what made them such a successful professional couple. They had an odd kind of symbiosis. Charles took the lead on projects for the most part. He was seen as the face of the studio, was the one who talked to clients, appeared in interviews, and ran the business. His interest in all things visual came primarily from the idea that structure was what was essential to all visual art practices and that the same skills could be applied to various disciplines. He could be stingy about giving credit, running the office like a Renaissance studio where he saw the designers as apprentices, there to learn and assist the master. While he was arrogant in some ways he was humble in others. He didn’t want to call himself an ‘artist,’ stating that it was embarrassing, like calling oneself a ‘genius.’
The Eameses at work on one of their exhibition designs:
Despite his de facto position as the official communicator for the firm, he was not always very good at it. He was not clear in his explanations in interviews or talks, would ramble and wander around the subject, sometimes unable to express anything at all. Despite his difficulties in communicating through words, Charles was excellent at communicating through imagery and was a visionary of communication technology. He was fascinated by the computer and made it a central focus of much of the firm’s design and educational work during the sixties and seventies. IBM became the Eameses’ most important client.
Charles Eames with IBM clients at the Mathematica Exhibition:
It is important to point out Ray’s importance as she was often unfairly seen as minor in the collaboration, mostly due to retrograde fifties sexual politics that still taint the conversation about women in the arts. This was not helped by her own shyness in and resistance to talk much about her own role in interviews. The truth was she was very hurt by those who diminished her abilities or the work that she had done. Without her input and assistance, the designs would’ve never been what they became. She had a particularly strong role as a tempering influence, as the person who would keep the designers focused on the “big idea” when they were too concentrated on the details. Nonetheless, she was an extreme perfectionist about her work and put incredible amounts of attention into the detail aspects of projects. Paradoxically, her extreme perfectionism did often get in the way, sometimes crippling her ability to finish work on a project.
Ray Eames working on one of her decorative ‘toy’ objects:
Ray had been trained under Hans Hoffman, an early abstract European painter who came to New York and helped push American painting towards the Abstract Expressionist heyday of the 1940’s and 1950’s. She used her training to great effect, not so much in painting of which she didn’t do much, but in her use of decoration and injecting of color into the Eameses’ work. It would not be an exaggeration to say that she was at least partially responsible for the abundance of color in midcentury American design objects.
She was also responsible for the look of the many Eames chair advertising photographs for new models, images with a very distinctive look. As the years went on her overall role decreased as Charles’ interests began to move more towards an obsession with technology and math, of which Ray never really had a grasp or much interest. Her influence decreased also due to Charles’ relationship with their male corporate clientele and the affair he had with another female designer. Their relationship recovered and after his death when she took over running the office. She finally had to close it some years after and died ten years to the day after her husband.
Hans Hofmann with students:
It’s hard to imagine the look of midcentury America without the Eameses. Watch an episode of Mad Men or a movie from that time set in a business office or luxurious modern home and you’ll likely something designed by either them or one of their countless imitators. Not only that but their presence as creators can still be felt. Walk into practically any office building or airport waiting room and there will be something created by or inspired by the Eames. Go into an IKEA and see their influence in many of the objects for sale. I am even sitting in an Eames office chair as I type this!
An Eames chair advertising photo conceived by Ray Eames:
Design was not the only thing they changed forever. The way we receive information today in advertising, educational films, public relations messages, and exhibitions, especially those on science and history, owes something to the Eameses’ influence. They contributed immensely to America’s interest in and eventual obsession with the computer. Even the toys children play now might be much less sophisticated had it not been for the Eameses. Yet they are less well known to the general public then figures whose work had far less practical application for or import on our everyday lives since. Perhaps that’s the way they would’ve preferred it. Their work speaks first and it has become essential to our daily experience. What more could any creative person ask?