Charles + Ray Eames: A Retrospective
At the forefront of the movement that defined modern style in post-World War II America, Charles and Ray Eames rank among the most influential designers of the 20th century. The husband-and-wife team pioneered groundbreaking production techniques and materials like molded plywood, fiberglass, and resin to create spare yet evocative furnishings like the Eames Molded Plywood Lounge Chair that Time hailed as the best design of the 20th century. Dreamers with a practical streak, the Eames’ simple, yet sophisticated designs were meant to be both practical and pleasing. With wide-ranging interests that included architecture, film, and graphic design, the duo exerted a profound influence on American life for more than a generation.
“They’re pretty unique for having made world-class contributions in so many different fields,” says the couple’s grandson, Eames Demetrios, who oversees their estate and legacy through the Eames Office in Santa Monica, CA. “They had this very holistic vision of design that was about process and going on a journey of discovery.”
Charles Eames (1907 – 1978) and Bernice “Ray” Kaiser Eames (1912 – 1988) met while students at Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan in 1940, she with a background in abstract expressionist painting and he in architecture. That same year Charles teamed with the future architect Eero Saarinen to win the Museum of Modern Art’s “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition. Their winning chairs displayed the new technique of molding plywood.
Within a year, the Eameses married and settled in Los Angeles, where Charles began working in the movie industry as a set designer for MGM while Ray designed covers for the influential magazine Arts & Architecture and designed textiles. They also made their small apartment a kind of mad scientists’ workshop, creating a machine for molding and gluing plywood pieces that they dubbed “Kazam!” because the process seemed a bit like magic.
Charles and Ray Eames described their operating principle as “serious fun.” But the work was never frivolous, as evidenced by the U.S. Navy contract they received to produce lightweight, mass-produced leg splints for injured World War II soldiers (the molded wood contoured to the shape of a leg).
After the war, the Eameses parlayed that experience into developing an affordable line of mass-produced domestic furniture. Like other designers of the time, the couple took advantage of a surplus of industrial materials like aluminum and plastic to fashion a new era of home furnishings at once minimal and bold. Their Lounge Chair Wood produced in 1946 gave way to a series of shell-like molded plastic chairs affixed with different bases, including a rocker. Later came their Eames Wire Chair fashioned from thin strands of metal into an elegant mesh, and then perhaps their most universally recognized work: the wood and leather Lounge Chair and Ottoman. All of these pieces remain in production by Herman Miller in the United States and Vitra in Europe.
With a postwar housing shortage, the couple also designed a new home for themselves using prefabricated materials, as part of the now-legendary Case Study Houses collection. The Eames House’s flexible floor plan would influence decades of postwar housing. They also took on a range of art and design projects including documentary films like 1977’s “Powers of 10” and a series of exhibit designs. The connecting thread was Charles and Ray Eames’ ability to make the complex look and feel simple – and that was fun.
“Charles used to say the role of a designer is that of a good host anticipating the needs of the guests,” Eames Demetrios explains. “He said, ‘You have to design it for yourself, but the trick is to design it for the universal part of yourself.’ By doing that, they reached people. It’s getting down to universal connections, which is one of the reasons I think their designs will remain timeless.”