Charles and Ray Eames

For more than four decades, the creativity of American designers Charles and Ray Eames knew no bounds. From architecture, to furniture design, to industrial design and manufacturing and the photographic arts, this husband and wife team were groundbreaking. Charles Eames and Ray Kaiser Eames met while attending the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan and were married in 1941. From the beginning of their collaborative partnership, they focused on creating multi-functional modern designs.

Charles and Ray Eames

While at Cranbrook, Charles collaborated with Eero Saarinen on a group of wood furniture designs that won the Museum of Modern Art’s 1940 “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition. These designs, which included experimental moulded plywood chairs, were conceived of as functional, affordable options for consumers seeking modern yet liveable domestic surroundings. The pair moved to Los Angeles in 1941, where Charles initially worked in the movie industry, while Ray created cover designs for the influential journal, California Arts and Architecture. They also continued their experiments with moulded plywood seeking a strong, flexible product capable of taking on myriad shapes and forms. These experiments included the construction of a special machine in their spare bedroom for moulding the plywood, dubbed the Kazam! Machine - but it never produced satisfactory results. During World War II they were commissioned by the United States Navy to produce moulded plywood splints, stretchers, as well as aircraft components. Access to military technology and materials provided the final step in their successful attempt to create stable moulded plywood products. The resulting splint was both highly functional and sculptural, and suggests the fluid, biomorphic forms that characterised many of their subsequent furniture designs.

Charles and Ray now applied the method for moulding plywood to the design of domestic furniture. Their first product was a simple plywood chair with both the seat and back supports gently curved to comfortably accommodate the human body. It was produced by the Herman Miller Company of Zeeland, Michigan, and marketed as an affordable, multi-functional chair suitable for all modern households. Known as the ECW (Eames Chair Wood) this chair is still in production today and was called “the chair of the century” by the influential architectural critic Esther McCoy.

Charles and Ray turned their curiosity and boundless enthusiasm into creations that established them as a truly great husband-and-wife design team. They expanded the product line which led to a whole new look in furniture and their experimental approach to materials continued through subsequent decades and many are still in production today. Lean and modern, playful and functional, sleek, sophisticated, and beautifully simple. That was and is the "Eames look.". Another world renowned design was the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, released in 1956. The couples vision was for something that had the “warm, receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt”, and the result was this blissful embrace of a chair in moulded plywood and leather. The Eames Lounge chair is part of permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Following the success of their furniture designs, Charles and Ray turned their attention to domestic architecture. A project sponsored by California Arts and Architecture magazine, called the Case Study Houses, aimed to engaging young architects to design and build prototype homes using materials and techniques derived from experiences from World War II. The Eames’ contribution to this project, Case Study House #8, was built in 1951 in Pacific Palisades, California, as a family home for themselves.

Constructed of steel, the house is avant-garde from the outside, it resembles, from a distance, a painting by Mondrian. The light and simple design was specifically tailored to cater for the Eames' everyday requirements, both home and studio, it was intended as 'a background to a life in work and the couple lived there their entire lives. Charles said of the design process, "It's like a game building something out of found objects, which is the nicest kind of exercise you can do." The interior configuration of the house, with its expansive, double-height living room and flexible plan, replaced traditional, fixed room arrangements. This adaptable plan comprising of multipurpose spaces became a hallmark of postwar modern architecture and is considered one of the most important post-war residences anywhere in the world and is a US National Historic Landmark and open to visitors.

Charles and Ray continued to produce work prolifically right up until Charles' death in 1978. After that, Ray completed all the projects they had started together before hanging up her design hat and devoting her life to communicating the couple's theories and practices. She died of cancer on 21 August 1988 on the ten-year anniversary of her beloved husband's death.

So, why are they #Houseproud heroes?

Charles and Ray achieved their monumental success by approaching each project the same way: Does it interest and intrigue us? Can we make it better? Will we have "serious fun" doing it? They loved their work, which was a combination of art and science, design and architecture, process and product, style and function. "The details are not details," said Charles. "They make the product." A design critic once said that this extraordinary couple "just wanted to make the world a better place." That they did. They also made it a lot more interesting. He said:

“At all times love and discipline have led to a beautiful environment and a good life”

Want to find out more?

Wikipedia on the Eames Chair