There is no design team more iconic or influential than the husband and wife duo of Charles & Ray Eames – a design powerhouse best known for their groundbreaking contributions to architecture, furniture design, post-war industrial design, films and photographic art.
Charles Eames was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1907 and by the tender age of 14, garnered a love for engineering and drawing while working as a part-time steel hand at a local steel company where he first entertained the idea of studying architecture. Charles went on to briefly study it at the Washington University in St. Louis but spent just 2 years there before leaving prematurely to start up his own practice with two partners – while at the same time, his own influences began to be heavily shaped by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen – father of the legendary architect and furniture designer Eero Saarinen who would soon become a friend and peer of Charles’.
And so in 1938, at the invitation of Eliel, Charles moved to Michigan with his wife Catherine and their daughter Lucia to further study architecture at the Cranbrook Academy of Art where he would also meet Bernice Alexander Kaiser who would later become his 2nd wife, Ray Eames.
Ray Kaiser joined the Academy after studying Painting in New York and met Charles Eames in 1940 while assisting him and Eero Saarinen in preparing designs for the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMa) “Organic Furniture Competition”.
Both Charles and Eero won the 2 top prizes for their designs, which involved molding plywood into complex curves and it would be very soon after this collaboration when Charles divorced his first wife and married Ray – and they quite simply went on to change the world of interiors as we know it.
After moving to California they continued their design work and experimented further with molding plywood into complex and functional pieces of furniture. They did this by turning their spare room into a workshop, installing a home-made molding machine (which they nicknamed, ‘Kazam’ after the saying; ‘Ala Kazam’) into which they fed wood and glues that Charles snuck home from his day job as a set designer & architect at MGM Studios in Hollywood. Ray in the meantime designed and created covers for California Arts & Architecture Magazine.
Little did Charles and Ray Eames know that their experimenting with wood-molding techniques would have a remarkable and profound effect on the design world – from which would come a commission by the US Navy to produce molded plywood splints (that were molded after Charles’ own leg), stretchers and glider shells that would be successfully used in World War II. And in 1946, when the war had finally ended, the money used from their commission by the Navy enabled the Eames’ to open their first office together and design the “Molded Plywood Chair”. The chair was the basis of the Eames’ design future and was called the “Chair of the Century” by influential architectural critic Esther McCoy and Time Magazine called it “The Best Design of the 20th Century” – noting that it was “something elegant, light and comfortable. Much copied but never bettered.”
To the amusement of the Design world, a locomotive came in second to the Eames Plywood Chair.
In Europe, as is it today, production of all Eames furniture is helmed by the Herman Miller Inc. while in the America, Vitra International produces their furniture.
After plywood, the Eames’ began to experiment with other materials, creating furniture in fiberglass, plastic, aluminum and for the 1956 Eames’ Lounge Chair & Ottoman, leather and very opulent plywood. The Lounge Chair & Ottoman became an icon of the last century even though Charles expressed a preference for the Eames’ earlier, less expensive plywood designs.
The Molded Plastic Chair / Armchair with an Eiffel Tower or Wooden Leg base, the Wire Mesh Chair, the Hang It All Rack, the Plywood Coffee Table, the Storage Unit Shelving System, the Elliptical Table (Surfboard Table) and the Walnut Stool are just some of their other iconic designs, which continue to be their most recognizable. The Eames’ also made a series of aluminum office furniture which unknown to a lot of people are probably in use in their own offices and many of today’s office furniture designs take their roots and inspiration from original Eames’ designs for the office under the Herman Miller brand.
But, it must be said that their most notable contribution to architecture is in the Eames House in Los Angeles, which they designed and built as part of the Case Study Program in 1949 for Arts and Architecture Magazine. Out of the 25 Case Study Houses built, the Eames House is considered the most successful as an architectural statement of post-war residences built with innovative and economical materials as well as being noted as a comfortable, functional living space that blends man-made materials and nature. Their work as a design team remained the center of their lives in their partnership. The combination of visionary design and ingenuity that allowed Charles & Ray Eames to create proto-types of mass produced furniture in their spare room was to characterize their work together for over the next 4 decades. Together, they not only designed some of the most influential and innovative furniture of the 20th century, but through their films, teaching, writing and their life together in the house they designed in Los Angeles, they defined an open, organic, emotionally expressive approach to design and lifestyle.
Charles Eames died on the 21st of August 1978 in Los Angeles after which Ray Eames devoted the rest of her life to completing their unfinished projects without seeking new ones and to communicating their ideas through writing and talks. Ray Eames died exactly 10 years to the day from her husband; 21st August 1988.
The Eames’ Office continues with their grandson Demetrios Eames at its helm.