Talk about a real power couple, a couple of influencers before the age of social media. That’s Ray and Charles Eames, two people united by the love for design, architecture, and experimentation. And united by the love for each other. These two American artists and creators weren’t afraid to look for inspiration, even if it came from abroad. The experts of the industry called it the “Eamesian touch.”
They were curious, which is why they didn’t fit into one design category. They pursued their aesthetics and beliefs, experimenting as much as they could with architecture, design, and pieces of furniture. There wasn’t one world or field that the couple didn’t touch. Ray and Charles Eames worked on buildings, everyday objects, and even toys. Wherever their creative spark led them, they followed.
Charles Eames was born in 1907 in St. Louis, Missouri. His was a middle-class family, a family of hard workers trying to realize the American dream. Since his childhood, he was interested in architecture and photography, and he later pursued his interests by studying architecture at the Washington University in his hometown. But what happened during his studies is a mystery. In fact, Eames didn’t graduate.
Why? It depends on the source. According to the university, he was dropped because of his views. On the other hand, rumors have it that Charles was working too much outside of school, so he was too tired to study. Still, he was a follower of Modernism, concepts that the university didn’t marry.
While Charles Eames was dropping out of school, his future wife-to-be was studying at May Friend Bennett Women’s College in Millbrook in New York. Ray Eames was born Bernice Alexandra Kaiser in 1912 in Sacramento, California. Definitely far from the cold weather of Missouri. Her family was also a middle-class one, and her parents taught her the value of joy. More dedicated to her studies than Charles was, Ray decided to study abstract expressionist painting after her college graduation in 1933. First and foremost, she was a painter. Her love for this art led her to the foundation of the American Abstract Artists (AAA) group.
Charles and Ray Eames
Until a fateful meeting at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1940. A graduate school focused on architecture, art, and design, the Academy was founded in 1932, and it’s still raising generations of creators nowadays. Ray and Charles Eames met in its halls, where he was also an instructor. He met Ray while working on the New York’s Museum of Modern Art “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition. She, still a student, helped with graphic design, and the two bonded over more than art and work.
After Charles Eames divorced his first wife, he married Ray in 1941. Charles died in 1978, while Ray died in 1988. Their forty years of joint career were made of timeless pieces and buildings that still inspire today’s students. Together, they built a legacy.
Big Ideas and Products
“I think the most difficult thing is to keep the big idea to be able to look critically at the work,” said Ray Eames.
Their whole philosophy centered on the objects and their purpose. Ray and Charles Eames didn’t approach design, furniture, and architecture as an ideological endeavor. They weren’t trying to push any agendas, beliefs, or concepts to the world. Instead, the power couple wanted to create useful everyday objects and functional buildings. They wanted people to experience their spaces and works. They wanted to offer the best products to as many people as possible. At the most affordable price.
Their success comes from their differences which, when together, became strengths. Ray was more of an artistic soul, focused on aesthetics and style. On the other hand, Charles Eames focused on technology and materials, which were part of his architectural studies. Two different minds, but both creative and innovative. That’s where their beauty came from. The beauty of their love and their professional life.
The Eamesian Touch
Thanks to the combination of the couple’s styles and interests, Ray and Charles Eames created something unique. A signature that one was (and will be able) to replicate. In the era of industrial design, the two American creators experimented with wood and new, innovative materials such as printable plastic. They combined art and science to produce pieces of timeless value but also of everyday use. Practical, sophisticated, and clean, each of the couple’s creations followed a few simple rules.
“A designer’s role is like being a house owner, gentle and careful,” said Charles Eames, “making sure to attend to the guests’ needs.” The “Eamesian touch” is clear in all their creations, from movies to furniture. Then, ending with architecture.
Charles and Ray Eames’ Career in Architecture
The Eames House
One of their first architectural projects together was the Eames House in Los Angeles. The design was part of the Case Study House Program, a housing program sponsored by John Entenza, the director of Arts & Architecture magazine. This initiative aimed to show examples of modern homes, affordable and built with wartime and industrial materials. The designers’ couple were asked to create Case Study House number 8. Once completed in 1949, this would become their residence with the nickname “the Bridge House.”
They decided to build two structures on the beautiful property surrounded by nature. The first draft of the project included a stilt house on the ocean. When that became too complicated, Ray and Charles Eames decided to lay the building’s foundations on the hillside with a cement containment wall. A yard connects the outdoor spaces, while big windows make sure to show the view. It’s an indoor/outdoor style in which every detail connects with each other.
The design of the Eames House is just as beautiful as its surroundings. It stands on a five-acre piece of land overlooking the ocean and framed by native flora. A landmark of modern architecture, the house is now a museum where visitors can admire the landscape and the collections made of the couple’s objects, such as books, folk art, and rocks.
The Revell Toy House
An alternative yet still architectural project is the Revell Toy House. Indeed, a house for toys. This interesting model house dates back to 1959, and it’s a ¾-inch scale model. The two designers made it for the toy company Revellz, and they furnished it with furniture and accessories signed by Eames. This model is a work of (architectural) art with injection-molded plastic and modular units. However, it remained a prototype, never destined for mass production.
The Herman Miller Showroom
One more architectural project by the couple is the Herman Miller Showroom on Beverly Boulevard. The designers built it in Los Angeles in 1950. Just like their hillside house, this creation features a large expanse of glass held together by a steel frame. Inside, the designers mounted the entire Herman Miller catalog and decorated it with surprising and curious objects like a Mexican piñata, shells, and a wall of seed packets. They also used their own furniture, as well as fabrics by designer Alexander Girard.
Furniture and Design by Ray and Charles Eames
What type of furniture and objects did the couple’s collection include? Their innovative minds led them to experimentation, especially with plywood. Since the two designers focused on industrial products, their creations were easy to manufacture, affordable, and functional. As a material, plywood had all these qualities. Malleable and easy to shape, this material was used in the furniture collections between 1943 and 1978.
The couple first used it for medical splints and, once seen its potential, Ray and Charles Eames used it for more objects. Their creations can be divided by material:
Molded Plywood Chairs
Molded Plastic Chairs
Aluminium Group Chairs
These are their most famous pieces:
Lounge Chair Wood (LCW), 1946
Shell Chair, 1950
Lounge Chair, 1956
The LCW and The Shell Chair
The LCW is part of the plywood collection. Technology and the needs for splints meet in this object, which is practical and easy to style. The Lounge Chair Wood adapts to the body, so it’s also ergonomic. It was so innovative and comfortable that the LCW even won the Museum of Modern Art’s Organic Designs in Home Furnishings contest.
Ray and Charles Eames sold their first Eames Fiberglass Shell Chair four years later. The first of many thanks to the main quality: low-cost for both the manufacturer and the buyer. Its seat is 100% plastic, the first of its kind. Since people could also choose different colors (Parchment, Greige, and Elephant Grey Hide), this chair fits every space and style. With more colors, like Lemon Yellow, the success was instant.
The Eames Lounge Chair
But it’s not all about work for the American couple. They did love having fun and relaxing. Hence the Eames Lounge Chair. A second version came with an ottoman for added comfort. The couple designed it for the furniture company Herman Miller with a wealthier target buyer in mind. Made of plywood and leather, this chair isn’t just ergonomic. It looks both comfortable and sophisticated, a true must-have of design.
The Wire Chairs and The Aluminium Group Chairs
While wire chairs weren’t the most popular ones, they made a perfect decor for patios and gardens. Thanks to their comfortable and functional shells, these creations represent the designers’ love for practicality. No frills, just a simple form made to last through the years. Meanwhile, the aluminum group was the perfect design for offices and modern spaces. The collection was born for the outdoors, and it featured the seat-back suspension innovation instead of the solid shell.
Of course, the couple didn’t design just chairs; they also created tables. But the Eames’ chairs were a big hit. No matter the material used, every chair designed by Ray and Charles Eames had the same characteristics: durability, comfort, and aesthetics.
Movies, Fabrics, and More by Charles and Ray Eames
Ray was an artist, and her creative mind was always looking for an outlet. In her research, she always managed to include her husband, Charles Eames. Together, they produced films and textile designs.
In the field of fabrics, Ray was able to create new patterns, specifically the “Crosspatch” and “Sea Things.” The company Schiffer Prints produced these designs, which also won awards in the industry. Her imagination also allowed her to create graphics for marketing purposes, advertising, and even business cards. On the other hand, the movies made by the American couple amount to over 120 titles. The films include “Banana Leaf,” “Toccata for Toy Trains,” and “Day of the Dead.” They created these titles between 1950 and 1982, and their length varied from one to 30 minutes.
One movie that gives you insight into their curious world is “House: After Five Years of Living,” which dates back to 1955. It’s a trip down memory lane, five years worth of the couple’s life in their Case Study House #8. This film showcases the building’s style, a charming Californian indoor-outdoor Modernism. An inspiration, even decades later. Just like the kinetic and static exhibition of mathematical concepts entitled “Mathematica: A World of Numbers… and Beyond.” Unlike other artistic exhibitions, this creation surprised the world in 1961 with its large-scale bean machine, a three-dimensional cube, and a gravitational well.
Everything the couple designed came from the walls and halls of the Eames Office in Los Angeles. The days lasted 13 hours, and their philosophy was “learning by doing.” Whether it was doing architecture, furniture, or movies, it all came from the Eames Office.
Charles and Ray Eames, When Experimentation Leads To Success
Ray and Charles Eames worked well together because love wasn’t the only thing that bonded them. Their love connected them for creating, from objects to artistic endeavors. Refusing to fall into a label, the American couple wasn’t afraid of experimenting. They weren’t afraid of defying design rules and traditions, just like other relevant designers of their time.
Including important names such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto, Eero Saarinen, and Franco Albini. All of them created a productive and successful group. A group of modernists who created their own aesthetics and styles. Taking clues from each other, they revolutionized the world of design.