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Features / Product Design

Essentials: An essential overview of legendary designers Charles and Ray Eames

First published in Printed Pages Spring 2014

Words by

Rob Alderson

Commission by

Robert Hunter

Powers of Ten is a 1977 film the Eames office made for IBM. It begins with a couple having a picnic in a Michigan park before zooming out every 10 seconds by a factor of 10. It travels as far as 100 million light years into outer space before going into reverse, the camera rocketing back to Earth, back to the USA, back to the park, back to the couple and then onwards into the body of the man we first saw, down through his skin and into his cells.

In some ways understanding and contextualising the work of Ray and Charles Eames calls for a similar combination of macro and microanalysis. As design critic Alexandra Lange wrote in 2011, the Eames “are a special category, as the designers whose last name defines the era on eBay.”

But any examination of their place in design history should go hand-in-hand with an appreciation of two quite fascinating characters.

Interestingly for a man who became such a colossal creative figure of the 20th Century, Charles Eames never graduated university. He dropped out of his architecture studies at Washington University after just two years; it is said his admiration for the organic work of Frank Lloyd Wright clashed with the school’s more conservative outlook (although there are also rumours that he had an affair with the wife of one of the faculty members).

Charles was good-looking and charming when he wanted to be. Even after his marriage to Ray in 1941 there were persistent dalliances with various women, and Marilyn Neuhart claims that from the mid 1950s onwards the pair were married in name only.

Whatever the true nature of their personal relationship, Ray’s devotion to the Eames office remained unwavering. Friends have confirmed that everything they did, everything they were was a conscious construct. She was an abstract expressionist painter when she met Charles, and later a successful textile designer, but recent studies have suggested that Ray’s biggest contribution was to the look and feel of the office, its famous hospitality and her painstaking maintenance of what would today be called the couple’s brand.

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Conjecture and apocrypha abound where the Eames are concerned but their impact on the design world is unquestionable. In 1941 the Museum of Modern Art ran a contest called the Organic Furniture Competition. Charles and his colleague Eero Saarinen entered pieces which used moulded plywood to create curved effects. What he entered is more important than the fact he won; the Eames Lounge Chair Wood went into mass production in 1946 and captured the imagination of the post-war generation. Affordable, stylish and functional, the chair chimed in with the materialistic manifestations of the American Dream. Microwaves and colour televisions offered consumers the lifestyle of the future in the here and now; similarly the Eames chair put cutting-edge design within reach of the mass middle classes.

Later stools, sofas and storage units would follow, as well as toys, exhibition design, various architectural projects and of course the films.

It’s hard to sum up the Eames design philosophy. Charles rejected the term designer and saw himself as an architect despite having no formal qualifications. When he did speak of their motivations in public it was halting and sometimes uncomfortably rambling. In 1970/71 he was invited to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University. In one of the talks he explained how in India the poorest sections of society ate off a banana leaf. As you went up the social scale, their receptacles became more and more complicated; glazed, metal-coated and ornately decorated. But he saw it coming full circle.

“You can go beyond that and the guys that have not only the means but a certain amount of knowledge and understanding go the next step and they eat off a banana leaf,” he said. “And as we attack these problems – and I hope and I expect that the total amount of energy used in this world is going to go from high to medium to a little bit lower – the banana leaf might have a great part in it.”

The banana leaf parable is now widely quoted, but Philip Morrison, an astrophysicist, narrator of Powers of Ten and member of the Eames inner circle articulated the couple’s philosophy more simply. “They really loved the world and how it looked, and they tried to understand why it looked that way and what it meant for people…”