Charles Eames and Ray Eames

For more than four decades, American designers Charles and Ray Eames helped shape nearly every facet of American life. From their architecture, furniture, and textile designs to their photography and corporate design, the husband-and-wife team exerted a profound influence on the visual character of daily life in America, whether at work or at home. Their pioneering use of new materials and technologies, notably plywood and plastics, transformed the way Americans furnished their homes, introducing functional, affordable, and often highly sculptural objects and furnishings to many middle-class Americans.

Charles Eames (1907–1978) and Ray Kaiser Eames (1912–1988) met while attending the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and they married in 1941. From the beginning of their collaborative partnership, they focused on creating multifunctional modern designs. 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 molded plywood chairs, were conceived of as functional, affordable options for consumers seeking modern yet livable domestic surroundings. These issues proved to be the salient concerns of much of the Eames’ furniture designs of the next three decades.

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 molded plywood, which began with Charles’ Cranbrook collaboration with Saarinen. Through the creative use of this industrial material, the Eameses sought a strong, flexible product capable of taking on myriad shapes and forms. These experiments included the construction of a special machine for molding the plywood, dubbed the Kazam! Machine, but it never produced satisfactory results. However, this work led to the Eames’ important contribution to the war effort. They received a contract from the U.S. Navy to develop lightweight, mass-produced molded plywood leg splints for injured servicemen, as well as aircraft components. Access to military technology and materials provided the final step in the Eames’ successful attempt to create stable molded plywood products. The resulting splint was both highly functional and sculptural, and suggests the fluid, biomorphic forms that characterized many of their subsequent furniture designs.

With the technological process for molding plywood resolved, Charles and Ray applied the method to the design of domestic furniture. After an exhaustive program of prototyping and testing, the first product was a simple plywood chair with both the seat and back supports gently curved so as to ergonomically and comfortably accommodate the human body. It was produced by the Herman Miller Company of Zeeland, Michigan, and marketed as an affordable, multifunctional chair suitable for all modern households. Known as the ECW (Eames Chair Wood) model, this chair is still in production today, and has exerted a profound and lasting impact on twentieth-century furniture design in America.

The Eameses eventually expanded the product line to include molded plywood dining chairs, tables, and storage units. Their experimental approach to materials continued through the subsequent decades with the use of molded fiberglass for a series of inexpensive shell chairs, a collapsible sofa, an upholstered, molded lounge chair, a range of aluminum-framed furniture, and many other innovative designs. The furniture designs of the Eameses were quickly adopted for both domestic and commercial use, and many of these extremely popular items are still in production today.

Ray Eames employed her graphic design skills to create a number of textile designs. Some of these fabrics were monochromatic, while others displayed bold color palettes. Most relied on repetitions of abstract, typically geometric forms, often obviously hand-drawn. The resulting effect was characteristic of much of the Eames’ work: it was both modern and humanistic, abstract yet approachable.

Following the success of their modern furniture designs, Charles and Ray turned their attention to domestic architecture to meet the postwar housing demand. The housing shortage predated the Great Depression, but the return of thousands of World War II veterans, combined with shortages in construction materials, created a real crisis. A project sponsored by California Arts and Architecture magazine, called the Case Study Houses, aimed to provide solutions to this problem by engaging young architects to design and build prototype—or case study—homes. The Eames’ contribution to this project, Case Study House #8, was built in 1951 in Pacific Palisades, California, as a family home for themselves. The Eameses employed standard industrial materials wherever possible, in response to the chronic shortages of many building materials: the factory sash windows, commercial doors, and corrugated steel roofing were all readily available, standard industrial building products.

The interior configuration of the house, with its expansive, double-height living room and flexible plan, replaced traditional, fixed room arrangements, and reflected the way the Eames family lived. This adaptable plan comprised of multipurpose spaces became a hallmark of postwar modern architecture. The furniture, art, and objects in the house revealed the Eames’ wide-ranging interests, from international folk art to Native American art to modern art and design. They used their own furniture, manufactured by Herman Miller, throughout the interior, in addition to pieces collected on their numerous trips abroad.In addition to graphic design, architecture, and furniture and product design, the Eameses also created innovative and groundbreaking films. Many of these were produced as corporate communications projects, such as their numerous films for IBM, while others were made at the behest of government organizations. For example, Glimpses of the U.S.A., made for the U.S. Information Service, was shown in Moscow in 1959, as was the exhibition and film, The World of Franklin and Jefferson, created as part of the national Bicentennial celebrations.

— Alexandra Griffith Winton
Independent Scholar