The Eames Effect
Designers Charles and Ray Eames left an indelible mark
on the way people live at home and at work.
by Leigh Elmore
Much to the delight of a broad swath of the American public, (and to the chagrin of dealers of traditional antiques) the works of industrial designers Charles and Ray Eames have become iconic. Almost anyone born after 1940 will have sat in a chair whose design originated in the studio of this husband and wife team, most likely not knowing anything about that chair's design history. But that would be what the couple would have wanted; their goal was to produce furniture that was comfortable, affordable and durable. They wanted their furniture to be used.
The Eames Lounge Chair is one of the most famous furniture designs in the world and the subject of a scholarly treatise in 2006 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary in production, "The Eames Lounge Chair: An Icon of Modern Design" by Martin Eidelberg, professor emeritus of Art History at Rutgers University. (photo courtesy Herman Miller, Inc.)
Ironically though, many of their best-known items are today ensconced in museums around the world as examples of post-World War II modern design. At the same time, many chairs of their design may be stacked in church basements, schools and city halls around the country to be pulled out when large groups need to be seated. From designers of basic day-to-day furniture to shining stars of the design firmament, Charles and Ray Eames along with their works span the scope of American life and have left lasting impressions that help define daily living in the 21st century.
Charles Eames was born in St. Louis, MO in 1907. He attended school there and developed an interest in engineering and architecture. "After attending Washington University in St. Louis on scholarship for two years and being thrown out for his advocacy of Frank Lloyd Wright, he began working in an architectural office," according to information on the eamesoffice.com website. In 1929, he married his first wife, Catherine Woermann (divorced in 1941) and a year later their only child, Lucia, was born.
Ray and Charles Eames at work in their studio, which they dubbed "The Office." (photo courtesy Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)
In 1930, Eames started his own architectural firm. "He began extending his design ideas beyond architecture and received a fellowship to Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where he eventually became head of the design department," according to his official biography (eamesoffice.com).
Ray Kaiser Eames was born in 1912 in Sacramento, CA. She studied painting with abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann in New York before moving to Cranbrook Academy where she met and assisted Charles and Eero Saarinen in preparing designs for the Museum of Modern Art's "Organic Furniture Competition." Their collaborative designs, created by molding plywood, won top honors in the competition.
La Chaise was created for the 1948 "International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design." It is made of fiberglass-reinforced plastic, metal and wood. The name "La Chaise" was both a reference to sculptor Gaston Lachaise and a pun on his name. Vitra AG has produced the chair since 1990. (photo courtesy Vitra Design Museum)
According to Alexandra Griffith Winton, writing for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, "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."
Charles Eames tests a chair while Ray and an associate take notes in The Office. (photo courtesy Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)
The pair moved to Los Angeles in 1941, where Charles initially worked in the film industry, while Ray created cover for the influential journal, California Arts and Architecture. They also continued their experiments with molded plywood, which began with the 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," Winton stated.
Nevertheless, 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.
"The resulting splint was both highly functional and sculptural," Winton noted, "and suggests the fluid, biomorphic forms that characterized many of their subsequent furniture designs."
Focus on furniture
With the technological process for molding plywood resolved, Charles and Ray applied the method to the design of domestic furniture.
A molded walnut plywood chair from 1952. This one is on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. It was the gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Stanton Everitt. (photo courtesy Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)
"The first product was a simple plywood chair with both the seat and the back supports gently curved so as to ergonomically and comfortably accommodate the human body," according to Winton.
It was produced by the Herman Miller Company of Zeeland, MI, 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 20th-century furniture design in America.
The Eameses' molded-plywood chair was their first attempt to create a single shell that would be comfortable without padding and could be quickly mass-produced. Throughout the early 1940s, the Eameses and their colleagues experimented with this concept. "Discovering that plywood did not withstand the stresses produced at the intersection of the chair's seat and back, they abandoned the single-shell idea in favor of a two-piece chair with separate molded-plywood panels for the back and seat. The chairs – plus molded-plywood tables and wall screens – were unveiled to the public in 1946," according to the Library of Congress.
"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," Winton notes.
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 and ottoman, a range of aluminum-framed furniture and many other innovative designs.
Almost any American alive today has sat in an Eames-designed fiberglass chair. (photo courtesy Herman Miller, Inc.)
The Eameses' fiberglass chair solved the problem of how to make a seat out of a single body-fitting shell. The progressive quality and moldability of plastic made it even more alluring to the Eameses than plywood or stamped metal. Fiberglass had been used during the war by Zenith Plastics to reinforce plastic on airplane radar domes. Working together, Zenith and the Eameses re-conceptualized the use of the material, creating one of the first one-piece plastic chairs with an exposed rather than an upholstered surface.
Zenith began mass-producing fiberglass armchairs in 1950 for the Herman Miller Furniture Company (today Herman Miller, Inc.). The chairs have only recently gone out of production.
New forms and ideas
A wire-mesh chair demonstrates the Eameses' willingness to experiment with materials. (photo courtesy Herman Miller, Inc.)
Inspired by trays, dress forms, baskets and animal traps, the Eameses investigated bent and welded wire mesh as the basis for furniture designs. The wire mesh chair, like the fiberglass chair, was a uni-shell design. The shell could be adapted to various base configurations and upholstery types. The wire chairs are still in production.
Yet Charles and Ray Eames created more than a "look" with their bent plywood and wire mesh chairs, and molded fiberglass seating. They had ideas about making a better world, one in which things were designed to fulfill the practical needs of ordinary people and bring greater simplicity and pleasure to our lives.
A stack of Fiberglass-reinforced plastic chairs from 1954 demonstrates their utility. (photo courtesy Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)
The Eameses adventurously pursued new ideas and forms with a sense of "serious fun." Yet it was rigorous discipline that allowed them to achieve perfection of form and mastery over materials.
As Charles noted about the molded plywood chair, "Yes, it was a flash of inspiration – a kind of 30-year flash." Combining imagination and thought, art and science, Charles and Ray Eames created some of the most influential expressions of 20th-century design – furniture that remains stylish, fresh and functional today.
On beyond furniture
And they didn't stop with furniture. They made films, including a seven-screen installation at the 1959 Moscow World's Fair, presented in a dome designed by Buckminster Fuller. Many of these were produced as corporate communication projects, such as their numerous films for IBM, while others were made at the behest of government organizations. For example, the film, 'The World of Franklin and Jefferson' was created as part of the national bicentennial celebrations.
One of their most iconic films, "Powers of Ten" is an adventure in magnitudes. Starting at a picnic by the lakeside in Chicago, this famous film transports the viewer to the outer edges of the universe. Every 10 seconds we view the starting point from 10 times farther out until our own galaxy is visible only as a speck of light among many others.
Returning to Earth with breathtaking speed, we move inward – into the hand of the sleeping picnicker – with 10 times more magnification every ten seconds. Our journey ends inside a proton of a carbon atom within a DNA molecule in a white blood cell. It can be seen on YouTube.com.
Charles and Ray Eames designed showrooms, invented toys and generally made the world a more interesting place.
The Eames House
The interior of the Eames House in Pacific Palisades, CA. (photo courtesy The Eames Foundation)
Following the success of their modern furniture designs, Charles and Ray turned their attention to domestic architecture to meet the postwar housing demand. The return of thousands of World War II veterans, combined with shortages in construction materials, had created a crisis, Winton explained.
A project sponsored by California Arts and Architecture magazine, called the Case Study Houses, sought 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 between 1940 and 1951 on a cliff overlooking the ocean in Pacific Palisades, CA. Constructed of steel, the house and adjacent studio were outfitted with a mix of transparent glass and colored panels, the latter specifically placed to provide relief from the sun.
Winton says, "The interior configuration of the house, with its expansive, double-height living room and flexible plan, replaced traditional, fixed room arrangement, 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 interest, from international folk art to Native American art to modern art and design," Winton noted. They used their own furniture, manufactured by Herman Miller, throughout the interior, in addition to pieces collected on their numerous trips abroad.
The pair also planted a row of eucalyptus trees to deliver shade and better connect the house with the surrounding meadow. Like many of the Case Study Houses, No. 8 was a celebration of indoor-outdoor living, and for the Eameses it became a laboratory for their shared life and work.
Now managed by the Eames Foundation and available for tours, the house was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2007. Home to the Eameses for the rest of their lives, it remains much as they left it, furniture and spirited presence included.
Leigh Elmore can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Feature Stories Archive past articles