"They taught the 20th century how to sit down," The Washington Post once said of Charles and Ray Eames. The Eameses, husband and wife, designed furniture pieces so good-looking that they remain modernist icons, yet so comfortable and well-built that they are still sold by the original manufacturer. But the couple designed far more than chairs – creating everything from toys to houses, from exhibitions to films. In all kinds of subtle, playful ways, Charles and Ray Eames taught us how to look, how to think and how to live.
Circuitous routes led Charles and Ray to their life's work together. Charles was kicked out of Washington University's architecture program in 1927 because of his enthusiasm for Frank Lloyd Wright. Undaunted, he started designing buildings around St. Louis. His work caught the attention of Eliel Saarinen, a Finnish architect, who invited him to teach at the new design school in Cranbrook, Mich. There Charles met several future collaborators, including Saarinen's son Eero. He also met his future wife: a student from California named Ray Kincaid.
Ray was a talented abstract painter who had studied with Hans Hofmann in New York. Shortly after arriving at Cranbrook, she helped Charles and Eero prepare their winning submission to an "organic furniture" competition sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Charles and Ray clicked almost immediately, as design partners and as lovers. In 1941 they got married and moved to Los Angeles to start a new life together.
Left: The Eames plastic chair. Right: La chaise
by Ray and Charles Eames. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Eameses rapidly made friends and professional contacts in Los Angeles. Artistic work was scarce during World War II; Charles drew sets for MGM, while Ray designed magazine covers. Their experiments with molded plywood furniture led them to design mass-produced plywood splints for wounded GIs. This ability to master new industrial techniques in the service of useful designs would characterize the Eameses' work.
Charles and Ray's practice took off commercially in 1946, when they were approached by George Nelson, head of design for the Herman Miller furniture company. Furniture design proved the perfect way to meld Ray's painterly sense of shape and color, Charles's architectural sense of form, and their joint fascination with the materials and methods of construction. The Eameses started with a line of molded plywood chairs, followed by fiberglass chairs, and then by build-it-yourself storage units. In 1956 came their most famous piece, the plywood and leather Eames Lounge Chair – as receptive, as Charles once put it, as "a well-used first baseman's mitt." When Eero Saarinen asked them to develop seating for his Dulles airport terminal, the result was a sleek wedding of chrome and black leather, found today in departure lounges around the world. The Eameses' connection with Herman Miller is one of their most enduring legacies: the company still makes and sells nearly all of their furniture designs.
Main entry of the Eames House, Pacific Palisades, Calif. (Wikimedia Commons)
In 1949 Charles and Ray turned to architecture, building a house for themselves in Pacific Palisades that is now considered a 20th-century landmark. To keep within a tight budget, the Eameses designed a simple steel-and-glass box, set in a eucalyptus grove and put together out of standard prefabricated components. This celebration of industrial construction helped inspire "high-tech" design. At the same time, the colors, the materials and the play of light in the Eames house show how sensuous and delightful modern architecture can be.
Throughout their career the Eameses continued designing furniture, but from the late 1950s onward their energy increasingly went into exhibitions and films. One major client was IBM, whose chairman, Tom Watson, believed in making mathematical and scientific advances accessible to the widest possible audience. In 1960 IBM underwrote "Mathematica," an Eames show dramatizing sophisticated concepts through models, pictures, words, and hands-on displays. The exhibition remains on display today, nearly 50 years after its creation, in science museums in Boston and California.
Eames multiplication machine at the Mathematica exhibit (Wikimedia Commons)
Charles and Ray started making films for fun, inventively combining stills, animation and sound. For a film about baking, they used fans to blow the smell of fresh-baked bread into the auditorium. Their work impressed their close friend, director Billy Wilder, who hired Charles to direct a sequence in his Charles Lindbergh biopic The Spirit of St. Louis. Paul Schrader, the screenwriter of Taxi Driver, was also impressed and describes the Eameses and Sam Peckinpah as his two greatest influences. The Eameses' last film, Powers of Ten, moves in the course of ten minutes from a picnic in a Chicago park to the farthest reaches of the universe, and then back into the center of the atom. It is still shown in science and math classes: a tribute to Charles's admonition to keep looking at the world from a different frame of reference.
All this work came out of a converted furniture factory in Venice, Calif., where their staff turned Charles and Ray's concepts into reality. Whatever the project, the Eameses insisted on learning everything about the subject themselves. When they were designing an aquarium, they filled the studio with enormous fish tanks to experience first-hand how feeding and filtration systems worked, and they made everyone in the office learn to scuba dive.
The Eameses' greatest creation may have been their own marriage. As a couple they were stylish, energetic and sexy. In public, they knew how to put on a great show. In private, they were intimate and affectionate. A friend remembers: "Their relationship was one of love, truly. I would sit with them at meetings, and Charles would lean over and hold her hand, or vice versa. It was just a natural kind of thing."
Charles Eames died Aug. 21, 1978. Ray kept the office going for a few years before turning to cataloguing their work and making donations to museums and the Library of Congress. She died Aug. 21, 1988, on the tenth anniversary of Charles' death. The Eames Foundation maintains their house, and the Eames Office puts on exhibitions of their designs. And of course, their chairs are still found everywhere – comfortable, good-looking, and timeless.
Jay Wickersham practices architectural and environmental law in Cambridge, Mass., and teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.