It’s fair to say that no other American designers have been quite so influential as Ray and Charles Eames. Beginning in the 1940s, their work set the tone for furniture design for the rest of the century, shaping the entire mid-century modern aesthetic. Much of their reputation comes from their iconic chair designs, but their design portfolio covers a staggering variety of projects. From industrial design and architecture, to fine art and film, and even a museum exhibit about mathematics, the couple touched on just about every field imaginable. In this post, we’ll take an overview of their life and work, and explore how their approach to design helped to spark a movement that’s still going strong today.
The Birth of a Lifelong Partnership
Ray and Charles Eames left behind an enormous body of work. Their lasting reputation, though, is mainly thanks to their furniture designs. From the early 1940s all the way up to Charles’ death in 1978, they continually pushed the envelope of what was possible with furniture. In fact, the couple actually met when Ray was assisting Charles with some of his furniture designs.
At the time, Charles was working with Eero Saarinen on their entry to a competition at New York’s MoMA. “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” invited up-and-coming designers to create pieces that presented a radically new approach to furniture, more fitting to modern times. Eames and Saarinen won the competition with the Organic Chair, an innovative design which took the humble armchair and turned it into something more like a piece of modern art.
The winning piece was supposed to be mass-produced, but the Organic Chair was simply too intricate for manufacturing. However, it did establish Charles as one of the leading designers of his generation- and set the groundwork for his collaborations with Ray that would span the rest of his life.
New Materials for a New Era
Ray and Charles were always fascinated by the potential for new materials in their designs. Very early on, they experimented with molded plywood to create the sleek curves that would become their trademark. They were so successful with the material that they even received a commission from the U.S. military. The couple were hired to design splints for wounded troops during World War Two. The metal splints in use at the time were ending up causing further damage to limbs. Instead, a more lightweight and pliable material was needed. Plywood was perfect for this, since it could easily be shaped to better suit the natural curves of the human leg. This is exactly what Ray and Charles did with their final design, which also included specially placed holes to make it easier to change soldiers’ bandages.
Thanks to this design, the Eames’ helped literally thousands of injured troops who may have otherwise lost their legs. But after the war, the couple took all that they had learned from this project, and applied it to their furniture designs. By 1946, they had perfected this approach with the Eames Lounge Chair Wood. Understated, ergonomic, and most importantly comfortable, the LCW was the couple’s first taste of mainstream success. Much like the splints, the LCW is perfectly shaped to match the shape of the human body. In fact, in 1999 Time magazine named it the most iconic design of the twentieth century- not bad for a debut!
The LCW also cemented the Eames’ reputation with Herman Miller, the furniture company with whom they are most associated. Theirs was a mutually beneficial relationship. Alongside other designers like Robert Propst and Isamu Naguchi, the Eames’ helped Herman Miller become the leading name in mid-century modern. As well as exposing the couple’s work to a wider audience, the backing of a major company gave them the necessary funds to experiment further with new materials.
Most significantly, they popularised the use of plastics in furniture design with the DSR chair. Fulfilling Charles’ dream of creating a single-shell chair, it remains an massively influential design to this day. Its minimalist design has helped it to remain timeless. What's more, it also makes DSR-style chairs incredibly cost-effective to mass produce. Up until 1950, fibreglass was only really used for military purposes. However, the material would prove equally useful as affordable yet durable furniture.
As Charles himself stated, their aim with this piece was “to take a material which was a high performance material developed during the war and try to make it available to householders at non military prices.” Not only did the DSR sell extremely well, but it set a new standard for furniture design. Thousands upon thousands of chairs have been based off of the Eames’ work. None, though, match the quality- and prestige- of the originals.
By the late 1940s, the couple were already big names in the design world. Their work with molded plywood had opened up a world of possibilities, and their radio designs were selling by the thousands. As a result of this industry clout, the couple received a commission from Arts & Architecture. Over the space of twenty years, the magazine sponsored up-and-coming architects to build “Case Study” homes that summed up their signature style. For the Eames’, that meant a building heavily influenced by the Dutch De Stijl movement. With its bold use of brightly coloured squares and sliding doors and windows, it was a hit with fashion photographers, many of whom used it as a backdrop through the 1950s and 60s.
What’s truly unique about the Eames House, though, is that it was entirely made from ready-made parts. Essentially, it's a flat-packed house. That’s not to say, though, that it went up quickly. In post-war America, where industrial materials were still scarce, it took three years for the parts to arrive. But that lengthy gestation period had it’s advantages. The couple had already bought the land where the house was to be built. In the meantime, they spent a great deal of time picnicking in the meadow there. Originally, the house would have sat in this same open space. At the last minute, though, they decided that they didn’t want to destroy the natural surroundings. Instead, they changed the building site to another part of the plot. As a result, one wall of the house is lined with eucalyptus trees, a natural counterpoint to the building itself.
The Eames’ designs tend to be highly recognizable. It’s often easy to identify the designers from just a cursory glance. Whether it be a piece of furniture, a building, or even a child’s toy, they share the same spirit. Each piece is carefully shaped to perfectly suit the object’s use, and the number of parts is kept to a minimum. Because of this, one might expect that the couple had a fairly clear-cut design philosophy, in line with the functionalist school that held sway at the time. In reality, though, their approach is harder to pin down than it first appears. In large part, this was a deliberate effort on Charles’ part. While other designers are often happy to give endless interviews expounding their style, he preferred to play his cards a little closer to his chest.
Take, for example, the couple’s short film “Design Q&A”. In 1969, the couple took part in an exhibition entitled What Is Design? As part of the exhibition, each designer was given a Q&A form to fill out, with some fairly open-ended questions included. A few years later, the couple took those questions and made them into a short film. Charles’ answers are typically enigmatic, often little more than yes or no. Other times, when the questions are more leading, he simply concedes that this is one way of looking at the design method. That’s not to say, though, that they don’t tell us anything important about his and Ray’s design philosophy. In response to the question, “What are the boundaries of design?” he replies, “What are the boundaries of problems?” In essence, this is the heart of the Eames’ design philosophy. In a rare lengthy answer, Charles himself put it best:
Here is one of the few effective keys to the design problem: the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible; his willingness and enthusiasm for working within those constraints… Each problem has its own list.
"Who is to Say That Pleasure is Useless?"
When it came to furniture design, the Eames’ never forgot the core of this particular design problem. The end result needs to be as comfortable as they are aesthetically pleasing. The couple used molded materials so frequently because they could easily be shaped to fit the human body. Few chairs had been truly ergonomic before Charles and Ray, but after them, this approach is now the norm. Functionalism all too often forgoes comfort for simplicity, but to the Eames’, the two went hand in hand. The couple strived to make their furniture affordable to the average American; their oft-quoted motto was “The best for the most for the least”.
They aren't quite so cost-effective nowadays. Many Eames originals and even reproductions have a four- or five-figure price tag. However, to those familiar with their work, their influence can be spotted everywhere. With pieces like the Eames Lounge Chair and the Executive Chair, they helped to shape the mid-century modern look. Meanwhile, the various versions of the DSR spearheaded a minimalist-yet-comfortable movement that’s still going strong today. In short, the furniture landscape would look very different were it not for Ray and Charles Eames. That makes them well deserving of their place as titans of modern design.
Related: In Profile: Eames Executive Chair