American designer Charles Eames opened his own architectural practice in 1930, but it wasn’t until he attended the Cranbrook Academy in Michigan that his career began to take flight and turn him into a household name (no pun intended). It was at Cranbrook that he met his future wife, fellow student Ray Kaiser, and it was at Cranbrook that he was befriended by Eero Saarinen, son of the school’s president, famed Finnish designer Eliel Saarinen.
Eames and the younger Saarinen entered and won the Museum of Modern Art’s “Organic Furniture Competition” in 1940. The competition’s theme was the exploration of the evolution of furniture design in a rapidly changing society. The prize included a promise from several manufacturers to produce the winning designs and a pledge from Bloomingdales in New York to sell the completed contemporary furniture. Eames and Saarinen entered a line of cabinets and tables, designs that are still prized today, but their production was at first postponed, then abandoned, as America entered World War II.
This disappointment turned out to be fortuitous, as shortly after they were married, Charles and Ray would form a design team that would effectively change the way the world thinks about furniture, architecture and design. Here are five ways that the Eames’ changed the world.
1. Interior Design
During the war, Eames began to make molded plywood splints for the Air Force. Modeled after his own leg, they proved to be the inspiration for one of the couple’s greatest achievements: the LCW, known as either the Lounge Chair Wood or the Low Chair Wood. Eames designed the iconic chair with his wife, although she would not receive recognition for her contribution until many years later. Their vision was to create a bent-plywood chair from a single piece of plywood, but the material persistently cracked when bent at sharp angles. The couple eventually arrived at a different design, creating two separate pieces, one for the seat and one for the backrest, joined by a lumbar support. While it’s a familiar design now, at the time it represented a significant breakthrough in the furniture world.
The Eames Lounge and Ottoman took the bent-wood design into the realm of luxury, using black leather and molded rosewood to create an iconic status symbol that is in as much demand today as it was when it was first produced in 1956. Crafted with thick, tufted cushions encased in laminated wood shells, the chair derives its unique style from its function. It is a forthright, modern statement, designed for unabashed comfort and widely accepted as the forerunner to most contemporary chaise lounges.
A native of Sacramento, California, Ray Eames persuaded her husband to move with her back to the Golden State in the late 1940s, where they designed and built their own home. The steel frame house was assembled on site as a response to a magazine’s challenge to create affordable housing. The design made a significant contribution to America’s need for post-war housing, demonstrating that industrial components could be used to create affordable homes.
Charles and Ray produced dozens of avant-garde films during their lifetime, many using cutting-edge technology and techniques. The film “Blacktop,” sometimes projected on the floor, contains images of soapsuds floating on an asphalt floor, with the music of Bach playing in the background.
Their film “Glimpses of the USA,” commissioned by the United States Information Agency in 1959 for a Moscow exhibition, featured multi-screen technology presenting over 2,000 images of life in the United States.
The Eames’ philosophy of design, which is perhaps best illustrated by their motto “the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least,” was driven by a search to find real solutions to what they perceived as fundamental needs: shelter, comfort and an appreciation of beauty. To that end, they gladly worked with large corporations like Boeing and IBM to ensure that their designs were exposed to as many people as possible.
In lectures, Charles often spoke of what he called the “banana leaf parable.” He portrayed the development of design as a process that begins with basic forms and materials, such as using a banana leaf for a plate, but which over time evolves into something elaborately different, such as an ornate china plate. The Eames philosophy was that something vital to the spirit is lost when design moves too far away from function.
Charles and Ray Eames are best remembered for their iconic furniture designs, particularly the Eames Lounge and Ottoman. The lounge chair has become thoroughly ensconced in American culture, so much so that it is still used today in every form of media. The lounge chair has come to represent a sophisticated taste, one that does not settle for anything less than the best, one that recognizes quality and one that wants that sensibility to be appreciated by others. From its appearance in Dick Tracy cartoons to its familiar place on the set of television show Frasier, it’s hard to think of another chair that has had such an impact, not just on modern furniture, but on urban culture in general.
Charles Eames died on August 21, 1978. He was 71 years old. Ray died ten years later, on the same day, at the age of 75. The couple remained productive all their lives, designing furniture, architecture, films, exhibits, sculptures and toys, often using techniques that they themselves had invented. The Eames’ taught the world that mass production needn’t be soulless, cheap and generic, but could be functional as well as beautiful, stylish as well as whimsical, and affordable as well as inspired.