Few American designers have impacted modern design more than Charles and Ray Eames. Through unique technology and incredible forethought, this husband and wife duo helped define American Modernism, and their influence continues to impact designers today.
Charles was born in 1907 in St. Louis, Missouri. In his early teens, Charles worked at the Laclede Steel Company. It was when working for the steel company that Charles first became interested in engineering and architecture. That interest led him to enroll in Washington University in St. Louis in 1925. However, Charles was never able to complete his degree as he was expelled from the university in 1927 for his undying support of Frank Lloyd Wright.
After his expulsion, Charles traveled to Europe, which only served to increase his interest in modern design. Charles returned from Europe in 1930 and married his first wife, Catherine Woermann. In that same year, Charles established the architectural firm, Gray and Eames. However, the Great Depression soon took its toll, and Charles found it increasingly difficult to make a living as an architect and so he eventually accepted a fellowship to Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan where he was named the head of the design department.
It was at the Cranbrook Academy of Art that Charles met Ray Kaiser. Ray (born Bernice Alexandra Kaiser) was born in 1912 in Sacramento, California. Ray’s father died when she was a child, and so upon graduating high school, she moved with her mother to New York City. Ray studied painting with German Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann. After her mother’s death, Ray moved to Michigan to continue her education at Cranbrook Academy of Art.
Ray and Charles’ collaboration began in 1940 when Ray met and assisted Charles and Eero Saarinen by furnishing designs for an “Organic Design” competition sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Charles and Eero received two first prizes for creating a molded plywood chair and were rewarded with an exhibition at MoMA.
Marriage and Partnership
In 1941, Charles divorced his first wife and quickly married Ray that same year. Charles and Ray's work began in a small spare bedroom in an apartment in Los Angeles, California. Together, they built a molding machine that created plywood for their projects. However, the first revolutionary item that they designed wasn't furniture, but rather leg splints for soldiers to use during World War II.
Despite the success of their leg splints, it wasn’t until the Eames duo began producing plywood furniture for Evans Products in 1946 that they began to receive worldwide recognition. Charles and Ray created the “Plywood” series that included the “DCW” (Dining Chair Wood), “DCM” (Dining Chair Metal), and “LCW” (Lounge Chair Wood). Production for their plywood series was taken over by Herman Miller, Inc soon after the “LCW” was named “the chair of the century” by architectural critic Esther McCoy.
In addition to their success designing furniture, Charles and Ray also received accolades in architecture. Though Charles never formally completed his architecture degree, he and Ray entered the Case House Study Program in 1949, which was sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine. The challenge was for eight nationally known architects to create quality houses using “the best materials available… in the best possible way” and the homes were also supposed to “be capable of duplication and in no sense be an individual ‘performance’.”
Charles and Ray ultimately designed thirty-six homes and constructed twenty-two of them. However, their most famous project was Case Study House No. 8. Case Study House No. 8 (now dubbed the “Eames House”) was built in Pacific Palisades, CA and constructed using prefabricated materials and brightly painted steel panels. The couple lived and worked in their home from its construction in 1949 until their deaths (Charles in 1978 and Ray in 1988). The Eames House is considered the most significant home of the Case Study and is visited by thousands of admirers every year.
Later Years and Today
Charles and Ray Eames continued to work together until Charles died in 1978. Ray Eames died ten years later, to the day. Ray often said, “What works good is better than what looks good, because what works good lasts.” Indeed, Ray knew the secret to the sauce, as their work has influenced a multitude of designers and their pieces are still purchased and cherished by thousands of consumers.
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Miller's Collecting Modern Design by Sally Hoban with Consultant Editor: Alexander Payne