Charles and Ray Eames: an introduction
The Eameses had a prolific career of integrating concepts and creating designs in almost every creative enterprise starting with the post war years and culminating in the space age. The collective output of the Eames’ office included iconic furniture, designs for mass-production, prosthetics, graphics, exhibitions, films and architecture, mixing ideas, materials and new technologies- incorporated as they emerged. They embraced industrial technology and ideas of mass production with optimism rather than suspicion. Inspired by a modern but humanist aesthetic, they brought ‘good design’ to the mass market. (Massey 2001, p.155) Their prolific work in so many disciplines made design accessible to all. Their work often anticipated developments that would take the turn of the century to materialize. The influences of the Eameses can be seen in the visual sleekness and functional formality of most aspects associated with modern society in post war America.
Charles Eames was an architect by training. Eliel Sarinen had offered him a fellowship at his Cranbrook Academy where he remained for several years teaching and developing an experimental design department. It was here that he collaborated with Eero Sarinen and others, including Ray, his future wife and creative partner. Ray Eames had studied painting and was an abstract artist before she joined the Cranbrook Academy.
Charles Eames had stated that “Eventually everything connects-people, ideas, objects, etc. … the quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.” (Roux 2007)
This essay attempts to relate design connections with quality by reading in detail the Eameses’ iconic furniture, their design for the equally influential house at Santa Monica, their experiments with graphics and film. In the course of this essay, the influence of the Eameses on several later designers is also put into context.
The Eames Chairs
In early and mid 20th century, architects had to come to terms with machine and mass production. According to Page (1983, p.210), Eames was the first architect to design a collection of furniture that totally reconciled art and industry probably because he was the first architect to feel totally comfortable with technology. His approach to chair design was unlike anybody before him. Eames first arrived at a technical solution for a given situation and then re-designed the separate parts into a harmonious whole. “In developing the design, the Eameses used the concept of ‘guest and host’. In designing a chair, for example, it was just as important to them to consider who will be sitting in it as it was to decide what kind of material to use. Their notion was that if both sides are considered, the product or environment will automatically improve.” (Roux 2007)
Nowhere is Eames’ influence more significant that in the design of furniture, and it is here that the assertion about the ‘quality of connections’ is seen to full effect. Arthur Drexler, a curator of MOMA has asserted that Charles Eames contributed “at least three of the major chair designs of the twentieth century… His work influenced furniture design in virtually every country and his mastery of advanced technology set new standards of both design and production.” (Neuhart et al. 1989, inside front cover) The Eamses’ use of molded plywood, for example, influenced Italian, German and Scandinavian Design (Byars 2004, p.205).
The Eames chair has been described as one of the most compelling artifacts of its generation. Charles was able to produce exquisite forms with new processing technology and a new concept of separating a chair’s back and seat with its supporting frame and devising connections between them that were logical and made obvious through the quality of their detailing. The molded chairs, lounges, ottomans, storage units and seating in public places like airports and stadiums designed by the Eameses changed the functional, utilitarian, ‘good taste’ furniture that were the post war norm to spaces of sophistication and high design that were affordable by everyone. It is the processes by which these designs were conceived and the manner in which they were put together that their enduring qualities can be appreciated.
There is a distinct connect in the evolution of furniture design as developed by Eames, specifically seen in the typology of the chair. Starting from the early 1940s during his time in Cranbrook Academy of Art, Michigan, when Eames won a competition designing a chair in collaboration with Eero Saarinen, to the iconic developments of the chairs, benches and chaise lounges in the early 1970s, these designs were not ‘only advanced in visual conception but also in the method of construction’ (Larrabee and Vignelli 1981, p.15). The winning chair by Saarinen and Eames in 1940 MOMA competition entitled, Organic Design in Home Furnishing, intended to be of moulded plywood in double curvature, turned out to be too difficult to produce. (Pile 2000, p.327) Although both designers went their separate ways later, both Eames and Saarinen would work on evolving from this basic model.
Eames would carry out several experiments in molding plywood to his will. In 1941 the Eameses developed a device they named the ‘Kazam!’ machine, establishing a basic technique for molding plywood into compound three dimensional curves. The goal was to devise a system for producing high quality low cost furniture that could be duplicated on an assembly line (Neuhart et al. 1989, p.15). This would form the basis of all further developments in the plywood bending process. This would soon result in the slender ‘dining chair’ designed in 1946 (mass-produced by Herman Miller) made of molded walnut plywood, steel rods and rubber shock mounts (Sembach 1982, p.58); connected almost seamlessly, to the iconic 1956 ‘Lounge Chair and Ottoman’ with its cast aluminum swivel base, rosewood veneer, molded plywood base, leather covered polyfoam and down upholstery (p.26-27); to the impossibly sleek 1969 Chaise Lounge with its black epoxy coated aluminum base, with six soft foam padded leather covered cushions joined by zippers (p.151). The shell would then come into its own, no longer covered by upholstery, in his 1945 ‘low chairs’, made from entirely composite pieces of bent plywood. Eames was pioneering in developing chairs entirely made from mixed or assembled artificial materials, used in distinctive ways that had not been imagined until that time. It was the mixing of materials and the sophisticated joinery developed specifically for these chairs that would establish their lasting reputation as objects of sophistication and timelessness.
It has often been said, not always with admiration that Charles Eames designed for himself. So he did, but in this above all he was conscious of discipline, restraint and responsibility (Naylor and Ball 2005, p.45). His designs would soon exert a powerful social influence as ‘ordinary, yet designed’ objects inhabiting the world after the war. An ethos of functionalism informed all of their furniture designs. “What works is better than what looks good,” Ray said. “The looks good can change, but what works, works.” (LOC 1999) These objects were available and affordable to all, chiefly due to the cheaper costs and techniques of mass production, and in some cases, ‘stackability’. These beautiful objects brought sophistication the common taste, and universalized design in the United States and Europe.
The shell seat would reach another dimension of mass production (and stack-friendliness) when Eames made the 1949 molded plastic ‘bucket seat’ chair with an under frame of cast aluminum, metal tubes and wire rods. This distinctive seat would be made through the process of injection molding. This would create a single shell integrating the seat and back into a seamless form. While costly to produce to begin with, this system would result in an incredibly low unit cost, and soon these chairs would be produced by the thousands leading to their ubiquity in the world today.
Ray Eames’ Graphic Design
Ray designed several covers for the California magazine Arts & Architecture. The Magazine reflected contemporary trends in architecture, design, music and the arts and the cover designs were of primary importance in presenting its new directions. Inspiration for the covers came from the contents of the particular issue and from the work going on in their office. (Nuehart et al. 1989, p.31). The designs of the covers reflect influences that Ray had imbibed during her training as a painter, especially of Joan Miro and Hans Hofmann. She freely incorporated Charles’s drawings and photographs in these layouts. The magazine became an influencing force for architectural innovations in residential design and planning in the post war period that championed the use of industrial processes to mass produce multiple housing units. Ray’s cover designs with their bold graphics, collages of shapes, lines and text gave a provocative face to this cause.
Ray would have a profound impact on Deborah Sussman (a medalist of the American Institute of Graphic Arts), who had worked with the Eameses. She would trace her influences to Ray’s free associative work, and would herself integrate graphics with the built environment through extensive collaboration. Her work would be informed by ‘perceptive observation and rigorous documentation of communities and cultures’. Her most significant work was for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and for Walt Disney Resorts. (Sussman Prejza & Co. Inc. 2004)
The Eameses’ Films
The Eameses made more than 150 films on every conceivable subject for every conceivable audience. In these films, they used the imagery of daily rituals and entertainments, vernacular landscapes, and ordinary objects to promote popular culture as the currency of exchange between nations and people. (LOC 1999) Their philosophy of ‘guest-host relationship’ was at work in the films too. “It (guest-host relationship) also exists in design: how you make a chair or begin a film, and in all the subtle equations and gestures of welcoming in every day human existence.” (Eames, L. 2006)
Their most interesting film project was to create a show for the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow which was to be the first cultural exchange between the two countries since the Russian revolution. Charles conceptualized and created a production called Glimpses of the U.S.A., in which still images and live action footage were projected on seven large screens simultaneously. The show was of 10 minute duration and was screened several times a day during the course of the exhibition in the geodesic pavilion by the Buckminster Fuller. It created a fascinating portrait of American values in the post war period and had an impact on the Russian audience.
To produce the multi- screen display, thousands of images were collected. The production was designed to provide a visual expression of the complexity and diversity of American life. The assembled composition show cased such aspects of daily life as where Americans live, work, and play, how they get around, what they eat and how they dress. The presentation also included live action segments of industrial processes like milling and refining. The concluding images were of partings, goodnights, symbols of love and friendship- the last image was of a bunch of forget-me-nots. (Neuhart et al. 1989, p. 241)
Perhaps the most comprehensive exposition of Charles Eames statement: ‘eventually everything connects’ can be seen (as manifesto) in the 1977 short film ‘Powers of Ten’ that he made with Ray Eames (Eames, L. 2006). Beginning with a shot of a picnic lunch in a Chicago park 1m by 1m across, the film zooms up in every subsequent shot encompassing a hundred fold increases until a frame 100 light years across (10 raised to 18). The camera then zooms back in to the park and then continues in a forward direction of hundred fold magnification starting with a picnicker’s hand and then inward and onward until the power of ten is magnified 18 hundred fold into the subatomic world of the nucleus of a carbon atom, with its protons and neutrons vibrating wildly. In a short duration of around ten minutes Eames manages to ‘connect’ every element in the known world- life, the universe and everything.
The Eames House
In 1949, the Eameses designed their own house in Santa Monica, California as a ‘case study’ for the journal Arts & Architecture. This house was entirely made of components ‘off-the-peg’, ‘mail- ordered’ from industrial catalogs and assembled on site. The final house had standard industrial lattice joists and slender black steel window sections to create a modular structure. The delicate glass and steel design of this house emerged from ‘on site improvisations.’ (Weston 2004, p.90) This made the design non-site specific, and yet had a ‘light nomadic quality’ (Colquhoun 2002, p.237). Its interiors were carefully selected objects (and) were as much part of the architecture as the building itself. The aesthetic effect arose from the careful juxtaposition of ‘readymade’ elements. (Curtis 1987, p.263). These elements quietly complemented the structure, itself a product of the ‘readymade’.
The usage of industrial materials, though obvious, was not fetishized. Most of the components are therefore what they are worth, understated, yet appropriate. The basic set of materials is used in several combinations that define the parts of the building and their usage. It is from this that the rational beauty of the design emerges. “The Eames house was conceived literally and metaphorically as a frame for living and much of its magic resides in the way that the trees, plants, furniture and carefully assembled objects become as much part of the total effect as the building fabric.” (Weston 2004, p.90) The Eameses would move into this house as soon as it was completed and spend the rest of their lives there.
The Eameses’ Influence
The Eames House was not the first steel and glass house to be built. The famous glass box experiments of Mies Van Der Rohe’s Farnsworth House and Philip Johnson’s Glass House preceded this. However, the Eames House was, in a sense, ‘the obverse of Mies van der Rohe’s Platonism’ in that it was assembled from standard parts and composed in a sensitive irregularity, and a refined sense of the ‘ordinary’ (Curtis 1987, p.263). This building, ‘off-the-peg’, became a paradigm for many visiting English designers such as the Smithson’s and James Stirling.” (Jencks 1982, p.214)
According to Kenneth Frampton, Norman Foster has cited such ‘Produktformen’ as Paxton’s Crystal Palace and the Eames’ own house built of ‘off-the-peg’ components as the antecedents for his three storied glass walled Willis- Faber and Dumas insurance offices at Ipswich, a building that emphasizes the elegance of the production itself. (Frampton 1992, p.300-301) Even Frank Gehry, himself a resident of California in the late ’70s, would conceive his own house using inexpensive industrial materials like corrugated aluminum, steel mesh cinder block, chain link and raw plywood, developing what the critic Barbaralee Damonstein (1980, p.35) refers to as ‘cheapskate architecture’
Their furniture designs had an enduring impact on subsequent designers. After the Eameses, the ‘shell’ chairs would be further refined by former collaborators Don Albinson and Harry Bertoia. Albinson created a fiberglass shell while head of the design department at Knoll, in New York. He would later make his own contribution by creating the 1965 ‘Stacking Chair’ for Knoll (Byars 2004, p.18). Later designers like Robin Day, would develop similar chairs made from these processes in polypropylene.
Harry Bertoia had worked with the Eamses on molded plywood technology for airplanes during the war. Bertoia would, as a designer for Knoll, develop the iconic ‘Diamond Chair’ in 1952, morphing the Eames shell seat into a metal wire basket work shell, with a ‘nougahyde seat pad’. “If you look at these chairs, they are mainly made of air, like sculpture. Space passes right through them.” (p.71)
Conclusion: the Eames Aesthetic
To understand the Eameses’ approach towards the objects that they turned their attention to is to understand their aesthetic. Jencks (1982, p.213-214), has referred to this attitude as ‘object integrity’ where, as in the Eames House, “everything … is patiently placed and felt to be significant. Thus the open web joists are equal to the bowl of fruit, the exposed metal decking is adequate the eucalyptus trees, the ‘off-the-peg’ industrial sash is as significant as the displayed flowers. Although the industrial form serves as a background to the human foreground, both are of equal emotional weight.” For Roux (2007), the Eameses were “archaeologists of aesthetics, digging up shapes, colors, objects and found items everywhere and anywhere.” They believed in lessons that could be learnt from everyday object in the world around them. Indeed most of their projects would emerge out from the everyday world that at that point caught their fancy. They could extract an aesthetic out of the most mundane of events or surroundings. In their film Blacktop, for instance, the Eameses bring out the serenity inherent in the washing of a schoolyard.
This approach is seen in their life as in their designs, famously expressed by Charles: “Eventually everything connects-people, ideas, objects, etc. … the quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.” Each area of modern life they touched-no matter how far afield-was infused with the same philosophy, rooted in an unwavering belief: Everything is connected, from the tiniest line of a pencil marking to the biggest splash of ocean to a falling star. (Roux 2007)
The Eames would make lifetime of design that constantly strived to serve different needs of the ‘real world’. The Eamses believed in the tradition of High Modernism, that design could significantly improve the lot of the people and enrich their lives. That this could be done with a light touch is amply demonstrated in their work, and in the work of those influenced by them. They left a legacy of design that bridged the gap between high and low, relishing constraints, but never compromising on quality, and always building on the connections and associations that the world offers, to create fresh objects and environments of lasting beauty and elegance.