Charles & Ray Eames – pioneers of 20th-century modern design

Charles and Ray Eames were some of the most influential designers of 20th-century modern design. The story of the couple, making their careers in the US, involves both design competitions and World War Two – and Finnish architects Eliel and Eero Saarinen.

Charles and Ray Eames
Charles and Ray Eames are among the best-known and highly regarded designers of the 20th century.

IT WAS THE YEAR 1940. Charles Eames had arrived in the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan to complete his architectural studies a couple years earlier, and had in the meantime become a teacher of industrial design. The Academy was led by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, who had provided Eames with the scholarship that had initially enabled him to study there.

While there, Charles learned to know Eero Saarinen, who worked in his father’s architectural firm and as a teacher at Cranbrook. The friends decided to take part in the Organic Design in Home Furnishings design competition organized by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, with a challenge to create new kind of furniture that was adjusted to human contours. They started designing products out of what was a relatively new material at the time – plywood.

Ray, née Bernice Alexandra Kaiser, had also arrived at Cranbrook to continue her studies. It’s possible that Charles and Ray met when Ray was asked to assist in the drawings and scale models for their entries.

And indeed, the ideas by Eames and Saarinen received awards. The item that attracted most attention was an armchair that now goes by the name of Organic Chair. Despite its success, the chair did not go straight into production, because bending plywood into shape turned out to be rather difficult.

Vitra Organic Chair
The Organic Chair by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen was designed in 1940.
Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen
Charles Eames (on the left) and Eero Saarinen were close colleagues at Cranbrook, in addition to which they designed furniture together for the Kleinhans Music Hall, designed by the Saarinens and completed in the late 1930s. Image © Eames Office, LLC

It was a significant competition also in other ways: Charles and Ray fell in love with each other following their collaboration in Cranbrook. Charles divorced his first wife and proposed to Ray by letter in May 1941, and they married some two months later, in June. They went to Los Angeles for their honeymoon and decided to settle there to make a career for themselves as designers.

The Eames couple, who met in Cranbrook, went to Los Angeles for their honeymoon and decided to settle there to make a career for themselves as designers.

And that was where Charles and Ray developed further the concept of a plywood chair. However, the focus of their design changed dramatically as the US joined the war. The Eameses ended up designing lightweight leg splints for the US navy for wounded soldiers. Some 150,000 of them were made during the war.

Vitra Plywood Group LCW lounge chair, ash
The Plywood Group LCW chair designed by the Eameses is easily recognizable by its low seat and a backrest that has a pleasant, curved shape.
Vitra Eames Elephant, black
The Eames Elephant was designed in 1945. Owing to its challenging share, the plywood elephant did not enter into production at the time, but it is now available.

This wartime experience helped the couple to develop plywood design, and they applied the technology to their furniture designs. By 1946, the Eameses had completed their iconic Plywood Group chair collection, giving up temporarily the idea of developing a chair from a single piece of plywood. So the backrest and seat parts of Lounge Chair Metal and Lounge Chair Wood were separate elements.

Working on the Plywood Group chairs, the Eameses had the idea of offering variation on their furniture: you could choose either wooden or metal legs for the chairs. Modularity became a permanent part of the Eames furniture design concept.

Charles and Ray Eames
The Eames office in Los Angeles was a center of creativity, worked in by several hundred designed over the years. They not only designed furniture, but also created fabrics, toys, exhibitions and movies.
Vitra Eames DAR chair
The plastic chairs designed in the 1950s by the Eameses are design icons whose popularity lies in their timelessness, ergonomics and variety of leg alternatives.
Vitra Eames DSR chair, pale rose - white
The powder-coated leg structure makes the Eames DSR chair suitable for outdoor use.
Vitra Eames DSW Fiberglass Chair, navy blue - maple
Vitra manufactures the Eames DSW Fiberglass chair launched in 1950 in the original colors designed by Ray Eames. The clearly visible fibers of the fiberglass give the chair a lively character.

In 1948, Charles and Ray Eames took part in the Low Cost Furniture organized by MoMA. Their chair, this time made of metal, came second. Despite their success, the Eameses were not entirely happy with metal chairs owing to their high production costs and complicated manufacture.

The Eameses had finally found a solution: it was possible to use fiberglass to make a seat that was organically formed and suitable for mass production.

They had become acquainted with fiberglass-reinforced plastic as they designed their home, also known as Case Study House No. 8. They began to consider the potential of fiberglass also for furniture. One of the turning points was when Charles Eames visited fiberglass maker and boat builder John Willis’s workshop. Eames asked Willis to make the seat part out of fiberglass for the metal chair.

This development led to the launch of the Plastic Shell Group collection in 1950. The Eameses had finally found a solution: it was possible to use fiberglass to make a seat that was organically formed and suitable for mass production.

Charles and Ray Eames
The basis of the couple’s design work, which still inspires many, was right from the beginning to offer people products that would stand the test of time and transcend trends.
Eames Lounge Chair
The iconic Eames Lounge Chair from 1956 is a modern version of the traditional English leather armchair. The Eameses had a goal of creating a large chair combining ergonomics with high-quality materials and craftsmanship.
Vitra Hang it all coat rack
The joyful Hang it all coat rack is one of the best-known items designed by the Eameses. It was designed in 1953 for children, but the fun color palette and design language appealed to adults as well.

The Eameses continued to work on their designs even after their breakthroughs. They developed the earlier award-winning metal chair, and in 1951 they introduced to the world the Wire Chair made of bent and welded wire. Decades of work that had already begun at the Cranbrook Academy of Art was given yet a new shape in 1956: The Lounge Chair was introduced to the public in a TV show in the US. The Lounge Chair went on to become one of the best-known design classics.

Ray and Charles Eames were a designer couple whose work hardly anyone could have missed.

Charles Eames died on August 21, 1978, and Ray died on the very same date a decade later. After this, the majority of the couple’s archives were transferred to the US Library of Congress. Part of the archive, including the office furniture and prototypes were transferred to the Vitra Design Museum.

Lucia Eames, Charles’s daughter from his first marriage, set up the Eames Foundation in 2004, dedicated especially to the preservation of the family home, Eames House. Lucia Eames died in 2014, and her children are looking after the Eames heritage for future generations.

Charles and Ray Eames
Charles and Ray Eames we completely equal partners, working seamlessly together and inspiring each other.

Who: Charles Eames (1907–1978) & Ray Eames (1912–1988)

  • A designer couple from the United States whose furniture and home decor are manufactured by Vitra in Europe and Herman Miller in the US
  • Their most popular furniture include LCM and LCW chairs, DAW and DAR chairs, DCW and DSR chairs, RAR rocking chair, Lounge Chair and LTR table
  • Other design classics include Eames Elephant (1945), Hang it all (1953) and House of Cards (1951)
  • Exhibitions: Mathematica (1961), The World of Franklin & Jefferson (1975)
  • Movies and documentaries: Day of the Dead (1957), Glimpses of the U.S.A. (1959), Powers of Ten (1977)
  • Numerous awards, for example: American Institute of Architects awarded Twenty-five Year Award to the The Charles Eames Residence (1978), RIBA Royal Gold Medal award (1979), International Congress of Societies of Industrial Designers Special Trophy, “Most Influential Designer of the 20th Century” (1985).

See also:

Products designed by Charles & Ray Eames >
Eames book by Taschen >

Text: Elina Tuokko Images: Vitra

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