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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Text: Elina Tuokko Images: Vitra