The Eames couple. Photo: enlacearquitectura.com. The Eames couple. Photo: enlacearquitectura.com.

They largely helped to democratize this discipline, making their creations accessible through a modern industrial approach, and also by using innovative techniques and materials such as plywood and aluminum. Without neglecting the luxury market, they believed that scientific and technological innovations should be placed within the reach of the masses, and geared themselves towards mass production. As skillful pedagogues alongside their design activity, they also made a number of educational films, capitalizing on their experience in the film world after producing several film sets in the 1940s onwards.

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The encounter

Born on 17 June 1907 in St. Louis, Missouri, Charles Eames Jr. embarked on an architecture degree in 1925 at Washington University, but interrupted his studies to travel to Europe, where he namely discovered the first works by Germany’s Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as well as designs by Le Corbusier, the father of the Unité d’habitation (“Housing Unit”). Upon his return to St. Louis, he opened his own architectural firm in 1930, and notably collaborated with architect Eliel Saarinen, who had immigrated to the United States from Finland several years earlier.

A few of the duo´s famous pieces. Photo: Barnebys. A few of the duo´s famous pieces. Photo: Barnebys.

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Upon the latter’s invitation, Eames resumed his architectural studies, in 1938, at the Cranbrook Academy of Arts in Michigan, where Saarinen was president. During these years, he also helped to set up the Cranbrook Kingswood School, an American equivalent of the Bauhaus School in Germany.

Arriving at the Academy to deepen his knowledge in architecture and town planning, Charles would later become an industrial-design teacher there, and also made an encounter that would change the course of his career and his work: Ray Kaiser, at the time a student in abstract painting. Originally from Sacramento, California, Ray teamed up with the idealistic and inventive designer, whom she married in 1941, and together they had two children.

Letter of marriage proposal. Photo: Studio Eames. Letter of marriage proposal. Photo: Studio Eames.

War and industry

The couple then moved to Venice, near Los Angeles, and began working for the film industry, namely creating film sets for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) productions. Researching the latest design developments, they explored new moulding and material-bending techniques.

The Eames splinting technique being tried out. Photo: Studio Eames. The Eames splinting technique being tried out. Photo: Studio Eames.

When the United States joined the war, the Navy looked to Charles and Ray Eames for their expertise in plywood and fiberglass. In this way, the couple helped to manufacture splints, stretchers, and even fuselage parts for gliders, discovering, along the way, mass production – an approach which they would then transpose to their own furniture universe.

Created as an extension of this momentum, their company, Evans Product, nevertheless struggled to find customers, and it was under the name Herman Miller Inc., an office-equipment and furniture company based in Michigan since the 1920s, that their creations would be distributed from 1946 onwards, rapidly finding success among America’s wealthy and middle classes.

Ray and Charles Eames. Photo: Studio Eames. Ray and Charles Eames. Photo: Studio Eames.

Improving society

Drawing inspiration from sources as unexpected as a potato crisp or a baseball mitt, the Eames chairs and armchairs sought to meld together with human body shapes, with the help of plywood, aluminum, steel wire, plastic, and other materials used in aeronautics, to provide more comfort, flexibility and suppleness.

With its seat separated from its back, the Lounge Chair Wood (or LCW) is undoubtedly, from this perspective, their most famous model – an undeniable commercial success, selling several million chairs, which opened the way to multiple variations. Produced from 1956 onwards, the Eames Lounge Chair, setting out to democratize relaxation chairs, would also reach new summits, selling six million copies all over the planet. The way the Eames couple saw it, the goal of the design was to improve society and to understand the world better.

Eames Lounge Chair Wood. Photo: CG Trader. Eames Lounge Chair Wood. Photo: CG Trader.

The prefabricated house

This goal would also prompt the husband-and-wife team to take part in the “Case Study Houses” programme, launched in 1945 on the basis of an idea put forward by the head editor of the magazine Arts & Architecture, John Entenza. The principle was to design and build practical and economic houses that could be reproduced easily via the use of prefabrication techniques and the era’s industrial materials, namely recycled materials.

Eames Case Study House 8. Photo: Eames Office. Eames Case Study House 8. Photo: Eames Office.

The house designed by Charles and Ray Eames (n°8) in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles was presented in 1949. Simple and light, drawing inspiration from traditional Japanese architecture, it remains a reference in the field of prefabricated construction: the steel frame was installed in less than 90 hours…

Jacks of all trades

Apart from their decidedly modernist furniture (including chairs, armchairs, tables and coat racks) and architecture, the Eames also excelled in toy-making, graphic design, photography, film and multimedia installations, namely via a multi-screen system developed in collaboration with Hollywood and IBM during the 1960s. Their films, pedagogical in intent, sometimes propagandist, or even experimental, not only dealt with their pet artistic and scientific subjects, but also political ones, in the original and noble sense of the term, announcing the advent of the information society and the power of images.

The Eames. Photo: Vitra. The Eames. Photo: Vitra.

Charles Eames died of a heart attack in St. Louis in August 1978. His wife Ray would die ten years later in Los Angeles. Their work, both multifaceted and popular, and their industrial-scale approach, are today indivisible.

Part of their collections is conserved by the Vitra Design Museum, in Weil am Rhein, on the Swiss-German border. Vitra, a furniture maker based near Basel, continues to produce and distribute the most timeless Eames pieces today.

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