Friday, October 21, 2005

Charles & Ray Eames: Multi-Disciplinary Designers

I. Introduction
- Charles Eames and Ray Eames gave shape to America's twentieth century. Their lives and work represented the nation's defining social movements:
- West Coast's coming-of-age, the economy's shift from making goods to the producing information, and the global expansion of American culture.
- Eameses embraced the era's visionary concept of modern design as an agent of social change
- Evolution from furniture designers to cultural ambassadors demonstrated their boundless talents and the overlap of their interests with those of their country
- Eameses partnered with the federal government and the country's top businesses to lead the charge to modernize postwar America.
A. Charles Eames - “a real Midwesterner”
- Born in St.Louis, Missouri in 1907, as a young man he worked for engineers and manufacturers
- Summer of 1925 immediately before entering Washington U. he worked at the Edwin Guth Fixture Co. designing lighting fixtures, an interesting transition from steel mill architecture.
- He studied architecture for two years at Washington University, before accepting a fellowship from Eliel Saarinen to Cranbrook Academy of Art
- Cranbrook, he became an instructor after one year and also during this time worked in Saarinen's private practice.
- Worked for Trueblood and Graf, one of St. Louis busiest architecture firms, fulltime between 1928-30, finally opening his own firm with colleague Charles Gray (1930)
- Architectural work in the intervening years was eclectic, drawing on the colonial revival and modern styles, as well as his Scandinavian influence of Eliel Saarinen.
- 1929, he married his first wife, Catherine Woermann (they divorced in 1941), and a year later Charles' only child, daughter Lucia was born.
- Depression devastated the architectural and building trades between 1924-33 employment in the building industry fell by 63%.
- In 1930, Charles started his own architectural office.
- 1933 left his home, wife and daughter, and visited Mexico, a trip which he later referred to as his “On the Road tour,” glimpse of a wild streak.
- Spent most of his time painting, a personal moment recalling a fiesta or a night in jail.
- Mexico introduced him to rich craft tradition, returning home with a small collection of objects which he considered both artistic and archeological value.
- Of the three houses known to have been designed by Charles Eames (w/ Robert Walsh) were the Dinsmoor House, Dean House, Meyer House.
- Charles first gained recognition for furniture design in 1940
B. Ray Eames
- Bernice Kaiser was born Dec 15, 1915, Sacramento CA, known as Ray Ray, came from a loving but overprotective home after her elder sister died a few months before she was born.
- Almost 28, she was still a student when she met Charles in 1940, so powerful a relationship when they met, that she regarded her life as only fully starting when they met.
- California lifestyle’s emphasis on the new affected the attitudes of the young girl, later developing a passionate interest in new forms of art, design, film, and dance. Showed early aptitude for art.
- Graduated high school in 1931, spent a term at Sacramento Junior College, before moving to New York.
- New York in early 1930’s was an exciting place to be for a young artiest, enrolled at the Art Students League, studying Hans Hoffman, before moving on to the Cranbrook Academy. He greatly inspired them as students who followed him to his new institution and summer schools.
- Hoffman’s work was abstract in form, often dealing with recognizable genres and employed expressionistic brush strokes with bright primary colors. Concerned w/ creating the illusion of volume while retaining the integrity of the flat canvas.
- Met and assisted Charles and Eero Saarinen in preparing designs for the MOMA Competition
- 1936 she showed a great deal of her time to American Abstract Artists (AAA) militant group fought against the right to exhibit non-representational art.
- Looked for inspiration from foreign artists including Picasso Mondrian, Bauhaus abstractionists.
- Continued to paint after moving to California with Charles in 1941.
- Ray made a major contribution to the forms of Eames furniture.
- Some of her best graphics produced for the magazine “California Arts & Architecture” reflected the influences of Arp, Miro, Picasso, Gabo and Calder.
- Charles died in St Louis in 1978. Ray carried on their work with the Eames Office until she died in 1989.
C. California
- Married in 1941 and moved to California, a somewhat pleasant yet stimulating place to live and work and the casual Californian lifestyle suited their preference for the simple.
- Particularly Los Angeles offered Eameses conducive climate for talents to flourish.
- Tied to the Arts and Crafts Movement, in the Hispanic revival, focusing on California’s “Spanish” past.
- Designs from this period included: molded plywood splints, stretchers, and airplane components, followed by: the chairs, screens and tables which marked their entry into the world of modern design.
- The link with earlier avant-garde architecture and interior design was made explicit by their use of primary colors for these panels.
- During the war they were commissioned by the Navy to produce molded plywood splints, stretchers and experimental glider shells.
- In 1946, Evans Products began producing the Eameses' molded plywood furniture, their molded plywood chair was called "the chair of the century"
- Production was taken over by Herman Miller, Inc. who continues to produce the furniture in the United States to this day. Another company, Vitra International, manufactures the furniture in Europe.
- In 1949, Charles and Ray designed and built their own home in Pacific Palisades, California as part of the Case Study House Program sponsored by Arts and Architecture Magazine.
- Their design and innovative use of materials made this house a mecca for architects and designers from all over the world, and considered one of the most important post-war residences built anywhere in the world.
D. Cranbrook
- Establish by George C. Booth, Cranbrook could be called the Bauhaus of America in terms of its importance as a crucible of American Modernism.
- Success was due to Eliel Saarinen who was open to ideas and who encouraged students to experiment with form, materials, and techniques.
- The Cranbrook emphasis on workshop activities and learning by doing greatly appealed to Eames. Ray’s four-month stay reinforced her Arts and Crafts notions of quality handwork and joy in labor.
- Charles was better versed in Arts and Crafts ideas retaining and developing while becoming more fully acquainted w/ International style architecture and w/ Organic Modernism. He offered the Cranbrook fellowship because it offered him time to read and reflect on his own work w/out the pressures of having to make a living.
- Students were later to favor the “Machine Aesthetic” & others “Organic Modernism,” some, like the Eameses worked in both.
- Issues debated at Cranbrook went beyond style to consideration of how best to retain human values while using new materials and technologies, producing better living environments.
- Eameses offered particular solutions to the questions of how people might be housed and of how they may live; these took of many manifestations in the years after leaving Cranbrook.
II. Theories / Influences
A. Frank Lloyd Wright
- Architect whom Charles had most admired when living in California. He was responsible for several houses in the Los Angeles area; Barnsdall, Milard, Ennis, Freeman, & Storer Houses.
- Influence on him was broad rather then particular. Wright rejected the dead architecture of the past, especially the Spanish styles that had spread, but did look rather to Mayan, Aztec, & Toltec architecture of Mexico and Central America.
- All American post war architects interested in new materials and techniques were influenced to some degree by Wright; his use of concrete blocks in his houses of the 1920’s
- Charles emphasized what most impressed him was “schmaltzy stuff about the fields and the earth…and materials.”
- Charles loved the grand concepts about relationship of architecture to nature, developing greatly after the late 1920’s & early 30’s, the period of Wright’s greatest influence on him.
- Both questioned their Beaux-Arts “pseudo training” of imitation and “superficial eclecticism”
- Wright’s intense individualism stuck with Charles who was steeped in the American tradition of individual freedom.
B. Saarinen’s
- Worked in the architectural and design practice run by Eliel Saarinen and son Eero, learning about the process and acknowledging that it wasn’t until he started working with them that he had any concept of what a concept was.
- Eliel appointed him Instructor of Design in the Intermediate School of Design – which prepared students for full Cranbrook curriculum.
- Great deal in common besides Beaux-Arts architectural training and a burning desire to find design solutions appropriate to the contemporary world.
- Charles view on work was reinforced by Eliel insistence that “work is the key to creative growth of mind,” and “as long as man is compelled to find his own way, his mind is bound to increase in inventiveness.” This colored the future thinking of Charles & Ray.
- Worked in Saarinen office 1939-40, 3 important projects with Eero, who was to become an extremely close lifelong friend.
- Largely through Eero that Charles became a full-fledged modernist, determined to research every aspect of a project & use techniques of mass production to improve the human environment.
- Through Eero he also increased his appreciation of the fine arts.
- 1st collaboration, exhibition of faculty work at Cranbrook in 1939; reflected ideas of Herbert Bayer, particularly in use of strings and wires to suspend display stands and define and organize space.
- 2nd collaboration was furniture for Klienhans Hall in Buffalo (1939-40), building designed by Saarinens, Charles assisted in seating, including armchair influenced by Alto.
- 3rd collaboration was when they entered the Museum of Modern Art’s 1940 Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition and won major prizes in the seating and case furniture categories.
C. Alvar Aalto
- Most influential furniture designer to Charles and Eero, and later Charles and Ray.
- 1930 Aalto, friend of Arp’s who was extremely knowledgeable about abstract painting and sculpture, experimented with free plastic shapes for buildings and objects in the hope of avoiding the dangers of implicit in strict standardization.
- This and his belief wood and wood-processing industry were capable of reconciling humanism and the industrial present, influenced Eames.
- In a shift from “machine aesthetic” modernism, Aalto influenced new generation of designers in Europe and U.S.
- Recognized need for rationality and standardization; experimented with various materials in search of modern” products, favored wood.
- Close connections between Alvar and Eliel, which Charles and Eero became well acquainted with plywood furniture.
- His furniture was showed in 1938 exhibition at MoMA, and 1939 New York World’s Fair.
- By 1940’s his furniture was greatly admired by design-conscious Americans.
III. Projects
- Challenges were proposed to the Eames by clients such as Herman
Miller Inc., IBM, Westinghouse, Boeing and Polaroid, as well as taking on
their own design projects.
A. Architecture
- Charles referred to himself as an architect rather than a designer, claiming his emphasis on his concern with structure.
- Ray, when tagged fine-arts-wife who worked with her famous husband imposed on her, she resisted. Her role in relation to interior decoration has been widely acknowledged than her role in joint architectural work.
- Eameses architecture and interiors made space within modernism for a more personal view of house and home.
- “Orthodox” modernists in that they used standardized parts for prefabricated buildings.
- Their functioning decoration reintroduced arrangements of decorative objects to interiors from which they had been largely banished, a move seen as welcoming and refreshing.
Early works:
- Dinsmoor House, (1936) much more traditional in style than others, modest in scale, two-story brick house designed in “Colonial Williamsburg” style, also with a dramatic front door.
- Dean House, (1936) more “modern.” Retained some classical elements, built of brick, however the white paint, clean lines, restrained use of ornament, low pitched roof, metal framed corner windows made it much less traditional.
- Meyer House, (1936-38) largest and most assured house designs, built of brick, 5 bedrooms, servants’ quarters, library, nursery, wine cellars, and formal gardens. Visited Cranbrook during the period of design and construction to obtain advice form Saarinen. The classicism was stripped down, but the Meyers wanted a house that looked up to date.
- Houses discussed were interesting but hardly cutting edge of his design practice.
- Eames House (1947) part of the Case Study House Program
- Case Study Houses 8 & 9, Eames House & Entenza House.
- Eames House designed in collaboration with Ray
- Idea of separate living and working spaces came from them and was retained when the house was completely redesigned 1947-49.
- Comparison: Lovell House, by Richard Nuetra: both houses light poured through large sections of glass and flexible internal spaces were broken up by partitions. Each house had a built in sofa in an intimate alcove soft light curtains and plants in double-height living room.
- 1945 Eames House design drew heavily on Mies van der Rohe’s designs for a cantilevered glass house on a hillside. Saarinen and the cantilever both disappeared from the project, suggesting the new design was more the work of Charles and Ray.
- TheEames home, open structure with infill panels, was made of prefabricated steel frame and glass home in Los Angeles and the office they created in a converted garage. The steel frame house was assembled on the site in 1949 out of industrial components. Tall construction through which space is permitted to flow in three dimensions.
- New version aimed a maximum volume from the minimum materials. Space was a key consideration, regarding it more important than a swimming pool or a garage. Steel chosen for its relative cheapness as well as lightness and strength.
- Interior is spacious, light, and flexible. Main living area utilizes all 17 ft. of the two-story structure. An overhanging sleeping gallery with an intimate built-in sofa is located above where the living and dining areas are divided. The ceiling is light and skeleton like, revealing the steel frame, lighting simple not detracting form the delicate structural pattern of the ceiling.
- Sensitive location of house with in landscape places it in the Arts and Crafts tradition. The site dictated the house’s location resulting in a solution that now appears natural and inevitable that it’s difficult to imagine any other location.
- Charles Eames considered everything the Eames Office did as an extension of architecture and as early as 1937 Ray wrote, "Modern architecture-- not a style. A philosophy of life." Nevertheless, the list of their built -- or even designed -- buildings is short indeed
- Interested in America's postwar need for mass-produced housing the Eames Office worked here from 1943 until Ray's death in 1988, moving out in early 1989.
- Entenza House (1937)
- Designed in collaboration with Eero Saarinen, less than 200 yards from Eames House.
- Conceals it’s structure and emphasizes the horizontal
- Construction is a flat metal box with a distinctly horizontal flow of space inside, strictly controlled by free-standing screens and partitions.
- Both houses have been called “technological twins but architectural opposites.”
- Structure of house was ingenious, weight of frame was supported on 12 steel columns only one exposed, others hidden behind pilaster covered walls, new materials were in evidence, roof covered with single slab of insulating concrete pierced by chimney.
- Side walls formed of building blocks covered in ferroboard, natural light poured in through the huge glass windows and a skylight.
- Interior layout reflected Entenza’s wishes, over a third of the space wide open-plan living room surrounded by series of smaller spaces, floor was on two levels separated by two steps. Living room occupied majority of the front of house providing panoramic view of three-dotted meadow and the ocean beyond.
- House was seen by some as an excellent solution to the problem of adapting standardized buildings to personal needs.
B. Furniture
- interested in producing affordable, high-quality furniture
- 1945-1978 more than forty major designs or ranges of designs from the Eames Office went into commercial production.
- Whether plywood, plastic, or metal, they all grew out of an intense concern with new materials and technology and search for perfect form.
- Major theme of these designs is development from plastic form, from earliest wood pieces of mid 1940’s, to fiberglass and wire mesh shells of early 1950’s, and on to the flowing aluminum shapes of 1958.
- Prototypes, experiments and promotional graphics types of chairs that the Eames designed produced by the Herman Miller Furniture Co: molded plywood, fiberglass-reinforced plastic, bent and welded-wire mesh and cast aluminum. Below is a list of chairs they produced:
Organic Furniture Competition (1940)
Molded Plywood Experiments (1941-1945)
LCW (1945)
DCW (1946)
Plywood Screen (1946)
La Chaise (1948)
Fiberglass Chairs (1950)
LTR Table (1950)
ESU (1950)
Wire Chair (1950)
Eames Lounge Chair (1956)
Aluminum Group (1958)
Time Life Chair (1960)
Time Life Stool (1960)
3473 Sofa (1964)
Chaise (1968)
Intermediate Desk Chair (1968)
Drafting Chair (1970)
Molded Plastic Chair (1971)
C. Films and Multi-Media Presentations
- The Toy - A multi–colored module structure children could play with indoors or out.
- House of Cards - The Eames Office actually produced 5 different sets of the House of Cards: The small house of cards is the original, made in 1952. It actually had two decks: the picture deck and the pattern deck.
- Photography Charles and Ray Eames did not only use photography as a way to sell products, instead it was used as part of the design process. Looking at a project through the lens was a way focusing in on the project while excluding all other distractions.
- Magazine Covers Ray Eames created dozens of covers for the magazine “Art and Architecture”. Through these covers we are able to see the excellent talent of Ray Eames to deal with space and color.
- “Tops” The film shows us the Eames’ concept of modularity and of beauty in the ordinary.
- "Powers of Ten"- Deals with the relative size of things in the universe and the effect of adding another zero.
- “Tocatta for Toy Trains” (1957), One of their most important films. On one level, it is a celebration taking place entirely within a world of toys, on another it is about a favorite Eames theme: the un-selfconscious use of materials.

Works Cited

“An Eames Primer Eames Demetrios.” Universal Publishing Co, New York, 2001.

Curtis, Wiliam J.R., “Modern Architecture since 1900” Phaidon Press Limited, New York,2001.

“Eames Design, The Work of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames” Eds. John Neuhart, Marilyn Neuhart, Ray Eames. Harry N. Abrams, Inc.,New York, 1989.

Kirkham, Pat. “Charles and Ray Eames Designers of the Twentieth Century.” The MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1995.


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