Steeped in practicality, yet brimming with Midcentury cool and bursting with technological advancements, the designs of Charles and Ray Eames were as thrilling to their post-war audiences as they are timeless today.
Underpinning it all was a design philosophy with an elegantly simple and enduringly modern approach that furthered technology and created a legacy that is still felt today. Invaluable looks at why the pioneering pair’s designs remain quite so relevant.
Like so many artists who bring a fresh approach to a traditional craft, Charles and Ray Eames didn’t begin their creative lives as furniture designers. Charles Eames studied architecture at Washington University for two years prior to reshaping expectations of furniture design, while the creativity of his future wife and collaborator Ray Eames’s (nee Gayber) stems from a previous life as an abstract painter in New York City.
“One can describe design as a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose… The extent to which you have a design style is the extent to which you have not solved the design problem.”
Charles Eames met Ray Gayber at Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1940. The meeting would not only transform their personal lives and lead to a 37-year-long marriage before Charles’s death in 1978, but it would also help shape their future design language and form the genesis of a lasting design legacy that is still felt today.
It all began when Charles entered a furniture competition at the Museum of Modern Art with his friend Eero Saarinen. Together, they aimed to mould a single piece of plywood into a chair. Charles Eames and Saarinen’s chair collected first prize in the competition, but it wasn’t immediately seen as the success it would become as it they could not achieve success in mass production. The tooling for moulding a chair from a single piece of wood was not yet available, but in stepped Ray to help with the graphic design for their entry and change the course of their collective artistic endeavours. This approach would come to define the Eames aesthetic style and eventually elevate the married pair towards worldwide fame, as their Organic Chair was born from this early effort.
And it would be this plywood approach, alongside an advancement in moulded plywood processing that enabled the Eames to not only explore domestic furniture design extensively, but also hit upon an idea that captured the public’s imagination. This plywood-wrap approach would become their calling card, with the Eames Lounge Chair remaining as instantly recognizable as a modernist master and the enduringly fresh slice of modern design remains as current today as it was when it was first introduced in 1956. Its gently curved back ergonomically accommodates the human body, which was made possible after extensive prototyping, leading to the chair first being produced by Herman Miller Company and it’s still in production to-date.
Similarly, one of their most well-known designs, the Lounge Chair Wood (practicality was a feature that also extended to naming their furniture) was another plywood design developed as an affordable, high-quality chair. It was the result of five years of pioneering experiments with wood-moulding techniques that resulted in a seat and back joined by a spine. The now iconic chair design created in 1945 has enjoyed an enduring appeal and in 1999 it was hailed as the best design of the 20th century by Time magazine.
Distinctive and clinical in its commitment to stylish practicality, the Lounge Chair Wood is emblematic of the collective approach of Charles and Ray Eames. They weren’t just pioneers of new forms of technology, but also approached every piece of furniture with meticulousness; a mentality that underpinned all their work and drove them to create something new, stylish, and above all something of service to the user.
“To make the best for the most for the least”
The Eames mission statement
“What works good is better than what looks good because what works good lasts,” said Ray and today the strength of that philosophy is evident by the fact that the chair, alongside many other Eames designs, is still in production in collaboration with Herman Miller and Vitra. And more than that, they remain as functional pieces of furniture that can be enjoyed as much as they are admired, ensuring that they’re not merely just an ornamental item that the grandkids have to be ushered away from.
The timing of the Eames design philosophy could not have been better. In the post war years their furniture became the style of choice for America’s new moneyed middle class and in 1947 they established their own studio, the Eames Office, in Venice, LA. “We want to make the best for the most for the least,” was the pair’s mission statement, and their stylish and fit for purpose approach found their designs shaping the décor of interior design for the emerging class. It wasn’t an entirely new approach though, as Bauhaus had pioneered this functional approach prior to the war, but Charles and Ray made accessible to the masses.
This approach was given life by Charles Eames when speaking at the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University in 1971 and he chose an unusual item to contextualise his thoughts. “You can go beyond that and the guys that have not only means, but a certain amount of knowledge and understanding, go the next step and they eat off of a banana leaf. I’m not prepared to say that the banana leaf that one eats off of is the same as the other eats off of, but it’s that process that has happened within the man that changes the banana leaf. And as we attack these problems — and I hope and I expect that the total amount of energy used in this world is going to go from high to medium to a little bit lower — the banana leaf idea might have a great part in it.”
At the time, the banana leaf was a common natural item to eat food from in southern India, but importantly The Eames didn’t theoretically remake the banana leaf as something different. Instead, they tried to express the banana leaf in a simple and modern manner, reflecting their approach to design. And while their designs might not have the look of a natural product, they did have the idealistic approach of nature behind them, as their designs made the most of elegant, natural simplicity, in favour of over complicated and unnecessary ornamental frills.
It wasn’t just furniture that they applied this philosophy too either. Together, Charles and Ray created a plywood nose cone designed for military aircraft during World War II, while also designing a leg splint formed from plywood for wounded soldiers during the war years. It was the US navy’s funding of the splint that allowed them to focus on their furniture designs and mass production. Showcasing their creativity to its fullest, the couple also created ‘Think’, a mid-1960s immersive installation made for the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
In the end, they designed the entirety of the pavilion, as well as producing the seven screen installation, which prophetically drew parallels between human brains and computers. With one eye on the future Charles would say in 1971, “Beyond the age of information is the age of choices”. The installations featured everything from how to organize a dinner party to a car racing around a track, and it highlighted their philosophical approach of taking the simple and refined approach of nature, but applying a technological sheen and aesthetic.
The lasting influence of Charles and Ray Eames’s design philosophy
Today, Charles and Ray Eames remain as influential as ever. Proof of this is that their names have become bywords for mid-century practicality and elegance. Search online for Midcentury pieces and their name is enthusiastically attached to many items looking to cling onto the gravitas of the Eames name. ‘Influenced by..’ and ‘Eames style club chair’ are popular additions to listings.
On the high street, nowhere is their minimalist and modernist approach better typified than at IKEA, where their stylistic and philosophical mantras of problem-solving simplicity are encapsulated by the design principles of IKEA, whose simple and overflowing practical flat pack furniture transformed the look of interiors in the late 20th century.
Another influence can be seen in Apple’s output, although in a more subtle form. Apple’s chief designer, Jonathan Ive, has credited Eames as an influence. This can be seen in Apple’s marriage of form and function and their commitment to process, which is evident in the shaping and styling of the iPod and borrows heavily from the Eamesian handbook. Both Apple and Eames share an ideological belief. They have both produced items that have become aspirational everyday objects, making them among the most enduring creative forces of the 20th century.
But perhaps the greatest accolade that can be bestowed upon Eames design is that their influence helped to define the look of the second half of the 20th century in the post-war years, while their elegant and practical designs continue to shape 21st century living today.
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