It’s a love story and a story of a love of design…
When Charles Eames met Ray Kaiser at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, he could not have imagined that together they’d change the direction of twentieth century design. He was married, installed at the academy as Head of Industrial Design. She was a student. But when they worked together on the entry that would win the MOMA Organic Design Competition for Seating, the die was cast. They would be married within the year.
Charles was Don-Draper-dashing and something of a maverick. He’d dropped out of his architecture degree amidst rumours that his thinking was “too modern”. Ray was an enchanting and talented young painter. Combined, their skills created the perfect balance between the pragmatic and the poetic. They sought out the uncommon beauty of common things, instilling their work with an underlying humanity.
For the Eameses, design was a way of engaging with the world, a philosophy of life, rather than a vocation. Their mission: to “get the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least”. This sentiment reflects the moral and democratic premise of modernism. Reacting against the opulence of High Victorian style and its associated decadence and corruption, modernism set out to reform society through its rejection of luxury in favour of simple utility. It attempted a purification of aesthetic, if you will. The Eames’ designs embody this.
Our husband and wife team received their first major success with the revolutionary moulded plywood LCW chair in 1945. The LCW realised the aims they had set out to achieve in their MOMA entry five years earlier – to create a chair that was inexpensive yet well-designed, that moulded to the body without being upholstered AND leant itself to mass-production. (Phew!)
Long after his initial design partner, Eero Saarinen, had given up, the newlyweds worried away at this problem. By day, Charles worked as a set designer for MGM, by night they experimented with their “Kazam! machine”, a press they designed for moulding plywood into sophisticated curves. They would produce plywood splints and litters for the US Navy during the war and fall into financial misfortune before they would finally accomplish their iconic LCW design.
From plywood they graduated to fibreglass chairs, creating universal seating shells that could be paired with a variety of bases – the DSR, DSW, DAW, DAR and rocking chair designs were born. Ruggedly handsome yet suave, the No. 670 lounge chair and No. 671 ottoman was another instant hit when it was released in 1946. The Eameses moved on to sleek office chairs. These ground-breaking designs exuded a flawless modern aesthetic, emulating the organic and fluid forms of nature.
The Eameses’ acclaim grew in accordance with their passion. In 1949 they completed the Eames house, one of a series of case studies in industrial design, hand-constructed from industrial materials in a matter of days. Set on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Eames home was a study of light and space, filled with the whimsy of ephemera – toys, kites and eastern wares.
All the while Charles and Rey were exploring the fields of photography and filmmaking, as well as producing multi-media exhibits, even toys and games, in addition to commercial and industrial design.
“Toys are not as innocent as they look,” Charles Eames said. “Toys and games are the preludes to serious ideas.”
Their out-of-the-box approach to inspiration promoted something of a circus-like atmosphere within the Eames office. Structure was subservient to the creative process. It became a playpen for creative minds – a movie set one day, a thriving design studio the next – alive with the chatter of happy grey matter.
In 1978 Charles died of a heart attack and ten years later to the day Ray passed away from complications associated with cancer. It is hard not to attach some significance to this coincidence. It’s almost as though they had collaborated on this, their final exit. Whatever the case, their iconic designs that revolutionised conceptions of furniture in the modern world are still incredibly provocative and relevant today. Dynamic, dedicated to the detail and driven by a childlike curiosity, they realised their belief that design could change the world.