Charles Ormond Eames, Jr (1907-1978) and Bernice Alexandra "Ray" (née Kaiser) Eames (1912-1988) were American designers, who worked in and made major contributions to modern architecture and furniture. They also worked in the fields of industrial and graphic design, fine art and film.
Charles Eames, Jr. was born in St. Louis, Missouri. He was the nephew of St. Louis architect William S. Eames. By the time Charles was 14 years old, while attending high school, Charles worked at the Laclede Steel Company as a part-time laborer, where he learned about engineering, drawing, and architecture (and also first entertained the idea of one day becoming an architect).
Charles briefly studied architecture at Washington University in St. Louis on an architecture scholarship. After two years of study, he left the University. Many sources claim that he was dismissed for his advocacy of Frank Lloyd Wright and his interest in modern architects. He was reportedly dismissed from the University because his views were "too modern." Other sources, less frequently cited, note that while a student, Charles Eames also was employed as an architect at the firm of Trueblood and Graf. The demands on his time from this employment and from his classes, led to sleep-deprivation and diminished performance at the University.
While at Washington University, he met his first wife, Catherine Woermann, whom he married in 1929. A year later, they had a daughter, Lucia.
In 1930, Charles began his own architectural practice in St. Louis with partner Charles Gray. They were later joined by a third partner, Walter Pauley.
Charles Eames was greatly influenced by the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen (whose son Eero, also an architect, would become a partner and friend). At the elder Saarinen's invitation, Charles moved in 1938 with his wife Catherine and daughter Lucia to Michigan, to further study architecture at the Cranbrook Academy of Art*, where he would become a teacher and head of the industrial design department. In order to apply for the Architecture and Urban Planning Program, Eames defined an area of focus—the St. Louis waterfront. Together with Eero Saarinen he designed prize-winning furniture for New York's Museum of Modern Art "Organic Design in Home Furnishings" competition. Their work displayed the new technique of wood molding (originally developed by Alvar Aalto), that Eames would further develop in many molded plywood products, including, beside chairs and other furniture, splints and stretchers for the U.S. Navy during World War II.
In 1941, Charles and Catherine divorced, and he married his Cranbrook colleague Ray Kaiser, who was born in Sacramento, California. He then moved with her to Los Angeles, California, where they would work and live for the rest of their lives. In the late 1940s, as part of the Arts & Architecture
magazine's "Case Study" program, Ray and Charles designed and built the groundbreaking Eames House, Case Study House #8, as their home. Located upon a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and hand-constructed within a matter of days entirely of pre-fabricated steel parts intended for industrial construction, it remains a milestone of modern architecture.
Charles Eames died of a heart attack on August 21, 1978 while on a consulting trip in his native Saint Louis, and now has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
In the 1950s, the Eameses continued their work in architecture and
modern furniture design. As with their earlier molded plywood work, the
Eameses pioneered technologies, such as the fiberglass* and plastic
resin chairs and the wire mesh chairs designed for Herman Miller. From
the beginning, the Eames furniture has usually been listed as by Charles
Eames. In the 1948 and 1952 Herman Miller bound catalogs, only Charles'
name is listed, but it has become clear that Ray was deeply involved
and should be considered an equal partner.
The Eames fabrics
(many are currently available from Maharam) were mostly designed by Ray,
as were the Time Life Stools. In 1979, the Royal Institute of British
Architects awarded Charles and Ray with the Royal Gold Medal. At the
time of Charles' death they were working on what became their last
production, the Eames Sofa, which went into production in 1984.
and Ray channeled Charles' interest in photography into the production
of short films. From their first film, the unfinished Traveling Boy
(1950), to Powers of Ten
(re-released in 1977), their cinematic work was an outlet for ideas, a
vehicle for experimentation and education. The couple often produced
short films in order to document their interests, such as collecting
toys and cultural artifacts on their travels. The films also record the
process of hanging their exhibits or producing classic furniture
designs. Some of their other films cover more intellectual topics. For
example, one film covers the purposely mundane topic of filming soap
suds moving over the pavement of a parking lot. Powers of Ten
(narrated by the late physicist Philip Morrison), gives a dramatic
demonstration of orders of magnitude by visually zooming away from the
earth to the edge of the universe, and then microscopically zooming into
the nucleus of a carbon atom.
The Eameses also conceived and designed a number of exhibitions. The first of these, Mathematica: a world of numbers...and beyond
(1961), was sponsored by IBM, and is the only one of their exhibitions
still extant. The Mathematica exhibition is still considered a model for
science popularization exhibitions. It was followed by A Computer Perspective: Background to the Computer Age
(1971) and The World of Franklin and Jefferson
(1975-1977), among others.
office of Charles and Ray Eames, which functioned for more than four
decades (1943-88) at 901 Washington Boulevard in Venice, California,
included in its staff, at one time or another, a number of remarkable
designers, like Henry Beer and Richard Foy, now co-chairmen of CommArts,
Inc.; Don Albinson; Deborah Sussman; Harry Bertoia; and Gregory Ain,
who was Chief Engineer for the Eameses during World War II. Among the
many important designs originating there are the molded-plywood DCW
(Dining Chair Wood) and DCM (Dining Chair Metal with a plywood seat)
(1945), Eames Lounge Chair (1956), the Aluminum Group furniture (1958)
and as well as the Eames Chaise (1968), designed for Charles's friend,
film director Billy Wilder, the playful Do-Nothing Machine (1957), an
early solar energy experiment, and a number of toys.
Charles Eames gave the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard
University. At the lectures, the Eames viewpoint and philosophy are
related through Charles' own telling of what he called the banana leaf
parable, a banana leaf being the most basic dish off which to eat in
southern India. He related the progression of design and its process
where the banana leaf is transformed into something fantastically
ornate. He explains the next step and ties it to the design process by
finishing the parable with:
"But 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. And I
think that in these times when we fall back and regroup, that somehow
or other, the banana leaf parable sort of got to get working there,
because 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."
• Eames House entry (Case Study House #8)
• Sweetzer House (between 1930-33)
• St. Louis Post-Dispatch model home (193?)
• St. Mary's Church (Helena, Arkansas) (1934)
• St. Mary's Church (Paragould, Arkansas) (1935)
• Dinsmoor House (1936)
• Dean House (193?)
• Meyer House (1938)
• Bridge house (Eames-Saarinen) (1945)
• Entenza House (1949)
• Eames House (1949)
• Max De Pree House (1954)
Exhibitions and retrospectives
• Charles and Ray Eames at the Design Museum, London (1998)
• Library of Congress exhibit (1999)
June 17, 2008, the US Postal Service released the Eames Stamps, a pane
of 16 stamps celebrating the designs of Charles and Ray Eames. A
well-received documentary about the couple titled Eames: The Architect and the Painter
was released on November 18, 2011 as part of the American Masters series on PBS television.
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