This month's designer, heavily influenced by the Bauhaus movement, was known for zealous experiments with materials and form that defined the landscape of furniture design as we know it. By employing a philosophy of function and simplicity, this designer was able to help pioneer innovative manufacturing techniques, creating truly iconic products that continue to stand the test of time.
Charles Ormond Eames, Jr. (June 17, 1907 – August 21, 1978), was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the nephew of St. Louis architect William S. Eames. By the time he 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.
Charles briefly studied architecture at Washington University in St. Louis oCharles briefly studied architecture at Washington University in St. Louis on an architecture scholarship. After two years of study, he left the university.n an architecture scholarship. After two years of study, he left the university to work for St. Louis architectural firm Trueblood & Graf. 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. 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 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. In 1941, 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 moulding (originally developed by Alvar Aalto), that Eames would further develop into many moulded plywood products.
Charles married Cranbrook colleague Ray Kaiser in 1941 and moved to Venice, CA to design film sets for MGM but continued experiments with plywood; producing and supplying plywood leg splints to the US Navy starting in 1942. Their workshop became a subsidiary of the Evans Products Company, laminating glider parts starting in 1943. In 1946, the company turned to production of Eames chairs, when his rights were bought by the Herman Miller Furniture Company. That year, the Museum of Modern Art exhibited his work at a show, "New Furniture Designed by Charles Eames."The Museum of Modern Art held an international competition in 1948 for "Low Cost Furniture Design" in collaboration with a group of furniture retailers who agreed to produce the winning designs. Herman Miller produced one by Eames with an organically-shaped one-piece stamped metal bucket seat in fiberglass, the first successfully mass-produced plastic chair. It was produced through 1995. A series of upholstered chairs, with welded wire mesh shells shaped to body forms and designed by Eames were also introduced by the Herman Miller Furniture Company in 1951, and were produced through 1967.
In the 1950s, the Eames' continued their work in architecture and modern furniture design. Like in the earlier molded plywood work, the Eames' pioneered innovative technologies, such as the fiberglass, plastic resin chairs and the wire mesh chairs designed for Herman Miller. In 1956, the Herman Miller Furniture Company introduced Eames's lounge chair and ottoman with molded rosewood plywood shell structure padded with leather cushions. While quite expensive and originally designed as a birthday gift for film director Billy Wilder, the design became a classic, was placed in the Museum of Art's permanent collection, and won a gold medal (Compasso d'Oro) at the XII Triennale in Milan in 1960.O'Hare airport tandem seating by Eames and introduced by Herman Miller Furniture Company in 1962, was used in airports throughout the world, capturing 90% of the market and was still in use in 1992.The 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. 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.
Film & Exhibit Design
Charles and Ray would soon channel Charles' interest in photography into the production of short films. From their first film, the unfinished Traveling Boy (1950), to the extraordinary Powers of Ten (1977), their cinematic work was an outlet for ideas, a vehicle for experimentation and education. The Eames' also conceived and designed a number of landmark 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 forscientific 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.
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 purposefully 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.
At WORLDESIGN 85, at the first Congress of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design held in the US, hosted by IDSA in Washington, registrants voted Charles Eames the Most Influential Designer of the 20th Century. In 1979, the Royal Institute of British Architects awarded Charles and Ray with the Royal Gold Medal. On June 17, 2008, the US Postal Service released the Eames Stamps, a pane of 16 stamps celebrating the designs of Charles and Ray Eames.
Want to know more? Learn all about Charles & Ray Eames at the official Eames website, or the Library of Congress Exhibition website. Both feature rare photos and the interesting history of this iconic design-duo. If you'd like to know more about the Case Study House program, or the Eames House, visit the Eames Foundation website.