A Good Learner Posted April 15, 2016 by Ross Atwood
The beginning of An Eames Primer details the fascinating early life of Charles Eames. Covering a range of topics from the rugged nineteenth-century influence of his father to his defining college years, this chapter is appropriately titled, A Good Learner.
Charles Ormand Eames Jr. was born on June 17, 1907 in St. Louis, Missouri. His very first memory was of his parents interrupting a flute-piano duet inside their living room to go outside with him and his older sister, Adele, and look at Halley’s Comet. The mere fact that they stopped mid-song gave three-year-old Charles an indication of just how extraordinary the moment was.
People described Charles as a bright and curious boy who absorbed information in any way he could, from reading technical instructions and the labels on medicine bottles to spending countless hours sketching. His cousin, Celine, recalled that Charles had a gift for drawing, and that it seemed to be part of his persona from an early age.
Young Charles even taught himself to develop photographs on glass plate negatives before finding out that film had already been invented. Still, it was this hunger for knowledge and his hands-on, learn-by-doing approach that allowed him to take on challenging tasks throughout his life, such as creating complex curves in molded plywood with his partner Ray Eames. This milestone in his furniture career was only possible through trial and error. He possessed the curiosity and diligence to figure out the technology necessary to fulfill his vision. (Learn more in a blog about Charles and Ray’s Kazam! machine.)
Although Charles was born in the twentieth century, he described his childhood as “largely a nineteenth-century upbringing.” His father Charles Eames Sr. was born in the nineteenth century, and his grandfather was born in the eighteenth century. Charles Jr. later said of this span of three centuries, “it made for a reasonably wide spread.”
His father (pictured to the left in a sketch by Charles Jr.) instilled in him many of his core values. Charles Sr. was a tough man, shaped in large part by the Civil War. In 1864, at the young age of fifteen, he became a soldier in the Union Army. Following the war, Charles Sr. worked for the infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency and later became head of security for the Missouri Pacific Railroad.
“Charles Sr. was frequently exposed to danger—no safe desk job for him. Years later his son Charles Jr. would clearly remember the standing rule of instant obedience: If his father said do something, the boy had to do it instantly—no questions asked. Why? Because his father might be telling him to avoid a bullet and there would be no second chances,” wrote Eames Demetrios in An Eames Primer. In many respects, Charles Sr. led a hard and ruthless life that, in turn, toughened his son.
In 1914, when Charles Jr. was just seven years old, his father was shot while pursuing a suspect in a rail yard. He survived the gunshot but was forced to retire from the field. The change was a financial burden on his wife and children. Demetrios explains that, “Young Charles could not apply his full capabilities to his schoolwork because his father’s injury meant that he now had to help support the family. He got his first job at Upton Cody’s, a printing and envelope shop in downtown St. Louis, not far from Eads Bridge. Salary? Four dollars a week, including Saturdays. This was quite a demanding schedule for a boy of 10 who was still in school.”
The printing press where ten-year-old Charles Jr. worked had no safety guards. “You had to damn well get your hands out of the way… I succeeded in keeping all my fingers, which was learning something,” Charles said of the experience.
In 1922, Charles Sr. passed away, succumbing to the gunshot wounds from nine years prior. Charles was fifteen—the same age as his father when he became a soldier in the Civil War. It was at this time that Charles Jr. would need to be more than just a high school student; he would also need to be the man of the house.
Charles Jr.’s mother, Marie Adele Celine Lambert, was thirty years younger than Charles Sr. She was often described as a beautiful yet strong woman, and with the passing of her husband, she would need to be. From then on, Charles Jr. was raised by his mother, sister, and two aunts. He went to work at Laclede Steel Company to provide for his family, laboring at a wage of 40 cents an hour from 6 in the morning until 6 in the evening during summers and on weekends during the school year; however, it was his mother who held the family together. “I lived in a family where the women were very strong…as in many French families.” Charles noted, “I am used to having strong women around.”
Despite Charles Jr.’s weekly work schedule at the Steel Company in Venice, Illinois, he still excelled in his studies. He attended Yeatman High School in St. Louis, where he ran track and became captain of the football team. He also served as class president, was named valedictorian, and voted Most Likely to Succeed by his senior-year classmates. A very telling anecdote in An Eames Primer comes from one of Charles Jr.’s friends, who remembers him “…racing in a 220-yard dash with his shoe loosening but running as hard as he could and finishing without the shoe.”
After graduating from Yeatman, Charles enrolled in the architecture program at Washington University in St. Louis. It wasn’t his school courses that took him down this path, but rather his time at the Laclede Steel Mill. Over the years, his employers assigned him to patterns and some vague engineering work. From those projects, they discovered his ability to draw. Charles said, “I would draw a lot and then I had been sort of introduced to the idea of architecture and because of this combination of experience and things, which was a little bit in advance of what would normally be expected, I was given a scholarship to the university—an architectural scholarship.”
University classmates remember Charles as a skilled draftsman, though they didn’t necessarily rank him at the top of their class. There was, however, one area in which Charles excelled above and beyond the rest of his peers: He mastered esquisse, an exercise that asked students to solve a design problem in a short period of time. In retrospect, it may come as no surprise that Charles had a talent for these assignments. Izzy Millstone, a civil engineer who built many of the freeways and developments in the St. Louis area, recalls his work from 70 years earlier, saying, “Charles’s esquisse solutions were widely recognized as the quickest and (almost always) the best, displaying the most profound understanding of the problem.”
Despite his performance at Washington University, Charles Eames, the famed modern designer who produced ground breaking work in furniture, film, architecture, photography, and exhibitions, never received a college diploma. After four semesters at the school, he was asked to leave.
Charles frequently pressed his instructors to expand upon their bauhaus curriculum and discuss the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, who, at that time, was pushing the boundaries of architecture. His professor Lawrence Hill, with whom Charles would later become friends, told him that he’d been expelled because he was “too prematurely interested and concerned with Frank Lloyd Wright.” Another note in the report log about his removal stated that, “His views were too modern.” Decades later, in 1977, Washington University in St. Louis awarded Charles an honorary degree.
Throughout his life, Charles Eames’s accomplishments were as vast as they were extraordinary. Some might chalk it up to luck, and others to his tough upbringing, but Charles would say he just worked hard, and that most importantly, he was a good learner.
Find out more about the Charles’s Early life and more by reading An Eames Primer.