Ray Eames by Daniel Ostroff

Posted February 17, 2014

Charles Eames began many of his speeches by saying, “I came to design through architecture, Ray came to design through painting…”

To begin this profile of Ray Eames in her own words and the words of others, I’m going to quote Charles Eames.

For a couple years now, youtube has offered the 1956 Arlene Francis TV interview with the Eameses on the subject of the 670 chair.

The most significant aspect of the interview is how Charles Eames answers the following Arlene Francis question:

Arlene Francis: “…I wonder if you’ll tell us some of the highlights of your careers in designing these chairs. How did you happen to get started with chairs?”

Charles Eames: “Well, Ray was a painter. Ray worked here in New York with Hans Hoffman for a long time. That’s a pretty good start.”

This is instructional, for those who want to understand Ray and how Charles felt about his partner. His unhesitating response was to call attention to Ray’s contribution and to cite Ray’s impressive background. In 1952, Charles Eames gave the luncheon speech to a national assembly of the AIA, in which he said:

“My wife is a painter, and a very good one…and we’ve been working together for, oh, twelve years now, I guess…and at first I used to help and criticize things she was doing, and then she would help and criticize things I was doing, and we would … pitch in and do all the jiggering for each other and get   it as people do…and then, gradually, things begin to sort of,   you know, entropy…things began to get shuffled, and pretty soon you didn’t know, sort of, where one started and the other ended,  and anything that we’ve looked at or talked about here, you know, I say that I’m doing it, but actually, she’s doing it just as much as I am, only she sort of goes under the same corporate type name…”

Throughout his career, Charles began many of his speeches by saying, “I came to design through architecture, Ray came to design through painting…”

Here is an excerpt from Charles’s handwritten notes, made in anticipation of an appearance on another 1956 television program.

Give a small capsule of background.
Explain that Ray comes to design through painting
and I through architecture –
that this should not be at all surprising
since I feel that most everything is a
form of architecture, certainly all of the
environment that man creates for himself –
and Ray feels that painting is related to
everything and of course I feel that painting
comes under the heading of architecture.

Here’s Ray Eames in her own words:

Of her teacher, Hans Hofmann:  “He was marvelous, a great part of my life  — a great experience.  It meant a great deal to me. I worked with him six years.  It was like working with him, it wasn’t as most classes are today I think.  It just went on and on.”

“…as far as his teaching, it was structure and relationships, and color as structure.  .  .  He didn’t close anything, he opened everything and made it possible to see wholly, I think, as we do see:  we don’t see a line, we see a line and both sides of the line. . . I don’t know anyone else who was as able to relate the experience of life to a canvas, to a format.”

In 1982 a young woman asked Ray, “Mrs. Eames, how did it feel to give up painting?”

Ray replied, “I never gave up painting, I just changed my palette.”

RAY EAMES regarding the award-winning 1941 “Organic Design” chair)

“The problems [had become] obvious:  [the organic chair] could not be manufactured the way it was meant to be, as a mass-produced object…So the simple idea was to try to find out what would make it a mass-produced object.”

*“In an interview in the 1980s, Ray was trying to explain something about the Nehru exhibition and she found herself explaining about the India Report and then Nehru’s vision.  . . Finally, she offered, “everything hangs on something else.”

JULIAN BLAUSTEIN (film producer, family friend)

“I don’t think there was a definition to the way they worked:  there wasn’t a formal arrangement; they were there together.  And they breathed the work.  They breathed the work. “

“Charles began to realize that there was a little too much ‘a Charles Eames this’ and a “Charles Eames that’ when he knew how much she contributed.  And finally, he insisted on the ‘Ray and Charles Eames’ – or ‘Charles and Ray Eames’ – credit line.  My awareness of it was never that she asked for it.  But he insisted on it.”

MARGARET HARRIS (former employee and family friend)

“They had that extraordinary – both of them – extraordinary meticulousness about everything being absolutely perfect.  There couldn’t be anything slipshod or incomplete.  . . . Everything had to be absolutely right according to their view.  And so things took a long time.  Ray took a long time over things because she would – I think that was part of the original relationship, that they both had that extraordinary desire for perfection and accuracy and they would not ever hurry anything.”

GREGORY AIN (Engineer for the Eameses from 1943 to 1945)

“Ray was able to “bring things into relation with one another,” and to “find the inner order in whatever she touched.”

ELAINE SEWELL JONES (Herman Miller public relations, and Eames family friend)

“I suppose there were many hours that they talked about things together and worked together personally, and intimately, early house, late hours and in between hours…. But the time of the store hours so to speak, they each had their turf and they each had responsibilities.  So there wasn’t anything that Ray wasn’t involved in.  I’m sure of that.  But when you’re talking about prototypes of the work that individuals in the office such as a Don Albinson or a Dick Donges kind of person, I think there was a different relationship between Charles and Ray and what they were doing conceptually, and then all through the process, there was always that ‘how am I doing,’ back and forth to each other.  And I think it was an absolutely close, intimate kind of relationship.

Q.  Did Charles and Ray ever articulate to you the nature of their partnership?

A.  No.

Q.  Did they ever talk about it?

A.  Well, I think they never talked about it as a subject very much that I know of but there was no doubt about the fact that Charles was always very careful to state that it was a partnership between him and Ray.

“I think that each person knows what each person did and the person most important to Ray was Charles and Charles knew what Ray did.  . . I think the compliment to Ray, the supreme compliment to Ray is that she was able to work with Charles as a partner.  She didn’t go up to Charles one day and say, ‘Look, I want to be a partner in this firm.’  And if she had, it wouldn’t have been Ray who said it.  It was no doubt Charles who immediately said and she agreed, ‘This is a partnership.   We both have responsibilities.’  And they worked that way. . . She had responsibilities for the business.  She had a lot to do there.  . . One of you has to do one thing, one of you has to do another. . . . She knew what she did.  She was a strong, strong woman.

“. . . you have two persons who are symbiotic working together, agreeing and disagreeing, trusting each other, because they had to agree and they had to disagree a lot.  And that was a perfect working relationship.”

JOHNNY JOHNSON (former employee)

Talking about the EAMES LOOSE CUSHION ARMCHAIR: “The cushion, which was set on the seat and fastened to it by Velcro strips, was designed and re-designed, Johnny Johnson recalled, “at least 40 times” for Ray’s approval.  “There were cushions everywhere.”  Johnson remembered that Herman Miller’s production people kept asking, “What is it they want?” In the end, confronted by the looming production schedule, the cushion that was least objectionable to Ray was chosen as the production model.”

[In his book, Charles Eames Furniture From The Design Collection/The Museum of Modern Art, New York, MOMA curator Arthur Drexler describes the Loose Cushion Arm Chair as one of his very favorite Eames chairs.]

Q: How did Charles and Ray, working together through other people, execute their vision, make their vision happen?

A: Waving their arms and asking for the first prototype which they would say, “No, more of this, or less of this, or whatever.”  And that was my job.  And a lot of those decisions came down on Sunday afternoon when there was no one around and I would manage to get Charles or Ray back to the shop to look at, anticipate, a product.

DICK DONGES (former employee)

“Bob (Staples) went into exhibitions and I sort of took over the furniture design part of it and that’s when I was really working with Charles and Ray in developing the furniture and doing all the patterns and prototypes and that kind of thing, so I really got to work with Charles and Ray then.”

“. . . I was on the soft pad group…we put the heavier spreader in the back.  Put the soft pad on it.  Made it so it would go along with the lounge chair, it was sort of the kind of feel of the lounge chair and also the chaise, those are two like companion pieces that would work together.  . . . So that one I worked quite a bit with Charles and then on the Chaise I worked a lot with Ray doing some of the forms and shapes when I was making the pattern for it so that was one of the times that I worked quite a bit with Ray on a piece of furniture, as well as Charles.”

“She was very good at form and shape and looking at materials and the way that joints went together and so forth.

Q: Was there a difference between, would Charles and Ray come together to talk to you on the chaise?

A: Oh yeah.  I think there’s one picture somewhere, there’s a lot of pictures that were shot back in the shop, it’s myself and Charles and Ray and we’re going over the shape of the pattern, and oh yeah, they’d come back together almost all the time when we talked about furniture, they’d come back together.

Q: So were they bouncing off each other as well as…”

A: Oh yeah, Yeah, yeah.

Q: How would you, would there be, were you trying to read body language too because they’re, as they get to know you better, then they’re less explicit, or how’s that work?

A: Oh yeah, you know, you can pick up things from, when Charles and Ray would be discussing whether it was the right shape, whether it was the right form, whether it was too big, too small, you could sort of feel what they were both trying to get at and then you’d go back and rework it. I didn’t hit it all the time, but some of the times I hit it. But it was a, yeah, it was a thing that you could, you just sort of know when you’re talking to Charles and to Ray and you knew when Ray would say, ‘Well…,’ she’d take her finger and run it down here, it could be just a little bit out of here, and when she meant a little bit, she meant a little bit. It wasn’t critical change but it was just enough to make a highlight. Do a different thing whether it was on the shell or on a Naugahyde or leather, it just changed the whole character of the pad or the chair shell itself. So yeah you could read their body language.

BILLY WILDER

“…when you first met the Eameses, that’s kind of interesting: they spoke a slightly different language. You thought they were, sort of, a little bit stammering and they’d never finish their sentences and you are a little bit bewildered at the beginning. They understood each other completely, but when they started off on the line, to get it perfect, they would sort of wipe out the first half up there and forget it and put it the other way, just to make it a little bit more comprehensive.”

“Ray is imbued with absolutely perfect taste. She is also a very good organizer–she’s much less of a dreamer than Charles is. I think she sort of holds things together.”

CHARLES EAMES

“She is equally responsible with me for everything that goes on here.”

“Ray has a very good sense of what gives an idea or form its character, of how its relationships are formed. She can see where there is a wrong mix of ideas or materials, when the division between two ideas isn’t clear. If this sounds like a structural or architectural idea—it is. But it has come to Ray through her painting.”

RAY EAMES:

“. . . when we were working on the furniture and on the house and again in film, it never seemed [to be] leaving painting in any way because it was just another form.”

“When asked about the nature of their collaboration, Ray offers no explanation other than, “We did everything together.” DETROIT FREE PRESS 1980

ALEX FUNKE (former employee)

“You have to realize that Ray’s contribution was not very visible but it was extremely strong.  ‘Cause she really facilitated everything that happened.  I mean she didn’t actually come out there and say ‘Move that light to the left or whatever,’ but she was there, and she was talking to Charles, and she was discussing the work that was being done. . . So her contribution is spread very thinly but because of that, it’s extremely strong. It’s like a web that holds everything together.”

JEHANE BURNS (former employee)

“And that process was a tussle, very often. . . Sometimes quite a sharp tussle. On the other hand, it meant that Charles knew that he could rely on Ray to put in things that he would want to take out, and that protected him, I think, from what might otherwise have been a sort of sparser, more austere, more sort of stereotyped modern movement effect, than he would, in fact, have wanted. He could rely on Ray to balance that.”

BEN BALDWIN (family friend)

“The combination was an extraordinary one. I don’t know of any other like it….of two designers who really contributed enormously to each other’s work, and they both had very strong gifts in different directions and yet somehow in the same direction.”

PHILIP MORRISON (Eames Office consultant, and family friend)

“Ray makes a surround around Charles; Charles makes a direction for Ray.”

ELMER BERNSTEIN (Film music composer, frequent Eames collaborator)

“Ray had the soul and temperament of an artist.”

In preparing this I consulted a number of sources, but most first and foremost, because it is such a good and well-researched book, I reviewed An Eames Primer by Eames Demetrios. There’s an * asterisk every time something is drawn directly from that book.

Next, I consulted the Eames Office Oral Histories, an extensive series of interviews with friends and former Eames Office employees, conducted by Eames Demetrios. These are the property of The Eames Office, copyrighted and carefully preserved by them, and shouldn’t be used without their express permission. I quoted from them here in several cases: Some of the times the quotes were used in An Eames Primer, in other instances I took the quotes directly from the transcripts themselves, which have yet to be published.

Finally, I looked at the texts of the speeches, articles, and interviews of Charles and Ray Eames, from my forthcoming book, An Eames Anthology. These quotes too are the intellectual property of The Eames Office, and their use is reserved the Eames Office, LLC.

– Daniel Ostroff