Charles and Ray Eames were more than just consultants to IBM. The company hired the design duo to create promotional films, presentations, and educational products. Inspired by the couple’s vision and sensibility, IBM also looked to Charles and Ray to help guide the future direction of the company.
The design duo worked on so many projects for the corporation that Charles even had a tie line in his Los Angeles office, providing him with a direct link throughout much of IBM. As Eames Demetrios noted in An Eames Primer, “Charles believed one always had to be able to work with both the person at the top and the person on the front line to achieve the best results for all concerned.”
The Eameses relationship with the company began when Eliot Noyes, who had championed Charles’s work as a curator for the Museum of Modern Art, was put in charge of design at IBM. Charles and Ray sent him a copy of A Communications Primer, an Eames film introducing and explaining recent developments in communications theory. “Though Charles and Ray graciously referred to this as an IBM-sponsored film, in fact, Charles and Ray had made it on their own,” wrote Demetrios.
IBM “…saw the power not only of the film and its ideas but also of the people who created it.” After that, the Eameses became two of IBM’s principal consultants. Charles was even one of the few non-IBM employees invited to speak to the Corporate Management Committee, which allocated billions of dollars of research money within the company over many decades.
In December of 1973, Nobel Prize recipients were awarded in Stockholm, Sweden. The winners included an IBM scientist recognized for his work in physics. At this time, Tom Watson, Jr. had recently retired as president of IBM, but he still played a powerful role on IBM’s board of directors, and he felt the company should honor the Laureates in Physics with a special dinner upon their return from Stockholm.
Charles suggested the dinner include a special gift for the Laureates in honor of the occasion. Watson agreed and asked what he proposed. Charles suggested a simple deck of cards made of images related to Sir Isaac Newton—something along the lines of the Eames House of Cards.
The idea was fitting for two reasons: the Eames Office had just recently completed an exhibition called Isaac Newton: Physics for a Moving Earth at the IBM Exhibition Center; and Christmas day, which was quickly approaching, marked the anniversary of Sir Isaac’s birth. As Demetrios said, “Charles and Ray always had a highly refined sense of occasion.” The only problem was that the dinner was just four days away.
When a tight deadline approached, Charles used to say, “The best you can do between now and Tuesday is still a sort of best you can do,” so the Eames Office went to work on the Newton Deck of Cards. Alex Funke, an Office staff member who helped with the project, recalls that “there are moments that glow in memory, and one of them is doing these cards.” The entire team focused on this last-minute project, putting aside other (perhaps paying) endeavors to create this special gift for their partners at IBM.
Charles had taken thousands of images in England in preparation for the show on Newton. The Eames Office had already paired down the enormous selection, allowing them to chose photographs previously culled for the IBM exhibition for the front of each card.
After creating a timeline and making their image selections, “Bill Tondreau started printing each of the 12 sets of 26 cards by hand in the Eames Office color print laboratory. Randy Walker began building a special wooden box to hold the decks. Ray was working with ribbon treatment. Etsu Garfias and Hap Johnson in the front office were applying a print of marbled paper to the back of each card. John Neuhart was embossing an ellipse containing Newton’s signature onto each box. Someone else was applying the gold leaf to the edges,” wrote Demetrios. Each team member set out to execute an important detail of the cards.
The Newton cards may have been just a small gift to celebrate Nobel Prize Laureates in physics, but they demonstrate the eclectic nature of Charles and Ray’s work and show how robust the Office had to be. It is impressive that the Eames Office executed every step of the project within the confines of their workspace at 901 Washington Boulevard. The hands-on process required participation from everyone on deck, and many of the staff members had to step outside the bounds of their vocational skill set.
The Eames Office was capable of many different facets of design; ultimately, it was only the final production of furniture that was made out-of-house. As Gordon Ashby, a designer who worked for the Eames Office once said, “901 was Charles’s instrument—and he knew exactly how to play it.”
Find out more about the Newton Deck of Cards and other Eames Office projects by reading An Eames Primer.