Charles Eames on International Trade Posted October 4, 2016 by Daniel Ostroff

In the current election cycle, there is much talk about imports, exports, and the challenges of international trade. Find out what Charles Eames thought about the subject.

unnamed-1Kite makers in India. Photograph by Charles and Ray Eames.

Although there was nothing political about his thinking, Charles Eames had very clear ideas about what countries could and should export. While working with Ray on The India Report, he had an experience regarding the subject of trade, which he shared in a 1961 speech at the U.S. Department of State:

In India, we were often and prematurely plagued by the question of what to export. The question was premature because, while we were directing our energy toward something that would affect the quality of the objects in their own environment–they wanted to know immediately what they could successfully sell.

One answer came in an experience at Fatipursikri, the abandoned Muslim capital of Northern India. The place drew tourists, mostly Indian, but also many Europeans.

There were the persistent sellers of impossible objects, typical of which were the enlarged brass slipper ash tray, and the cigarette box with the cobra that reached in and got you a cigarette, which was punctured in the process. This object would under no circumstance be used or enjoyed by the maker or the seller–it would be quite useless to any real smoker. The only possible objective in making such a contraption was the immediate gain from the sale.

The vendors themselves were insistent and creepy, the day was hot, so when I rounded a corner and saw a dotty figure approach with outstretched hand, I thought, here it comes again.

As the man got closer he plucked something from the object he was holding, crushed it between his fingers and held it to his nostrils–then offered it to me–and I plucked, crushed, and smelled. It was exhilarating and refreshing. I bought his lemon verbena leaves and urged others to do the same.

 If he were refreshed, it stood to reason I would be. The opposite situation from the cobra cigarette box.

The successful export of consumer goods by Germany and the Scandinavian countries stems from an attitude that is much like the lemon-verbena man. They export things that have served them well and that they, as a rule, really hope will serve the final buyer.

This is a difficult role for the exporter in an underdeveloped country to take, but it is a necessary one for long-term success in consumer-goods export.

In some cases, the effect of the American style expert is as bad as the cobra cigarette box. The myopic expert comes to India, and based on some idea of fashion, he specifies some purse or scarf or whatnot–a pilot run goes well on Fifth Avenue, the manufacturer in India tools up a product, only to find that the fad has passed. In the meantime, traditional styles and techniques have been altered for the production–never to be the same again.”

The gallery below reveals photographs taken by the design duo during their trip to India, at which point they were preparing The India Report for that country’s government. The images show popular traditional crafts. The products, such as brass lotas and kites, were made by Indians for Indians, and yet they were also very suitable for export.

The Eameses believed people could do well by providing others with something that they themselves enjoyed using–just like the seller of lemon verbena in Charles’s story. For that reason, the husband-and-wife team recommended that designers ask themselves some key questions when creating any product, such as: “How does it feel to possess it, to sell it, to give it?” They applied such principle to their own designs as well. Charles and Ray’s chairs, tables, and other products–most of which are still manufactured and enjoyed today–first had to please them before they could imagine them pleasing anyone else.

The speech above, which Charles presented to the U.S. Department of State, can be found in its entirety in the book, An Eames Anthology.