Design for the Musically Inclined Posted October 14, 2019 by Kelsey Rose Williams

The design work created by the Eameses for furniture company Herman Miller rarely spanned objects outside of seating, storage, and surfaces. Unknown to most, Charles and Ray designed the choir robes for the Herman Miller Mixed Choir in the early 1950s.

By 1952, Herman Miller furniture company was fully invested in the home and office designs of Charles and Ray Eames. That year, Herman Miller organized a mixed choir as one of its many avenues for community-centric extracurriculars. The choir group was in search of a design for the members’ robes, and since Herman Miller was a company with firm values in human-centered and problem-solving design, the garments couldn’t be ordinary. The Eameses were up for the task.

The 1953 design of the robes has been attributed to solely Ray Eames in some sources, a logical assumption based on her background in fashion design and her keen sense of color recognition. However, most sources attest that both Charles and Ray developed the robes collaboratively—as was the case for all projects conceived in the Eames Office.

The silhouette of the cotton and velvet robes were typical for their setting and use, but the aesthetic choices the Eameses employed were symbolic of choral language. Color choices were intentional, and the lines were carefully situated.

Four accent colors indicated the four primary voice parts: yellow for soprano, orange for alto, red for tenor, and purple for bass. The horizontal black lines across the bodice of the gowns were a representation of an extended grand staff. Some robes were speckled with the occasional black marks to represent notes on a piece of choral sheet music.

Charles and Ray were not musicians, but they immersed themselves in the knowledge and semantics of each project; designing these gowns gave them an understanding of that facet of human interest.

The robes adorned the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus for seven years until the group disbanded. Herman Miller gifted the uniforms to Hope College, a nearby school in Holland, Michigan, in 1960. Hope College’s Choral Department still attest to the design’s uniqueness: “No one would ever describe these robes as subtle; they are very much in line with the bold and quirky designs of mid-century modernism. But, as the work of Charles and Ray Eames, they hold a special place in 20th-century art and design, and would be at home in art galleries everywhere.”

Sixty-six years have passed since the robes were created and they are still the Hope College choir’s apparel of choice.

Images sourced from the Henry Ford Museum and the Hope College Choral Department.