Five Decades in Five Weeks, 1950s

It is easy to assume that projects and recognition happen by a stroke of genius or without many iterations. Charles Eames, when asked if he designed a chair in a flash, responded with, “Yes, it was a flash of inspiration…a kind of thirty-year flash.”

This week we’re highlighting five important Eames Office accomplishments for each of the five decades of Charles and Ray’s oeuvre. We hope this allows you to further grasp the timeline for their contributions and their ability to simultaneously balance architecture, furniture, films, photography, lectures, exhibitions, and a duty toward sustaining a design-centric, playful livelihood.

1) Eames Storage Unit

Charles described furniture as “architecture you can get your hands on,” and the 1950 Eames Storage Unit (ESU) has an uncanny resemblance to the structure of the Eames House, completed the year prior. Consisting of modular cabinets made from plywood, Masonite, and chrome-plated steel frames, the ESU proved to be an organizational system that could meet the need of any client, household, or office. The storage unit could be stacked or used individually, it came with or without drawers and even provided the choice of a neutral versus primary color palette.

2) Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman

Charles and Ray designed the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman from 1953 to 1955 and released it to the public in 1956. The couple first described the design by saying it had the “warm, receptive look of a well-worn first baseman’s mitt.”

The lounge chair was a departure from earlier Eames efforts to create economically mass-produced furniture. Manufacturing the design required a combination of factory technologies and expensive hand-labored craftsmanship, so it has always held a much higher price than other Eames designs.

Charles and Ray appeared on daytime television with Arlene Francis, debuting the lounge chair and ottoman with a film showing the design’s assembly.

3) The India Report

Per the invitation of India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the Eameses were welcomed into India in 1957 to survey the country’s people, design philosophies, and visual environment. After a few months, the Eameses amassed thousands of photographs and a deep understanding of the people, rituals, structures, and objects of India.

Charles and Ray created The India Report in hopes of evaluating the current culture of the nation and providing a series of suggestions to welcome modern technology without westernizing or sacrificing India’s unique cultural richness. Completed in 1958, The India Report placed value on a common Indian object, the lota, and recommended the establishment of a national design institute. The Eameses believed an institute would bring light to “a desire to create an alert and impatient national conscience, a conscience concerned with the quality and ultimate values of the environment.”

4) Eames Aluminum Group Seating

The Eames Aluminum Group Seating collection was born out of a special commission by Alexander Girard for outdoor seating at the Eero Saarinen-designed Miller House in Columbus, Indiana. After experimenting with materials such as molded plywood, veneer, plastic, and wire in the 1940s and early 50s, the Eames Office began to cast aluminum into shapes conducive to maximum comfort for the human form.

In describing these new seating forms, Charles made the realization: “There’s a suspicion that maybe you’re doing sculpture for which there is a valid, practical need—a need that you’ve neglected in the past somewhere along the line.” While trying to connect the chair’s use to the masses, Charles stated that the Aluminum Group series was no longer a project solely for Girard’s client, but instead had become furniture for the common person who desired a comfortable place to rest after the end of a tough day.

5) Glimpses of the U.S.A.

In 1959, the U.S. Information Agency commissioned Charles and Ray to create a film depicting “a day in the life” of Americans for a cultural exchange with the USSR. The Eames Office presented it in Moscow on seven large-scale screens housed within a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome.

The thirteen minutes of footage depicted ordinary scenes from America, such as our shared night sky, aerial views of highways, mountain ranges, family dinners, and people kissing. The images were intended to show America’s physical and cultural landscape while conveying a more poignant message that the people of our two nations share a common denominator of being human.

The final slide featured an image of forget-me-nots, a flower whose name and context translates equally in English and Russian alike. This film, along with numerous others created by the Eames Office, was used as a tool to humanize our world and bring attention to details in which Charles and Ray were deeply interested.

Read our other installments of this blog series, which highlight Charles and Ray’s works in the 1940s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.