Five things about Charles and Ray Eames that inspire us today

1) They had a profound respect for learning.


In the Eameses’ second Norton Lecture, Charles said the one essential thing he would teach a young child is “to learn to have respect for things that have no immediate payoff.” To some people’s dismay, he used to let his daughter Lucia paint with his expensive sable-hair paintbrushes, even when she was just a few years old. He said he would make “darn sure to show Lucia, from the very beginning, how to properly respect and care for brushes and paints.”

Charles and Ray applied these concepts to their work as well, whether figuring out how to mold plywood into complex curves, or learning key concepts in order to convey them to others in exhibitions such as Mathematica, films such as Powers of Ten, and a variety of lectures and educational projects.

An Eames Primer highlights their dedication to learning in an interview with Philip and Phylis Morrison. Philip, a physicist and Eames Office consultant, explained that Charles “first had to grasp [an idea] himself to a degree, and then he could go ahead and make something of it. He worried at it, he teased at it, he struggled at it, he—.” Here, Phylis interjected, “He played with it.” Philip agreed, adding, “He played with it, he made jokes, he challenged it—all those things,” until a light bulb went off, Charles understood the concept, and he knew how to apply it appropriately to his and Ray’s work.

2) They set a precedent for quality work.

Charles and Ray pushed the boundaries and expectations for quality work, whether pursuing personal interests or tackling commissioned projects for a variety of corporations.

The Eameses accepted the job of designing Washington D.C.’s proposed National Fisheries Center and Aquarium in the mid-1960s. Demonstrating their belief in the hands-on learning process, part of their research included surrounding themselves with living sea creatures. When they couldn’t find pictures of tide pool animals, they ventured out of the Office so they could see them in their natural habitat, photograph them, and better understand them.

Charles and Ray’s proposed plan for the National Aquarium never came to fruition because government funding fell through in the middle of the project. Knowing that, they still continued fleshing out their ideas, creating models, a booklet, and a film about the Aquarium that clearly showed what they envisioned.

Consultant I. Bernard Cohen noted: “The films that Charles made were actually astonishing. In fact, they were such realistic expressions of his ideas that one had the feeling sometimes that they had been completed.” Recalling a trip to D.C. where he and his wife wanted to visit the Eameses’ National Aquarium, Cohen joked, “We tried and tried. We couldn’t find the damn thing.” They finally realized that the Aquarium, as tangible as it appeared in the film, did not exist.

Why did Charles and Ray go to such great lengths for a canceled job? If the government ever reinstated the project in the future, this way, they would have established a standard of quality.

3) They pushed boundaries.


Charles and Ray chose the partnership that was right for them. They were true collaborators in a time when many people found it hard to conceive of a woman playing an equal role. Charles often said that “she [Ray] is equally responsible with me for everything that goes on here.” A close friend and film producer, Julian Blaustein, expanded upon that idea: “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.”

Ray pursued the work she wanted to do, and that action alone meant pushing the social and cultural norms of her time. In the process, she inspired others, such as longtime staff member Jeannine Oppewall, to do the same: “Ray made me very aware that if you are a woman, and you have serious contributions to give, that you must stand up for yourself and say, ‘You’re on my toe; please get off it.’ I mean, I really think I learned a lot from her about how to say that—and in a nice way, not in a crazy way. Politely but deliberately.”

The husband-and-wife team also pushed boundaries in the work they did, both technologically and ideologically. In 1959, Charles and Ray created the multiscreen slideshow Glimpses of the U.S.A. The United States Information Agency (USIA) commissioned the Eames Office to do this project for the American Exhibition in Moscow as part of a cultural exchange program. The Eameses were tasked with portraying the American way of life. During this cold war era, it was clear that USIA was hoping for something that referenced the country’s strength and military prowess, but that’s not what Charles and Ray did.

During the project, Charles told a staff member, “If you ask for criticism, you get it. If you don’t, there is a chance everyone will be too busy to worry about it.” The Eameses showed the country’s natural landscape, cities, and suburbs. They impressed upon people that, for better or worse, cars and highways are a significant part of America’s cultural landscape. But most importantly, they skipped the missiles and flags, opting instead to show things that connect all people, no matter where they live: kids playing, families sharing a meal, and stars shining in the sky. Ray chose to conclude the film with forget-me-nots, a moving metaphor, since, as it turns out, the translated name for the flower is the same in Russian as it is in English. The Eameses shared a message that they knew to be true and right; they shared a message of humanity.

4) They believed in failing in order to succeed.

Ray and Charles Eames examining the sling locations to be covered by fabric lapping in a prototype of the Aluminum Group Lounge Chair, 1957, as seen in Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey’s documentary EAMES: The Architect and the Painter. © 2011 Eames Office, LLC.

Over the course of the Eameses’ career, they had more than 100 employees. Any time they hired someone new, that person’s first project inevitably had nothing to do with his or her professional training. A new employee skilled in making films might have been tasked with a project in graphic design, while other new staff members were asked to arrange a piece of music on the in-office Musical Tower—a 15-foot vertical xylophone that played music with the drop of a marble. 

Former Eames Office employee Parke Meek once said that when you walked into work each day, “you never knew what you were going to do.” Or, as Jeannine Oppewall, another Office staffer put it: “Charles could easily have been the dictator and said, ‘No, I want it this way.’ But instead, his method was encouraging you to kind of… Here’s the rope; I hope you have enough of it to hang yourself with. And, by the way, come back and tell me if you think you’re about to be hung. Please.”

As far as Charles and Ray were concerned, failure was just the first step on a long path toward something worthwhile. They modeled every design problem over and over and over again. That learning-by-doing process taught them what didn’t work, and also allowed them to know when they’d finally gotten something right. Even then, they were never done searching for better answers.

In the case of their furniture, they continued improving their designs long after they’d been put into production, which is why today’s Eames Office always says, “The chair Charles and Ray Eames were designing is the chair Herman Miller and Vitra make tomorrow.”

5) Their approach led to timeless designs.

Eames DCW_Walnut_HM_website

Charles and Ray focused on how a design would work, rather than how it looked. This is one fundamental reason why their designs are so timeless.

In Harriet Shapiro’s 1973 Intellectual Digest article titled “Eames on Eames,” she quotes Charles as saying, “If you start out in architecture, then go on to furniture and then to toys and films, essentially it’s the same problem. You don’t set out to invent something; you just want to make whatever you’re working on right. Look at an ax handle—it’s a beautiful thing because it’s the way it should be. And when you set out to do a chair, you’re not setting out to do something that will floor somebody. You just want to do it the way it should be, so that it’s appropriate and reflects the way it’s made.” (An Eames Anthology, 318).

This “way-it-should-be-ness,” as the Eameses often called it, is evident in everything they did. It’s the reason Powers of Ten is referenced in contemporary movies and TV shows and still feels so fresh and relevant today; it’s the reason Eames Molded Fiberglass Chairs look at home anywhere from Laundromats to luxury condos; and it’s the reason their ever-playful toy, the Eames House of Cards, is still as vibrant and engaging now as it was when the design duo created it in 1952.

An Eames Primer elaborates on Charles and Ray’s notion of “way-it-should-be-ness”: “This quality was something to be desired in a design. It had to do with the idea of unselfconsciousness or unpretentiousness and, in a way, is the opposite of style for its own sake. What it meant is that when one looked at a design, one did not think ‘how clever’ or ‘strange’ or ‘new.’ Hopefully, one did not notice it all. Ideally, one thought it had been doing whatever it was doing forever.”

Perhaps that’s the greatest gift Charles and Ray gave us: A visual reminder that, whatever we build together in this world, we should strive to make it just as it should be.