On Charles Eames’s birthday, a look at his views on design

Interiors celebrated its 25th birthday in November 1965. To mark the occasion, the magazine interviewed the nation’s most influential designers to find out their perspectives on where design stood and where it was heading. More than a half-century later, in celebration of Charles’s life and work on what would have been his 112th birthday, we’re taking a look at his response to a couple of the questions posed. Charles emphasized in this interview that “Any questions—thus any answers—are tempered by the time of life they are asked—whatever cycle you are in at the time.”

What is the designer’s responsibility in influencing our society towards better design?

A design specialist certainly has no greater responsibility than his counterpart in other responsible walks of life.

With the hair-raising build-up of communications into a technology and into apparent affluence, the resulting hurricane demands (for survival’s sake) some sweeping design changes across the whole scene—a redesign of our structure of education, our philosophies, our views of nature and conservation, and the ideas and environment that might make for a rich life. . . . The problem is to build in the kind of understanding that will find security in change; the large number of choices available requires a more secure person to make value judgments. The question will become not “How do we do it?” but “Should we do it?” The responsibility, stated as a design responsibility, may be much the same in all these cases. As much as possible, it is our responsibility to restudy and restate each aspect of the problem in the light of all available past and current information. If one adds to this, the responsibility of considering the next large (or smaller) aspect of the problem, there is a chance of avoiding the traps that lie in blind substitution of new materials (or ideas) for old–and surprises that come from too hasty innovation.

The mass speed and frequency of innovation in our time make it an entirely new phenomenon. Its surprises can be funny or tragic, become apparent immediately or not for generations. Effects of detergents on waterways are an example—and the foam plastic cup that seems a great innovation for coffee time—until its nonheat-conducting nature causes us to scald our throats.

What are and what should be the individual and collective goals of the profession?

Some time ago when Richard Feynman (recent Nobel physicist) was talking about what the individual scientist could hope to accomplish in the world of science, he had no grand illusion. He said the best one could hope for was to select an area and then some little piece of that area and with all his heart pick away at it.

It is much the same with design but perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned from the good individual scientist or architect or teacher is in the capacity they have for really caring. This is the lesson.

Whatever the collective goal of the design profession is, it is probably very wholesome. But the collective task of the profession is more specific. In the world of freedom and affluence…the task will be to work toward finding operational constraints that will make meaningful design programs possible.

Freedom and affluence usually mean freedom to do any imaginable amount of ugliness because they are seldom accompanied by clues as to what is appropriate enough to result in beauty. Example: The problem for designing either an oil cracking plant or jet transport would consist of a great list of functional and economic restraints—and the probability of a good and handsome result would be high. The program for designing a monument or a World’s Fair pavilion which would reflect freedom and affluence would have a low probability of a great solution. The great cities and great objects of the past came into being under great restraints—social, technical, and economic. How much freedom from innovation did the builders of the Taos pueblos enjoy—or the builders of Cuzco—or the makers of Chartres’ stained glass? Los Angeles is an example of a city built without restraints, either traditional or material. The collective goal of the design profession might be to find the guideline of restraints that exists in all this so-called freedom.

Read more from this interview in An Eames Anthology, a book of Charles and Ray’s articles, film scripts, interviews, letters, notes, speeches, and more.