Eames Archives: Collaging Ideas

The care and stewardship of the Eames Office’s photographic archive have undergone a transition in the last few months as our previous archivist found retirement. After expressing our thank yous and goodbyes to David—who produced no shortage of work in digitizing, organizing, and preparing images for the world to see—I have stepped into his role enthusiastically.

While familiarizing myself with this vast collection of Eames Office photographs, I witnessed an aspect of Charles and Ray’s working process that I had previously only heard about through stories. A process that pre-dates Photoshop and the born-digital age that we’ve evolved into. A process that I can only muster up one word to adequately describe: collaging. A few dozen images stood out to me in this collection because they were altered and collaged in some fashion. A 4×5″ print of the Eames House facade has colored paper glued to it. Another photograph shows Charles and Ray’s figures carefully cut out so they could be blended into another picture. Chair designs were sliced away from several prints. And, white-out covers unsightly aspects of an image featuring a Sofa Compact photoshoot, staged in a barren lot adjacent to the Eames Office.

This form of photo collaging was more than an art practice for the Eameses. By piling, gluing, taping, or drawing over a photograph with imaginary components, Charles and Ray were using images to convey an idea and to test how a physical change would look before employing a great deal of effort and resources. They were using a photograph as a model for decision making. 

When Ray, in 1983, was reminiscing with historian Pat Kirkham about the Eames Office’s design legacy, she began to describe this exact process. During the construction of their Case Study Program home in 1949, Charles and Ray altered pictures of the house to better visualize potential outcomes. Ray expressed, “We used to use photographs. We would cut out pieces from photographs and put them on to a photograph of the house to see how different things would look. For instance—there was a space in the studio which we wanted filled. It was between the depth of the floor where it opens for the stairs. We wondered what to do. We had saved some pier pylons from Venice pier (we had wanted to keep something of it to remember it by). Well, we had pictures of it, glued it onto a photo and decided it worked, so we went ahead and did it.” 

While examining this photograph of the Eames House’s facade, I recognized the embellished gold leaf panels above the main entrance and the bare, neutral color of the Cemesto boards. Today, the Eames House continues to sport those elements—they passed Charles and Ray’s collage test. 

Read the introduction to the Eames Archives: An Image as an Idea series here, and stay tuned for monthly installments.