Eames Archives: Interwoven Lives

There is a misconception about Charles and Ray Eames: they spent a great deal of time entertaining, socializing, and traveling. This idea isn’t necessarily true because they spent most of their time working. If they traveled, it was often for business. Their friends were naturally curious and ambitious people—other designers, filmmakers, artists, and architects—who they sometimes collaborated with. Four of these people were designers Alexander (“Sandro”) and Susan Girard, and architect and sculptor Eero and Lily Saarinen.

Here, the four friends, colleagues, and spouses are seated together. Charles Eames is most likely behind the camera, while Ray can’t possibly be too far from reach. Susan turns to glance at Lily with friendly affection, perhaps mid-sentence. Lily, with her left hand’s fingers neatly folded against her jawline, directs her gaze at her husband. Eero, holding a pipe and sporting a shy grin, studies an object in his hands. And Sandro seems momentarily lost in thought, as he is caught by the attention of the sunlight that streams in through the windows.

In an interview in 1980, Ray spoke of the origins of their friendship with the Girards, nearly forty years prior, and the Girards’ subsequent introduction to the Saarinens. The Eameses were already a few years into their friendship with Eero and Lily, as they were driving forces at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Charles and Ray had left Cranbrook and Michigan in 1941 to begin their lives in California, but visited the midwest a few years later. At this time, Girard owned a design-centric shop in Grosse Pointe, Michigan.

Charles walked into the shop and immediately recognized, as Ray recalls, “that the was something impressive [about it] to him, in its neat, quiet, organized way.” Charles and Sandro were instant friends. Charles revisited the Girards, and Sandro showed him his furniture designs. Ray said Girard had heard of Eero Saarinen by that point, but he hadn’t realized that they lived within such close proximity to one another. The Eameses brought Eero to Sandro’s shop so that they could be acquainted.

This began a larger realization. Ray explained: “We found that they all had such interwoven lives, had studied and thought about architecture often, each one in a different way. Charles in America, in St. Louis; Girard in Italy, but then having got to the AA in London; Eero in Finland, who then came here and went to Yale. And they all knew things about the Bauhaus. They had all been influenced by Art Nouveau, but had not known each other all that time. They’d traveled and sketched and made toys and knew games, and they read books—all these similar things at the same time, in different places.”

As the friendships continued, so did the “interwoven” aspect of their lives. One project, whose impact on the history of modernism is still felt, is the J. Irwin and Xenia Miller House in Columbus, Indiana. Saarinen designed the home, Girard concocted the interiors, and the Eames Office fabricated an indoor-outdoor solution for seating, later known as the Aluminum Group.

“All of us became good friends,” said Ray fondly. “And did joint projects,” her interviewer, Ruth Bowman inserted. Ray gave a resounding yes.

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