Inside the Eames Office

Posted March 28, 2014

Former Eames Office staff member, Professor Max Underwood, delivered the invited Alvar Aalto Academy lecture in Helsinki, and subsequently was asked to publish the talk as an article entitled “Inside the Office of Charles and Ray Eames” in their journal – Ptah (Helsinki: Aalto Foundation, 2006) pp. 46-63.



Ptah (Helsinki: Aalto Foundation, 2006) pp. 46-63

In 2005, Professor Max Underwood delivered the invited Alvar Aalto Academy lecture in Helsinki, and subsequently was asked to publish the talk as an article entitled “Inside the Office of Charles and Ray Eames” in their journal – Ptah (Helsinki: Aalto Foundation, 2006) pp. 46-63.

This is reproduced here, with kind permission of the Aalto Foundation

Max Underwood is an architect and President’s Professor at Arizona State University. His scholarship and creative activities intertwine the art of teaching with the realities of exemplary design and architectural practice. Building upon his experience working with the visionary designers Charles and Ray Eames, and subsequent graduate work at Princeton University – he has continually researched and placed his students in many of the leading design, business, film and architectural practices around the world.

Max Underwood AIA

President’s Professor


Herberger Institute for Design and The Arts

Arizona State University



Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the masters. Seek what they sought.” 1


The mere mention of CHARLES and RAY EAMES delivers to an older generation an immediate, collective smile. Countless of us from a not-so-distant era remember with fondness our first experiences of their innovative designs, or “gifts,” as the Eameses affectionately referred to their creative works.2 We lovingly recall relaxing within the embrace of an Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman (1956), vividly remember watching with childlike wonder the exponential journey in the film, Powers of Ten (1977), or fondly relive the silent approach, through a flowering meadow and a magically-lifting coastal fog, to the mythical Eames House itself (Arts and Architecture Case Study House #8, 1949).

Charles and Ray Eames (1907–1978 and 1912–1988) dedicated their lives to the endless search for connections. They celebrated the embodied experiences of life. In their endeavor of discovery, they exalted an evolving nature of the ideas, artifacts and phenomenon in order that they might better define, enrich and sustain our daily lives.

One of the most enduring hallmarks of the Eames design legacy was its directed process of discovery and insight. This process, in addition to the particularities of any design itself, was essentially a means for celebrating and communicating these discoveries to people of every age. The breath and depth of the Eames’ thirty-seven years of creative work from 1941 to 1978 is simply staggering: They forged over 900 pioneering designs for furniture, toys, exhibitions, film, graphics and architecture.3

Another generation is now poised to inherit Charles and Ray’s “gifts.” As this generation seeks to better understand the Eames legacy, it is important to examine what occurred inside the Office of Charles and Ray Eames, for it is primarily the incubation itself, enshrined by Charles and Ray Eames, that gave birth to such as plethora of ideas, innovative processes, profound insights, and landmark creative works.


“I don’t believe in this ‘gifted few’ concept, just in people doing things they are really interested in doing. They have a way of getting good at whatever it is.” 4


As we look back on the formative years of Charles and Ray’s lives, prior to the founding of their office in 1941, we are immediately struck not only by the wealth of their lived experiences, but by their perseverance and resilience to overcome personal, family and professional adversity. Time and time again, throughout their lives, whether it was the early death of their fathers, the hardships of the Great Depression, divorce, or the outbreak of World War II, they both demonstrated incredible fortitude to push beyond such obstacles.5

Born in Sacramento, California, on December 15, 1912, Ray Kaiser arrived into a family immersed in the theatrical tradition. Her father, ALEXANDER, managed the local Vaudeville theater and Ray fondly recalled wonderful evenings at the theater and the dinners that followed with many international stars, including AL JOLSON and the ballerina ANNA PAVLOVA. As the years progressed, Alexander’s theater would be among the first to introduce the new art form of motion pictures to Ray and his northern Californian audiences. In high school, Ray excelled in art. The pages of class notebooks from her favorite subjects – History, English, and French – were filled were filled “with endless drawings. At seventeen, her world changed radically with two earth-shattering events: her father’s sudden death from a heart attack, and the advent of America’s Great Depression. During the turbulent years that followed, as her family relocated to the East coast and moved frequently, Ray found solace in her daily artistic pursuits. In 1933, when the family settled in New York City, Ray began a six-year intensive study with the painter HANS HOFMANN, where her renowned sense of perception, color, shape and structure were refined and honed to perfection. As she later recalled, “My interest in painting is the rediscovery of form through movement and balance and depth and light using this medium to recreate in a satisfying order my experiences of this world with a desire to increase our pleasure, expand our perceptions, and enrich our lives.” 6

Pictures published with the original article.

Pictures published with the original article.

Download the entire article, courtesy of Professor Underwood, INSIDE-THE-OFFICE-OF-CHARLES-AND-RAY-EAMES