Charles and Ray Eames

by Nadja Bozovic

Charles and Ray Eames

Charles being an extrovert, charismatic, was always ready for public appearance. Ray being more recluse and modest preferred to be behind the scenes. Together, Charles and Ray Eames were a perfect couple. In life and work. Together in ideas, sketching, design, art, materials, production, experimenting, development, new ideas…

They are Charles and Ray Eames, the most famous couple in the world of furniture design. They became famous worldwide due to their exceptional contribution to architecture, revolutionary furniture design, as well as their influence on toys design and film and photography development.

The pair met at the Cranbrook Art Academy in Michigan in 1940, when they both got the opportunity to work on the competitive project – Organic design for home furniture, organized by New York Museum of Modern Art. They worked together with the designer Eero Saarinen on that project. With joined forces succeeded in winning the first prize for the wooden side chair.

Shortly after, they got married, moved to Los Angeles and started living together. They started mutual business by opening the Eames Office Studio. It is still doing business successfully, continuing the Eames tradition and preserving their heritage.

Eames House: Paradise for Architects and Designers

In 1949, Charles and Ray Eames took part in project called The Case Study financed by the Arts Architecture Magazine. During that, they have created, projected and made their new home in Pacific Palisades in California. The name of their house was Case Study House Number 8, but soon became famous as The Eames House.

Today, everything in their home is the same as it was when they were living in it. Exactly the same. It has become a kind of architecture and design museum, a paradise for admirers of their work and architecture and interior design lovers. The house is open to public, guided and single tours organized by Eames Foundation.

When they didn’t work from their studio, they worked from their home. Handful of books, projects, sketches, photographs, videos, personal notes and various items they have collected from numerous travels is still decorating the Eames House and makes it one of a kind. It’s exactly the same as the two of them were – unique. 

Charles and Ray Eames Furniture: Plywood Chair

Admirers of their work are familiar with many details from their lives, but we know even more about the pieces of furniture that they have created. One thing is for sure – it’s not without any reason that they are amongst the most influential designers of the 20th century. 

In the early 1940’s they were the first to introduce the molded plywood furniture into mass production. The plywood chair is the first and one of the most famous furniture items which came out of the creative studio of the Eames couple.

The Exact Chair brought them the first prize at the MoMA competition in 1940. That was the crucial moment in the history of industrial design and furniture production. As it states on MoMA Museum’s site, the aim of the competition was to promote collaboration between designers and manufacturers. 

From Design to Production

For the beginning, Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen designed a chair with curved lines and convex back, never seen before. Because of the fact that the chair was among the competition’s prize winners, museum organized further cooperation with the manufacturers. 

To produce the chair they have engaged the Haskelite Manufacturing Corporation, which was developing process for casting plywood molds for ships and planes at the time. It was the first time that a method like this was applied to furniture production. The Heywood-Wakefield Company then assembled and coated the chair in order to get the final shape.

Both Charles and Ray Eames were included in designing this chair. It was a turning point of their business collaboration. But they didn’t just design its look. They were producing it themselves later.

Actually, they made the machine for its production first and named it Kazam Machine. Why that name? Because, as they were saying: “it was a true miracle how the machine was able to make a three-layer plywood out of one layer of wood casted out of a modeled mold for the seat. “

A Few Steps Ahead of Their Time

All their lives The Eames have designed and made furniture that we still consider to be contemporary. The plywood chair was just a beginning. Plastic and textile, dining and office chairs that they have designed are decorating many homes and offices nowadays. 

Apart from above mentioned, their names are in history of modern design because of the following pieces as well:

  • Lounge Chair and Ottoman. Today displayed at the permanent exhibition of the MoMA in New York
  • Executive/Lobby Chair
  • Intermediate Chair. Used by Charles Eames in his office, today is a part of Vitra Design Museum’s collection
  • Armchairs with Aluminium parts (Eames Aluminium Group)
  • Plastic molded chairs. Decorating airports, stadiums, auditoriums, waiting rooms, hotel lobbies, kindergartens, play rooms and many other places worldwide for decades. 

Keeping all that in mind, we can say that Charles and Ray Eames were a few steps ahead of their time.

Cooperation With the Most Famous Furniture Manufacturers

The unusual talent of Charles and Ray Eames, their unique design approach, an honest affection towards structure and colours, experimenting with materials and creating unique solutions, couldn’t be unnoticed. 

The Herman Miller Company, one of the biggest furniture manufacturers in America, made a deal with Eames in 1946. Company hired them as designers and gained an exclusive right for producing and distributing their furniture at the US’ market. 

The Vitra Company from Switzerland, another popular and reputable furniture manufacturer, joined soon. Vitra acquired Herman Miller’s license for producing and placing Charles and Ray Eames’ furniture in Europe in 1956. During the following 18 years, the collaboration was developing successfully, establishing the market on both continents that could recognize quality design.

Although the partnership was stopped in 1984, these two companies kept friendly relations. They are still preserving the Eames heritage together. Vitra has kept exclusive rights for selling Eames furniture in Europe and Middle East. Herman Miller continued to place their whole assortment in the USA.

Unfortunately, vast number of their furniture’s imitations and copies appeared around the world. It was the case when Charles and Ray Eames were creating as well. That was the reason why after starting the cooperation with the Herman Miller Company, they created a poster called Beware of Imitations, in order to show a potential danger from buying copies. Their warning is still on today. That’s why there are two options available for anyone who wants an original piece of Eames furniture for the interior – Vitra and Herman Miller.

Eames Shell Chair: Chair of the Century

Shell Chair modeled to follow the shape of human body designed by Eames in 1948 for the International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design, also in organization of the MoMA Museum, was again among the winners. Several decades later it was declared as the chair of the century.

In 2019 Vitra Company promotes Eames Shell Chairs in new colours, from subtle pastel tones to bright hues, based on Ray Eames concept. 

Husband and wife designer couple has always had a strong influence on the Vitra Company not only through design but through life philosophy as well. Their way of thinking still affects this furniture manufacturer. As it is stated on the Vitra Company’s site, whenever important decisions about design are made they ask themselves: What would Charles and Ray Eames say?

Indelible Mark in the History of Design

The two of them have approached every new project with the same enthusiasm. They were choosing projects based on how interesting they are, whether they inspire them, if they are intriguing and if they can solve a certain problem with a design. When, in a short 1972 documentary Design Q&A, they asked Charles what the boundaries of the design are, he answered with a question: “What are the problem’s boundaries?”

Playful, simple, functional, refined and elegant design comes as a result of that approach. Always new and original. They were the source of inexhaustible ideas which they found in the situations and things from their surroundings.  

Successes followed one after another. After the first prize for the chair during the MoMA Museum competition in 1940, they won several other awards. Among them were also the First Annual Kaufmann International Design Award for the year 1960, American Architect Institute Grand Prix for the Eames House in 1967, Special Award of the  Science and Industry Museum in Chicago in 1968, First Prize for Aluminium Group Chair given by the Council for Art design in Bonn, Germany in 1969, Smithsonian Institute’s Certificate for exceptional contribution in 1972, and many other.

They began their career with molded plywood and continued improving in the work with plastic, leather, textile, even with fiberglass. Except for that, they were into graphic design, exhibitions and competitions’ design, photography and film, including animated film Information Machine which was recorded for the Brussels’s World Fair in 1957. 

Adventurous spirit, a desire to learn, explore, for new challenges and continuous development pushed them forward. They wanted their furniture to be attractive and affordable. They accomplished it with their work and they left indelible mark in the history of industrial design. Their influence was and still is – immeasurable.

Featured Image: Charles and Ray Eames. © Eames Office LLC



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