Husband and wife design team Charles (1907-1978) and Ray (1912-1989) Eames established a new identity for American interior and graphic design, and conceived a groundbreaking workshop for the development of multi-media and corporate design strategy. Perennial admirers of the details of everyday life, the Eames collected hundreds of photographic images and outfitted both their home and their office with an array of folk art and objects from around the world. Their house, made from prefabricated elements, and their office, remain today as examples of an astonishingly unique and fertile breeding ground for some of the most iconic mid-century modern designs.
Charles was born in St. Louis and studied architecture at Washington University, graduating in 1928. Throughout the 1930s he was a part of several architecture practices in St. Louis, designing houses in and around the city, as well as two churches in Arkansas. In 1936 he went to Michigan to study at Cranbrook Academy of Art and stayed there until 1940, spending the last year as a design teacher. While at Cranbrook he met Eero Saarinen and collaborated with him on the groundbreaking and award-winning "Organic Design in Home Furnishings" competition at the MoMA in New York. Their curvy armchairs and dining chairs utilized a new method of production, molding a plywood shell in three dimensions, with upholstery over the shell.
Ray was born in Sacramento and studied painting at the Art Students League and the Hans Hoffman School in New York. In 1936 she helped start the radical American Abstract Artists group, lauding avant-garde art and protesting galleries with stringent and traditional policies about what to exhibit. She left New York for Cranbrook in 1940, but was only there for several months before she and Charles married in Chicago and moved to Los Angeles.
In the early 1940s the Eames worked for the Navy wartime effort and received the chance to experiment with new methods of bending plywood. They produced plywood airplane parts and molded leg splints that were already so close to abstract art that it was no stretch for Ray to customize and exhibit them as such. They applied these techniques to their furniture design and began turning out icons such as the "Dining Chair Wood," known as the "DCW," the "Lounge Chair Wood" and "Lounge Chair Metal," known as "LCW" and "LCM," respectively. Their approach to chair design was to start with the idea of a shell as the seat, shaped to fit the body so that upholstery became unnecessary. In the late 1940s they came out with a series of reinforced molded fiberglass shells that could be attached to a number of different bases like the "Eiffel Tower," "Cat's Cradle," and one that would make it a rocking chair. Around 1950 they also released the "Eames Storage Unit," a modular system of shelving that had brightly colored panels and was adorned with sliding and pull down doors in fiberglass and with their signature dimpled wood front. They also came out with a series of wire chairs that were mesh shells on rod bases. In 1956, a famous present for their friend Billy Wilder, a leather upholstered lounge chair and ottoman, was released as one of their most luxurious and expensive pieces. This chair is also featured prominently in many photographs of the Eames house. The late fifties and sixties saw the release of their "Aluminum Group" of indoor/outdoor furniture, as well as the popular "Tandem Shell Seating" and "Tandem Sling Seating" designed for airports. The Eames worked with the company Herman Miller, a collaboration that included furniture designs as well as advertising and showroom design.
A variety of toys, small objects, films and exhibitions were also part of the scope of the Eames Office. In the 1960s they began focusing in particular on corporate films and exhibits for Westinghouse, Polaroid and IBM. To make IBM's rapid technological advancements more accessible to the public, the Eames designed exhibits like "Mathematica" and the IBM Pavilion for the 1964 World's Fair in New York. "Mathematica" offered a sense of fun not often seen in science presentations, featuring animated mathematical "peep shows." The IBM Pavilion had a multi-image exhibit called "Think," projected on dozens of screens in front of tiered risers filled with people and dubbed the "People Wall." The number of screens and the rate at which images flew by were innovations that set the scene for today's multi-media presentations.
Like many modernists, the Eames believed that affordable, mass-produced, well-designed furniture and objects for the home were tools that could bring about an environment ripe for social change and betterment. Over several decades in which they were almost constantly working, the Eames took on the roles of decorators, designers, entertainers, educators and artists. Their work, and expansive work philosophy, helped define an American style, summed up by Ray as, "what works is better than what looks good. The 'looks good' can change, but what works, works."