The Eameses, the ‘painters who didn’t paint and architects who didn’t build,’ did however manage to change the way we see the world
As America’s mid-century modern sweethearts, Charles and Ray Eames covered the waterfront. Over time, the gravitational pull of their binary star sucked in everything, from cushion covers to the cosmos, transmuting and regurgitating it in a spirit of optimistic possibility. A curious mixture of obsession and whimsy, the Eameses rethought the relationship between design and society and in doing so changed the way we see the world.
Their trajectory bestrode the shifting landscape of Cold War America, a consumer paradise strafed by paranoid intimations of the enemy within and without. Absorbing and processing these contradictions, the Eameses gave the military industrial complex – clients included Boeing, Westinghouse, IBM and the US government − a human face, starting with the ingenious moulded plywood splints they designed as part of the war effort. (Retailing at $825, they are still available as vintage keepsakes from the Eames Office.) As well as being commercially astute, this approach won some unlikely converts: Soviet hard man Nikita Khrushchev was apparently moved to tears by Ray’s sentimental coda of forget-me-nots in a propaganda film they made for the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow.
From early experiments with furniture and graphics, the Eameses reached their apotheosis on a hillside in Pacific Palisades, where lowly industrial components were choreographed to produce that house. Of which more later, but in the meantime hold this thought from Ice Cube (yes really) on the things that Eames are made of: ‘Taking something that already exists and making it something special; you know, kinda like sampling.’
The Eameses were superlative samplers, flitting promiscuously across disciplines, grinning madly, always seeming to be having fun. Theirs was a multi-screen, cinematic life; they intuitively grasped the importance of image and images, both of their work and themselves. Few people could pick out Mies in a line up, but the Eameses, the quintessentially odd couple, were instantly recognisable. Charles with his film star manqu. chops, variously compared to Henry Fonda or Warren Beatty, Ray a pocket rocket, always preppily immaculate. The dynamic duo popped up in all sorts of comic situations − pinned down by their own chair legs, wearing Easter hats or straddling a motorbike, Ray gunning the engine, while Charles, pipe clamped between his teeth, held on for dear life. Everything was important: from how a grapefruit was presented at breakfast to how a building was put together. The minutiae of their daily lives gave shape, colour and animation to their work and vice versa.
As both professional and real-life partners, their relationship has been the focus of much cod-psychological scrutiny. But it’s probably fair to say that like all effective and enduring partnerships, each complemented and completed the other, Charles the heroic yang to Ray’s more subtle yin. Both came from middle-class provincial backgrounds (St Louis and Sacramento), their paths crossing at Eliel Saarinen’s Cranbrook Academy of Art, back then a relatively new institution but with a growing reputation for exploring the more unorthodox interstices of architecture and design. Charles had been around the block a couple of times before he finally alighted on Miss Bernice Alexandra Kaiser, known to her family as Ray Ray, who had originally trained as abstract expressionist painter. Endearingly, he scrawled a marriage proposal on Cranbrook notepaper: ‘I cannot promise to support us very well − but if given the chance I will shure [sic] in hell try’. Less endearingly, he was prone to affairs, notably with art historian Judith Wechsler, but any cracks in the relationship were always dutifully papered over.
Underscoring their fascination with technology, the Eameses’ oeuvre is permeated by a childlike sense of wonder, manifest in their filmic homages to ostensibly kids’ stuff such as spinning tops and toy trains. Yet ironically, and unusually for the times, they did not produce any children themselves. Charles had a daughter from his first marriage, but perhaps subconsciously felt that the pram in the hall was an impediment to greatness. Instead, bolstered by royalties from their early furniture designs for Herman Miller, they established the Eames Office in LA and worked 13-hour days, presiding like benevolent dictators over a surrogate family of collaborators that included Gregory Ain, Harry Bertoia and John Neuhart. Charles may have been notoriously stingy in dishing out plaudits, but the fun palace fairly hummed along. ‘Like working at Disneyland’, as one employee put it.
For all their photogenic and panoramic output, there is a nagging sense that it didn’t add up to much. ‘Just a few chairs and a house,’ as Peter Smithson mused out loud in a 1966 special issue of AD, adding that ‘the Eameses have made it respectable to like pretty things. That we can be persuaded to accept the pretty is because their work is by no means without a sense of law.’ (You can practically hear his sigh of relief at the detection of rigour.) In fact the Smithsons were big fans, generating their own Eamesian sideline in whimsical ephemera. Yet the Eameses remained a conundrum: painters who didn’t paint, architects who didn’t build. ‘We don’t make art, we solve problems,’ said Charles.
With its raison d’être so utterly defined by its two principals, the Eames Office was always on borrowed time. It closed after Ray’s death in 1988, 10 years to the day after Charles died, a romantic finale straight out of Hollywood. However, shutting the fun palace only heralded the start of a remarkable afterlife.
Canonised as patron saints of modern design, the Eameses’ personality cult still endures. There is the obvious physical legacy of furniture and artefacts, peddled by various commercial custodians, though their pieces now command a premium far removed from their ur-mandate of ‘The best to the most for the least.’ There are also issues of ubiquity. The famous recliner, originally designed for Billy Wilder and specified to have the ‘warm, receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt’, is quite possibly the chair of the 20th century, but despite its impeccable credentials, it has become a clich.d signifier for every man of wealth and taste desperate to commune with his inner Don Draper.
Less obviously, you can discern the faintly sweet Eames miasma hovering over other aspects of contemporary life. Every cutesy Google ident, every clever-dick advertisement, every home lifestyle feature, every selfie and every cheap and cheerful Ikea chair can claim a distant kinship with the Eames way of seeing and way of being. Latterly, they were also one of the root causes of High-Tech with that house, but despite its canonical significance, its principles were not widely adapted to create decent, low-cost dwellings. Instead it remains an impractically expensive one-off, the Modernist equivalent of a stately home perfectly preserved in mid-century aspic.
In any event, the torrid experience of its making − the true budget was never disclosed − was enough to put the Eameses off architecture altogether. This was serendipitous, as it propelled them back into the bosom of design, where they clearly felt at home, endlessly rearranging their furniture for what turned out to be a truly glittering posterity.
Sara Andreasson is currently based in Gothenburg, Sweden