Ray Eames defined modern design
Ray Eames (1912–88) was a leading American designer who worked in a variety of media including furniture, textiles, architecture, film, and toys. Ray and her partner, Charles Eames (1907–78), are probably best known for their now-famous plywood furniture pieces and for the design of their own house, Case Study 8 (1949), made mainly with standardized, mass-produced parts from builders’ catalogues (though with considerable hand-finishing).
EARLY LIFE AND EDUCATION
Ray Kaiser, born December 15, 1912 and raised in Sacramento, California, attributed her sense of quality and discipline, as well as her pleasure in work and the belief that most achievements in life are underpinned by hard work, to her parents and early teachers. Later in life, she recognized those same qualities in certain other people, notably her art teacher and mentor, Hans Hofmann; Martha Graham, with whom she studied modern dance; and Charles Eames, whom she married in 1941.
Ray’s parents had catholic tastes and liberal leanings, and so did Ray. Her mother, Edna Kaiser, was Episcopalian, and her father, Alexander Kaiser, was brought up in the Jewish faith but did not practice it as an adult; Ray and her older brother were raised as Episcopalians. Her parents shared an interest in performance, from classical ballet to popular entertainment, including the new medium of film. Edna Kaiser, a housewife, took a keen interest in things around her and the many acts her charismatic husband brought to the vaudeville theater he managed until 1920, when Alexander Kaiser went into the insurance business to provide more financial security for his family.
Ray was always interested in myriad subjects, but her early passions were art and ballet. She focused on illustration, poster art, art anatomy, and art history at Sacramento Junior College, and from fall 1931 to summer 1933, she attended the May Friend Bennett School for Girls in Millbrook, New York, a progressive liberal arts college where art, music, dance, and drama were treated as seriously as more traditional academic subjects. Her art tutor was the sculptor known professionally as Lu Duble (Lucinda Davies, 1896–1970), who had moved to the United States from Britain as a child and had studied with Hans Hofmann in Germany. When Hofmann immigrated to the United States in 1932 and began teaching at the Art Student League in Manhattan, Duble guided good students, such as Ray, in his direction. Ray was attracted to working with Hofmann because she was interested in structure, an interest that led her to consider studying engineering. As she would later recall, “Somehow I’ve always been interested in structure, whatever form it was— . . . in dance and music, and even my interest in literature had that [same] base, I think . . . as structure in architecture.”
From 1933 to late 1938 or early 1939, Ray studied and made art full-time, mentored by one of the key players in “the rooting and transformation of European abstraction in American artistic practice.” Hofmann excelled at using abstract form, color, and composition to create illusions of space, depth, and movement. His “push and pull” technique created tensions between different forms, colors, and depths, and that tension is evident in the now famous plywood chairs that Ray and Charles Eames, together with a small group of employees, designed in 1946. A founding member of the American Abstract Artists (AAA), a group established in 1936 to promote abstraction at a time when the major museums and galleries refused to show it, Ray was at the heart of the New York art scene, and her good friends, Lee Krasner and Mercedes Matter, went on to play important roles in abstract expressionism.
Most of Ray’s art from this period was lost, but enough remains to indicate a keen sense of composition and color, strong spatial awareness, a facility for deconstructing the figure, and an ability to suggest three dimensions on flat surfaces. In some abstract studies and copper cut-out sculptures, she used organic forms suggestive of Miró, Arp, Picasso, Kandinsky, and Calder, and her paintings, graphics, and sculpture of the early 1940s also featured strong, abstract, organic forms.
Ray left the Hofmann studio to care for her mother, who died in 1940. Ray decided to move to California and design and build a house there, but a friend suggested that she might find the holistic approach to art and design at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, in Michigan, to her liking. There she met Charles Eames. They married in 1941 and moved to Los Angeles. Charles had studied architecture at Washington University (1926–28) before being asked to leave the Beaux-Arts–oriented program because of a “premature” interest in Frank Lloyd Wright and modern design. When he met Ray, he was head of a new design department at Cranbrook and was working with the architect and sculptor Eero Saarinen on a project to mass-produce commercially viable plywood chairs with complex molds that were comfortable to the human body. Eames and Saarinen received a degree of national and international recognition in 1940 when designs and images of their handmade prototypes won first prize in the seating section of the prestigious Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition, organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Unfortunately, it proved impossible to mass-produce the chairs, and Eero abandoned the project. Ray always emphasized that when she took up this project with Charles, she did not feel she was abandoning painting, but rather she was taking her interest in structure, color, form, and collage into different directions.
The Eameses worked as partners from 1941 until 1978 (the year of Charles’s death), creating, in collaboration with those who worked in their office, a wide range of furniture and other products, including toys. They also became known for designing exhibitions and codirecting a series of short films (some of which related to architectural topics), slide shows, and multimedia presentations. They shared a fascination with structure, a commitment to “getting the most from the least” (a principle of the modern movement in architecture that Ray learned from Hans Hofmann and Charles), a delight in everyday objects, and an insatiable curiosity and pleasure in all manner of objects and environments.
Although Charles had the greater public profile, he always insisted on the collaborative nature of their work and the centrality of Ray’s contribution to it. His greater profile was compounded by contemporary conventions in architectural and design offices whereby designs went out in the name of the (usually male) head of an office, and by assumptions that in any husband/wife partnerships the woman was the lesser partner. Yet, unlike many women designers and architects who collaborated with their husbands, Ray worked full-time. She had no children (Charles had a daughter by a previous marriage who was very close to Ray) and, in order to devote themselves to their work, the Eameses kept a cook at the office and had help with housekeeping and gardening at home.
Their own house, the Eames House (1945–49) is probably their most famous architectural work. Part of the Case Study House program sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine, the original design, conceived in collaboration with Saarinen, was for two steel-framed glass boxes raised up on steel supports, with uninterrupted views of the Pacific Ocean. The Eameses changed the design to retain as much of the meadow site as possible and get greater space for a similar amount of materials. They built a retaining wall so that the house and studio (now two rectangular boxes separated by a patio) could stand behind a row of eucalyptus trees at one end of the meadow. Unlike other glass and steel-frame homes of the period, including the Farnsworth House (1945–51, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe) and Philip Johnson’s Glass House (1949), the Eames House did not feature large unbroken expanses of clear glass or command extensive vistas. Shadows from, and light reflecting off of, those trees provide an ever-changing interplay of forms over the interior space. Economical in its use of materials, the house used standardized prefabricated parts (the structure was assembled by five men in sixteen hours), but there was considerable hand-finishing.
Ray’s art background accounts for the bold, colorful Mondrianesque panels on the front façade. Piet Mondrian was greatly admired by AAA members and Hofmann’s students. The collage of panels served to personalize and thus humanize the modernist machine aesthetic and the standardized units. Inside, carefully arranged groupings of culturally, materially, and chronologically disparate objects added further personal touches to the space, transforming “house” into “home.” From the outset, the Eameses saw the house as a place of respite and relaxation, one aspect of which was to contemplate changing arrangements of objects that they delighted in collecting. Among the many hundreds of objects displayed in their home over the years were handicrafts from India, Mexico, and Japan, old toys, Native American rugs, baskets, and kachinas, African stools, Japanese lamp shades, paintings, candleholders, souvenirs, plants, and floral arrangements, as well as found objects such as pebbles, feathers, and driftwood. The Eameses advocated that the inhabitants of spaces (rather than hired decorators) were the best people to choose furnishings and décor, and thus give their interiors a personal stamp, and this Eamesian “look,” which could be achieved quite simply and inexpensively, proved influential. The British architects Alison and Peter Smithson applauded what they called the “extra-cultural” surprises that arose from carefully selected juxtapositions and layering of objects, and referred to the Eames House as a “cultural gift parcel,” attributing this new approach to design “to Ray even more than Charles.
The Eameses also collaborated with Eero Saarinen on the design of another Case Study house (no. 9), a single-level steel and stucco dwelling (1947–49) for Arts & Architecture’s editor, John Entenza. For the steel and glass showrooms of the Herman Miller Furniture Company (1949) in Los Angeles, they drew upon the design for their own home; the street façade is composed of clear and opaque panels set into a modular frame. When Max De Pree of Herman Miller (which manufactured Eames furniture from 1949 onward) asked Charles and Ray to design for him a house like theirs, they proposed using wood and drastically reducing the number of windows because of the location, climate, and craft history of Michigan. Their only other built architectural project was the redesign of the station for the miniature railroad complex in Griffith Park, Los Angeles (1957). Unrealized architectural projects include a City Hall complex (1943), a house for their friends Billy and Audrey Wilder, a much more luxurious and more Miesian version of the Eames House, a low-cost, prefabricated house designed in kit form (1951), and a toy house (1959) for the Revell Company. While those that were built were not widely copied, they played a major role in popularizing a particularly American version of modern residential architecture in the postwar period. If the Eameses’ design work was inspired in part by the European modern movement, it also had, in turn, considerable impact in Europe, especially in Britain.
Charles Eames died in August 1978, and Ray died ten years later, to the day (August 21, 1988).
From the time of its completion in 1949, the Eames House was a mecca for architects, designers, and students of architecture and design from all over the world, and after Charles’s death, Ray continued the Eames tradition of warm hospitality. They likened good design to good hosts paying attention to all the various needs of their guests, and it was a joy to be such a guest, and to partake of good company and food as beautifully arranged as the objects within the house. Ray’s calendar shows regular visits of fifty and sixty students at a time, and shortly before she died, she was planning to host one hundred members of the American Institute of Architects who were going to view the house that she and Charles loved, and to picnic in the meadow that they regarded as an integral part of their home. Today, the Eames House and grounds enjoy landmark status, and access is courtesy of the Eames Foundation.
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