Charles and Ray Eames: A Design for Working

Bennett Voyles

Their innovation goes beyond the mid-century furniture that bears their name

In the 1950s and 1960s, husband and wife Charles and Ray Eames designed some of the most stylish furniture around. Even now, in shows like Mad Men, the couple’s office furniture, particularly the iconic leather and bent plywood Eames Chair, remains the epitome of Fifties and Sixties chic.

If those pieces were all the Eames were remembered for, it would be a significant accomplishment, but they invented something even more important: a new way of working. Some design experts say that many of today’s most creative businesses – Apple, Pixar, and Google, to name just a few – follow an approach that the Eames pioneered in their Los Angeles design studio in the 1940s and 1950s.

The good hosts

For the Eames, design was not so much about shaping an object as solving a problem. Charles Eames said that the job of a designer was essentially like that of a good host who anticipates what his guest will want.  “When Charles Eames designed his chair, he was not designing a chair, but a way of sitting; that is, he was not designing for a function, but designing a function,” observed Italian designer Italian designer Ettore Sottsass.

“They’ve become sort of mythical symbols of the past, but the way that they approached design, the way that they understood its power beyond just the making of a pretty thing,  still drives the ascendance of design as a business process and as a solution-making process and as a product-making process,” says Clark Kellogg, a lecturer in Innovation, Creativity and Design at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and founding partner of the Berkeley Innovation Group.

Although they tend to be classified as modernists, the Eames themselves rejected the label, and instead said that their designs were unique solutions that tended to emerge once they understood the problem and reduced it to its simplest form.

This meant that for Charles (1907-1978) and Ray (short for Ray-Bernice) Eames (1912-1988), design required researching and thinking about the nature of the challenge before they began designing an object to solve it – assuming the solution required an object.

The two had picked up some of these ideas at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where they met in 1940. Charles, an architect by training, was a design instructor. Ray was a painter who joined the school after several years of studying with modernist painters and avant-garde dance instructors in New York. After a short time at the school, the two married and decided to try their luck as designers in Los Angeles.

Kellogg, who met the Eames early in his career, said he found the power of their curiosity inspiring. “What was so, to me, exciting was the way that Charles in particular would talk about the design process and how their inquiry went, how they would learn about things,” Kellogg remembers. “Their curiosity was so immensely powerful.”

Renaissance designers

That spirit of inquiry led them to pursue a variety of projects in different fields: from designing leg splints for the army during World War II using steam-bent plywood, a material they pioneered; to applying that same technique to the production of the iconic Eames Chair for office furniture company Herman Miller; to inventing toys and designing museum exhibitions.

Sometimes, according to Kellogg, they not only designed products, but provided advice on a client’s image and business strategy.  “They were designers with a capital “D” in that they would work in many different disciplines and apply their way of thinking to different sets of problems,” says Kellogg.

Their multi-disciplinary approach is now popular among many of today’s leading-edge design companies, such as IDEO. The global firm’s recent projects include the design of a farm-to-table restaurant concept in China that focused on every link of the value chain, from the food to the packaging, the menu, and staff training.

The Eames were ahead of the curve in other respects as well. Even as women in high heels brought coffee to men in gray flannel suits in offices all across America in the ‘50s, a new hire would walk into the Eames Office, a 14,000-square foot warehouse in Venice, Calif.,, meet the Eames in their carefully casual uniforms (he favored sport coats and open-collared shirts, with bow ties for formal occasions; from the 1940s to the 1970s she stuck to pinafore dresses, espadrilles, and soft hair bows), and be taken to start work on a first project.

A new hire would spend the whole day building something out of an elaborate marble roll block-set that the Eames had created. Their theory was they could understand a designer’s approach best by seeing something the person had built, according to their biographer, Pat Kirkham.

And that person was not necessarily a man: The Eames hired women and minorities for creative jobs at a time when doing so was still unusual. (In some contemporary interviews, the reporters seem to have trouble understanding what Charles means when he describes his wife Ray as his partner.) The Eames did not care about who their designers were, but what they could do – and were so democratic they hardly even believed in talent.  “I don’t believe in this ‘gifted few’ concept; just in people doing things they are really interested in doing,” Charles once said.

Nor did the fun end after that first day on the job. Things changed all the time in the red-brick workshop, which one designer remembered as “part museum, part funhouse, and part design and film studio.” Walls and furniture would be moved around to make room for a new project, or for work on one of the Eameses’ many side projects, such as the short movies they made on a wide range of subjects, including toy trains, Mexican folk art, and their two-section glass and aluminum home, built entirely of prefabricated materials.

Running away to the circus

Other days, work on a project might be interrupted if, for instance, the circus came to town. The Eames might send everyone out of the office with cameras to spend the day taking photographs of the circus animals and people. Designers who worked for the Eames said afterward that the studio was unpredictable interesting, and fun. Projects like the circus photo shoots had a larger and more serious purpose: to encourage creative, critical thinking that would lead to fresh solutions.

But Kellogg says that one of the most pertinent ideas for our time that he learned from the Eames is a belief that curiosity is better than judgment. “The moment you start to judge something and shuts down curiosity is the moment you stop learning…. the Eames gave us a blueprint for saying, ‘We don’t know but we’ll find out.’”