Some characters are charismatic, captivating and awake sympathy that prevail over the time. They make you imagine, how it would've been to have met and to spend a complete afternoon with them. For me, one of those many cases and wonderful persons are Charles & Ray Eames. Their story goes far beyond a romantic story. This is a perfect example of a couple that always kept the balance driving their projects forward.
Many recognize them as a dynamic duo of designers. And that title is undoubtedly well deserved. They were a great team and built a fruitful career leaving their footprint on several guidelines in the design's world. Just like all those many stories that are written after two different ways find each other, started this one. A story that a casualty moment wrote.
Charles (1907 *-1978†) was born in St. Louis, Missouri and began working at the age of ten in a printing shop. Upon discovering photographs of his father, he started showing great interest in photography and films. He began his studies in architecture at the Washington University, where he met his first wife, Catherine Woermann Dewey, and with whom had a daughter. The couple traveled to Europe to celebrate their weddings. On this trip they lived intensely occupied studying the architecture of the sites they visited. After returning to the United States, Charles opened his own architecture studio in collaboration with Charles Gray & Walter Pauley. Years later, he started a new studio with his friend Robert Walsh and together developed a couple of projects. 1939 Charles receives an invitation to work as a design professor at the Cranbrook Academy of Arts. A year later he was promoted as director of the industrial design department. In May 1941 Catherine and Charles separated. Nearly two months after, Charles Eames and Ray Kaiser married.
Real Ray's name was Bernice Alexandra Kaiser (1912 *-1988†). She was born in Sacramento, California and was called by her family as Ray-Ray. Her talent for the arts was revealed at a very early stage of his life. 1933 she began to study painting with Hans Hofmann. They worked together until 1939. Ray participated as co-founder of the American Abstract Artists Association (AAA) in New York, through which she made the first exhibition of his works. After the death of her mother in 1940, she began her studies at the Cranbrook Academy of Arts, where her way would cross for the very first time with Charles' and who would be marrying the following year.
The time of Charles & Ray together began with a scandal, but it was almost forgotten after the successful life they built together. After this point, it is certainly impossible to conceive or speak of them separately. Each one was the creative catalyst of the other. Although they always kept discretion with their personal life, harmony and happiness are always shown in their photos together. I remember gracefully as one of my professors commented somewhat jokingly, somewhat seriously and with a touch of doubt and disbelief —"I've never seen a picture of these two angry. They are all the time are smiling!". Indeed. Those pictures of both radiate joy. It doesn't matter if they are at their home in Pacific Palisades, California or just hanging out with friends. With this second situation, I let my fantasy fly and imagine: how it would have been sharing those moments with them.
The color was in many ways the key to their work, and together with the form was certainly the element in the spotlight. They designed and built pavilions and furniture. They produced short films, designed interiors, made house studies and also built their own. They worked in the production of parts for the armament of the US Navy; organized art, photography and furniture exhibitions. They designed toys and even produced advertising campaigns among many many other things. The list of their work seems endless, but there are three particular things than calling my curiosity amaze me: their house, the little elephant and one of the short films.
The famous Eames House located in Pacific Palisades, California, was the result of multiple home studies for the Arts & Architecture magazine in December 1945. This is the Case Study No.8. It was not until 1949 when the couple moved into the house located in a two hectares area shared with Case Study N.9. The house has a very simple construction at the first sight. It has two levels and the main structure is made of steel frames. Among eucalyptus trees, the outer vivid colors and materials are perfectly delimited by panels of different sizes, but all of them with perfect proportion. It is a spectacle of color that calls curiosity. It's possible to recognize the design and it also reflects the care with which each one of the elements was selected. Inside, there is a large number of decoration objects that are illuminated through the big amount of light coming in through the large windows. When Charles & Ray still lived there, the house was in constant motion, everything changed its place. In fact, it was exactly what the space in this house was intended for. The idea was to create a room flexible enough that could be adapted to its inhabitants and the Eames experimented with it and the full potential. Objects brought as souvenirs from around the world are still preserved inside, but also many of the furnishings of their own line. Those are clearly the advantages of owning such passion and talent.
I also like The Elephant so much. It caught my attention from the very first time for many reasons: as I saw it, I could not believe it was a toy —I have to confess, I still doubt that playing was his original function. Facts about Charles & Ray had no children made me doubt. In addition, it was such a neat and elegant object, which for me was hard to imagine a child walking and climbing on it. Today you can find beautiful plastic versions of it that perfectly fill that function, but we are talking about an experimental piece made of molded laminated wood in the year 1945. Just a year later, The Elephant was presented at an exhibition in a modern art museum. Interesting is, that this piece was not manufactured until many years later after the death of Charles & Ray in 2007 by Vitra. The first edition was the reproduction of these elephants in laminated wood in two different colors: red and natural. And later, they were produced in their mentioned plastic versions. Today you can buy one of these cute design Elephants in bright colors by Vitra or the Online Store of Eames Office. Here is a crazy but fun short film produced by Charles' grandson where this elephant is the protagonist of a funny adventure.
Charles & Ray "were" not only design. They went still further. The production of films and short films were part of their portfolio. Among them, there is one which many years ago stole one of my sleep nights when I still was a kid. It made me think of how small we are if we consider how big is the universe. This film was: Powers of Ten. It is probably the best known of them all. There are two versions of this video. The first one in black and white of the year 1968. It was actually a rough sketch of what in the year 1977 would become his color version. The film shows a distant and potentially increased journey to the known limits of science at that time. Similarly, we experience the journey in backward. The feelings that provide the video, even after many years, still makes you think about the size of things and probably wakes your philosophical side. And just because pictures say more than a thousand words, better check it out yourself.
After all, we have talked, there is no doubt how wonderful it would have been spending an afternoon with this wonderful and creative couple. Surely, we would see them working on sketches for their next project. Still, I prefer the fantasy of a summer afternoon in California in that house drinking a lemonade with Charles & Ray. Fortunately, their legacy is in very good hands thanks to the Eames Foundation, led by Lucia Eames (Charles' daughter) and her five children. The works and legacy of Charles & Ray are kept in preservation, it is diffused and maintains his value as part of our (global) culture and contemporary design.
Links and recommended reading:
- Koenig, Gloria. EAMES. 2005, Cologne, Germany.