Charles Eames is a household name in industrial design, perhaps most famous for a few chair designs that have taken on icon status. He was also a filmmaker and architect: let’s take a look at his life, his most famous designs, and perhaps some of his less well know ones.
Charles Eames, born 1907 in St. Louis, Missouri, studied architecture at Washington University in St. Louis and designed a number of houses and churches in collaboration with various partners. His work caught the attention of Eliel Saarinen, who offered him a fellowship at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan in 1938. In 1940, he and Eero Saarinen won first prize in the ‘Industrial Design Competition for the 21 American Republics’ – also known as ‘Organic Design in Home Furnishings’ – organised by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Eames was appointed head of the industrial design department at Cranbrook the same year. Much of Charles’ designs were in collaboration with his wife, Ray Eames.
Charles Eames (1907–1978) and Ray Kaiser Eames (1913–1988) met while attending the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and they married in 1941. From the beginning of their collaborative partnership, they focused on creating multifunctional modern designs. While at Cranbrook, Charles collaborated with Eero Saarinen on a group of wood furniture designs that won the Museum of Modern Art’s 1940 “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition. These designs, which included experimental molded plywood chairs, were conceived of as functional, affordable options for consumers seeking modern yet livable domestic surroundings. These issues proved to be the salient concerns of much of the Eames’ furniture designs of the next three decades. The pair moved to Los Angeles in 1941, where Charles initially worked in the movie industry, while Ray created cover designs for the influential journal, California Arts and Architecture. They also continued their experiments with molded plywood, which began with Charles’ Cranbrook collaboration with Saarinen. Through the creative use of this industrial material, the Eameses sought a strong, flexible product capable of taking on myriad shapes and forms. These experiments included the construction of a special machine for molding the plywood, dubbed the Kazam! Machine, but it never produced satisfactory results. However, this work led to the Eames’ important contribution to the war effort. They received a contract from the U.S. Navy to develop lightweight, mass-produced molded plywood leg splints for injured servicemen, as well as aircraft components. Access to military technology and materials provided the final step in the Eames’ successful attempt to create stable molded plywood products. The resulting splint was both highly functional and sculptural, and suggests the fluid, biomorphic forms that characterized many of their subsequent furniture designs.
The Eameses also became involved in architectural projects, collaborating with Saarinen on case study houses no. 8 and no. 9, part of an experimental building program led by John Entenza, editor of the magazine California Arts and Architecture (later Arts and Architecture) from 1945 to 1966. The Eameses designed house no. 9 for Entenza and no. 8 for themselves. Both were built in 1949 in Pacific Palisades, California, and were outstanding for their elegant use of factory-produced elements. After 1955 the Eameses became increasingly active in the making of motion pictures, chiefly of an educational nature, notably the classic Powers of Ten (1968), which demonstrates the concept of orders of magnitude by contrasting views from Earth’s surface to the universe’s edge and back to a handheld carbon atom. As design consultants for International Business Machines, the Eameses helped create IBM’s memorable exhibit for the 1964–65 New York World’s Fair. A decade later, under the aegis of the same company, they designed a large American Bicentennial exhibition called “Franklin and Jefferson.” The show was seen in Paris, in Warsaw, and in London, before appearing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
World War Two was a major part of their career, as it brought forth need for different products, and design solutions. With so many wounded soldiers, there was an urgent need for a new type of splint. Charles and Ray made one out of plywood. It was supremely practical, but its practicality gave it an accidental beauty. That splint became a template for their work. “We don’t do ‘art’ – we solve problems,” explained Charles. “How do we get from where we are to where we want to be?”
“What works good is better than what looks good because what works good lasts,” said Ray. In fact, the two things went hand in hand. This was not a new concept. The Bauhaus had pioneered this functional approach before the war. However Charles and Ray made it mainstream. Their designs were pleasing and accessible, attractive to young executives, not just artists and intellectuals. Charles introduced modernist design to middle America, but it was Ray who softened its hard edges, and gave it mass appeal.
10 of Charles Eames most Iconic Designs
1. The EM Lounge Chair
The iconic Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, originally released in 1956, began with the designers’ desire to create a chair with “the warm, receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt.” The result embodies what it really means to relax. In continuous production since its introduction, this authentic contemporary lounge chair is assembled by hand to ensure the highest level of quality and craftsmanship. Available in a range of wood finishes, upholsteries, and sizes, the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman remains ever more relevant today as it was in 1956. “The Eameses really changed the way that people considered what a chair is supposed to look like,” says Amy Auscherman, Herman Miller’s head of archives and brand heritage. And while details like its upholstered cushions signal inspiration from earlier, more traditional furniture designs, features like the molded plywood and shock mount technology made the chair revolutionary at the time. The point is, ever since the set debuted with Herman Miller in 1956, it has been a staple of modern design—and there’s a very good reason why, 65 years after the original Eames lounger debuted at the Arlene Francis Home show, we’re still talking about it. The classic rosewood and black leather look is truly iconic, but Herman Miller offers the Eames Lounge and Ottoman with quite a nice range of customizable options, such as seven shell wood finishes and 18 upholstery colors, from gray mohair to red flamiber, and, of course, leather.
2. The Eames House
In 1949, the husband-and-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames built a home for themselves in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles. Constructed of steel, the house is starkly avant-garde from the outside: it resembles, from a distance, a painting by Mondrian. But its interior is richly decorated with things the couple collected on their travels: mobiles, rush baskets, Native American art, Japanese dolls. The Eameses made their house the centre of their world, and lived there until their deaths (Charles in 1978, Ray a decade later). The house is now a US National Historic Landmark and open to visitors. This house was not only constructed to adhere to the personal needs of the Eames, but also to portray a universal modernist residential design. Set amidst the natural environment, it was described by eames as a re-orienter, a solution to typical living problems. And then by nestling the house into the hillside, rather than imposing it on the site, they realized their original intent: for the house in nature to serve as a re-orientor. The scent, the sound of birds, the shadow of the trees against the structure whether inside or out, the openness of the site—all the elements join seamlessly. Charles said, “Just as a good host tries to anticipate the needs of his guest, so a good architect or a designer or a city planner tries to anticipate the needs of those who will live in or use the thing being designed.” They believed in the iterative process: the redesigning and rethinking of a project to improve it, whether it was through creating the three versions of their film Powers of Ten, or the two house designs for the site, or the constantly evolving décor during the early years.
3. La Chaise
This chair that looks like a 3-D egg on legs is a spectacular sight to behold. An icon of organic furniture design, this chair was created for the ‘international competition for low-cost furniture design’. It was named after the sculptor la chaise due to its elegance and function. Its name references both its function as well as Gaston Lachaise’s Floating Figure sculpture, whose shape the Eameses thought would fit the chair perfectly. Comprised of two bonded fiberglass shells, a chromed base, and natural oak feet, the chair exhibits a captivating elegance and allows for a wide range of sitting and reclining positions. The Eames La Chaise was never sold during Charles and Ray’s lifetime. It proved too costly to produce; however, their Armchair design, which they entered into the same competition, won a prize and was produced in fiberglass with great success. It wasn’t until 1996 that the long-time Eames partner, Vitra International, began manufacturing and distributing the La Chaise in response to public interest and demand. Today, the chair serves as a long-established icon of organic design. It is available exclusively from Vitra.
4. Hang it All
These coat hooks, made using techniques developed for the wire-framed chairs and tables, were designed by Charles and Ray in 1953 to encourage children to hang things up. Naturally they’ve long since been colonised by adults who lack the cash to fill their houses with Eames furniture but love the aesthetic all the same. Playful and strong, Hang-It-All reminds you, in a glance, that unlike so many 20th-century designers, the Eameses were not sombre, monochrome-obsessed types. “Take your pleasure seriously,” said Charles, by which he meant, among other things: even those who wear black polo necks are entitled to have a good time. Reminiscent of floating snooker balls or a model of atoms, the Hang It All, with its 14 coloured balls attached to a wire frame, was designed to appeal to children – and to encourage them to hang up their things. But the Hang It All wasn’t just for the young; it appealed just as much to adults – its playful, optimistic, space-age aesthetic chiming with the spirit of the post-war years. Like other designers of the mid 20th century, the Eameses were attracted to new materials and production techniques. The pair’s earliest designs experimented with moulding plywood, but it was welded wire that became their trademark, forming the architecture of chair and table legs, as well as the Hang It All’s frame.
5. Powers of Ten
This documentary is yet another wonderful piece of art created by the eames. It deals with the relative size of things in the universe. The film starts with a couple on a picnic and zooms out from the picnic spot in an aerial view in multiples of ten. There are two versions of the doc: the first film, A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing with the Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe, was a prototype and was completed in 1968; the second film, Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero, was completed in 1977. The Powers of Ten films were adaptations of the book Cosmic View (1957) by Dutch educator Kees Boeke. Both films, and a book based on the second film, follow the form of the Boeke original, adding color and photography to the black and white drawings employed by Boeke in his seminal work. The second version adds two powers of ten—a hundredfold increase—to each end of the journey into the universe, and to the return trip to the microstructure of the carbon atom in the human body.The site of the journey’s beginning was changed to a park bordering Chicago’s Lake Michigan, to allow the journey to approach the disk of the galaxy at approximate right angles. Powers of Ten was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
6. Shell Chair
Charles and Ray Eames built their single-shell chair design on the principle of universality. Two biomorphic shell shapes welcome bodies of all shapes and sizes. A choice of bases addresses most seating needs—dining, working, even rocking a baby to sleep. Material and upholstery options cover practically any aesthetic. It all adds up to more than 2 million unique configurations, and 70 years of Shell Chair love.The Eames one-piece shell concept has never been tied to any one material. Original 1950 designs were fiberglass, with bent wire following the next year. The hazards of working with fiberglass prompted a switch to polypropylene (they’ve since been relaunched with a safer fiberglass formula). Later, advances in veneer technology made the Eames Molded Wood Chair possible. They’re all part of the line today—along with options for upholstery and seat pads.In a famous 1969 interview, Charles Eames was asked: To whom does Design address itself? “Design addresses itself to the need,” he responded. That simple answer explains the variety of Shell Chair base options available today. Whether you need elegant dining chairs or statement-making office seating, versatile stacking chairs or stools for the kitchen counter, there’s an Eames Shell Chair
7. Wire Chair
The Eames Wire Chair is a unique iteration in the shell chair’s continuous evolution. In the 1950s, the Eames Office started experimenting in bent and welded wire. When Charles and Ray Eames were working on bringing the Eames molded plastic side chairs to market, they faced so many challenges to make a durable side chair that they took the same form as the side chair and decided to produce it out of welded steel wires. The steel wires form a structure on which the upholstery can be attached. Inspired by trays, dress forms, and baskets, the team developed a number of pieces, including the wire version of the single-shell form. The Eames Wire Chair comes with a wire base and an optional full-piece leather seat pad or crisscross, two-piece “bikini” pad; both versions are available in a variety of colors. Charles Eames described the inspiration for this design: “If you looked around you found these fantastic things being made of wire—trays, baskets, rat traps, using of a wire fabricating technique perfected over a period of many years. We looked into it and found that it was a good production technique and also a good use of material. Before the molded plastic chair had been solved, the molded wire chair was well under way.” Long before “sustainability” became a watchword for consumers and manufacturers, in 1951, Charles and Ray Eames introduced comfortable, upholstered furniture with easily repairable, easily replaceable upholstery. The wire shell, the same form, and shape as the fiberglass side shell, was a structure to support the pads. The first pads developed were of one piece, covering the entire wire shell, and these were not inexpensive. Ironically, the version of these chairs that have proven the most popular, the two-piece pad chairs, which the public refers to as “Bikini chairs,” were originally developed as a lower-cost alternative to the full, one-piece pads.
8. Eames Lounge Wood Chair
Having gained expertise in working with plywood after ww ii, charles started his quest with furniture design. Initially, he tried to create a plywood chair with a single shell, but the material could not be curved as desired. Subsequently, he came up with the design of eames lounge chair wood in which he created the chair with two separate pieces of plywood. These formed the seat and the backrest and were joined by a plywood spine and rested on plywood legs. This molded plywood chair began as an experiment, created via a machine that molded plywood with the help of heat and a bicycle pump: what they called the “Kazam! Machine.” The machine pressed thin sheets of wood veneer against a heated membrane. Today, the low-slung chair features an expertly crafted molded seat and back that cradles you in comfort. To echo the editors of Time, the Eames molded plywood lounge chair is “something elegant, light, and comfortable. Much copied, but never bettered.” In 1999, the chair was titled as ‘the greatest design of 20th century’ by the time magazine.
9. The Task Chair
The aluminium task chair was created as a part of the aluminium group, a series of furniture specifically designed for office use. The seatback suspension that came with this chair was unheard of and grew popular in no time. In this chair, the elegant aluminium frame supports the synthetic mesh seat, whose material has changed significantly over the years.The Eames Task Chair is a new iteration on an archetype. In 1953, Charles & Ray designed the 4-star base for office seating. Now updated with a 5-star base, swivel-mounted seat, and height adjustment, today’s Eames Task Chairs can support a variety of business needs. The Eames Aluminum Group Collection (1958) began as a special project for Eero Saarinen and Alexander Girard, who needed seating for a home they were designing for industrialist J. Irwin Miller in Columbus, Indiana. The pair asked the Eameses to design light, mobile leisure chairs. At the time, Charles and Ray were exploring ways to use aluminum, which had been strengthened, refined and made more affordable since WWII. So, they constructed a lightweight, die-cast aluminum frame and set a sling in it – a “sitting pocket,” as they called it, which subtly conformed to the body’s shape. This completely new type of seat marked a departure from the idea of a chair as solid shell. Constructed of 61% recycled materials, the Eames Aluminum Group Chair is backed by a 12-year manufacturer’s warranty. It’s also 88% recyclable at the end of its useful life. This is an authentic Eames chair by Herman Miller.
10. Griffith Park Railroad
Inspired by the victorian railway architecture and typography, this project was dedicated to charles’s love for trains and children. Everything from the station, station house to the graphics for the posters and signage for the park was designed by Eames.They also built other architectural elements and props to the same scale as the train (one-fifth life size), including a water tower, utility and storage sheds, side stations, trestles, signal posts, and oil drums. Although the station isn’t here anymore, perhaps the water tower is theres? Must take a trip to Griffith Park Railroad this summer to ask the conductor! At this point in their careers, their Eames House was already a National Historic Landmark and their furniture and design businesses were already almost legendary so you’d think the pair would have little time for constructing a trivial attraction for children. But this project was just as important to them as any other. Charles had loved trains since boyhood and the couple thought it was hugely important to design spaces that would connect and fill children with awe.