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Charles Eames (American, 1907–1978)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American architects, designers and film makers. Charles (Orman) Eames (b St Louis, MO, 17 June 1907; d St Louis, 21 Aug 1978) and his wife, Ray Eames [née Kaiser] (b Sacramento, CA, 15 Dec 1916; d Los Angeles, CA, 21 Aug 1988), formed a partnership after their marriage in 1941 and shared credit for all design projects. Charles Eames studied architecture at George Washington University, St Louis (1924–6). He then worked part-time as a draughtsman for Wilbur T. Trueblood and Hugo Graf in St Louis. In 1929 he travelled in Europe, looking at both old buildings and the newly emerging work of the International Style. In the early 1930s he associated himself with Charles M. Gray, with whom he had worked in Trueblood’s office. The Depression severely limited commissions, and in 1934 he travelled and worked in Mexico. He returned to St Louis in 1935 and established another only marginally successful architectural office with a friend, Robert Walsh. The suburban domestic designs of this partnership were characteristic of the time: a tasteful, slightly modernized interpretation of traditional historic images, particularly 18th-century American Colonial.

In 1936 Charles Eames accepted a fellowship at the Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield Hills, MI, which was under the direction of Eliel Saarinen. As well as Saarinen’s son Eero Saarinen, he met Ray Kaiser, who became his second wife and design partner. Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen collaborated on the design of exhibitions and furniture; they researched techniques of binding and laminating wood and of curving plywood. In 1940 they entered a competition sponsored by MOMA in New York, in which their entries for curved plywood chairs and modular storage units won two awards; they were exhibited in the Organic Design in Home Furnishings exhibition at MOMA in 1942. In 1946 their plywood furniture was shown in an exhibition, Chairs, Eames and Chests, at MOMA; it included a plywood side chair and dining chair (1946), which quickly became well known and widely used. This exhibition also brought their work to the attention of the Herman Miller furniture company, by whom they were employed as designers and consultants (for illustrations ).

Ray Eames studied painting under Hans Hofmann in New York and in Provincetown, MA (1933–9). In 1940 she was a founder-member of American Abstract Artists. Studying at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, MI, she began to collaborate on designs with Charles Eames. In 1941 they married, shortly afterwards moving to southern California, and thereafter they worked as a partnership. The Eames studio designed not only furniture but also the machinery and production methods needed to manufacture it.

At the same time the Eameses turned their attention to architecture. In 1945 they collaborated with Eero Saarinen and Edgardo Contini on two projected case study houses (nos 8 and 9) for the magazine Arts and Architecture. Case Study House no. 9, which was intended for John Entenza, the editor and publisher of the magazine, was a single-level dwelling of steel and stucco and was built (1947–9), essentially as proposed in its first design, at 205 Chautauqua Boulevard, Pacific Palisades, CA. Case Study House no. 8, which was to be the Eames’s house, was originally conceived as two steel-framed boxes raised above the site on steel legs. The design was substantially changed, however, and the house was built at ground-level, with two-storey living and studio sections separated by an open atrium . It is a typical Eames product, light in appearance and suggesting a tie to the historical (Japanese architecture) and to the modern. The new siting of the house at 203 Chautauqua Boulevard, Pacific Palisades, set it into the hillside, and through its glass walls the interior could become fully a part of the surrounding eucalyptus grove and take in the view beyond of the Pacific Ocean. The playfulness of the house was reinforced by wall panels of bright colours, panels containing illusionistic photo-murals and by the presence of the Eames’s collection of toys and folk art. Charles Eames designed several other houses at this time, including an unbuilt scheme for the film director Billy Wilder in Beverly Hills (1949–51; see Neuhall, Neuhall and Eames, p. 137). His only other realized design on the West Coast was a showroom for the Herman Miller Company, 8806 Beverly Boulevard, Beverly Hills (1949). The street façade of this building is composed of clear and opaque panels set into a thin steel frame and is similar to the wall system used in the Eames’s house.

In the 1950s the Eameses, with Harry Bertoia, George Nelson and Eero Saarinen, used the latest technology for furniture. Moulded plastic, foam, artificial leather and supports of a ‘cat’s cradle’ of metal wire and of cast aluminium were employed in a series of designs that became the hallmark of modern interiors of the 1950s and 1960s. These included moulded polyester high and low side chairs (1955), a moulded rosewood plywood lounge chair and ottoman (1956) and polished, die-cast aluminium chairs and ottoman, the ‘Indoor–Outdoor’ (1958). Concurrent with the Eames’s designs for furniture and children’s toys was their increased involvement with communication, especially films and exhibitions, and by the 1960s this replaced furniture as their principal work. In 1952 they produced the film Bread, followed by Communication Primer (1953), Powers of Ten (1969) and other films. They also began to experiment with multi-image slide and film presentations, some of which were used in exhibitions designed by the Eameses, including the IBM special exhibition Mathematica: A World of Numbers and Beyond (1961), held at the California Museum of Science and Industry, Los Angeles. Other significant exhibitions were The Scholar’s Walk in the IBM pavilion at the World’s Fair, New York, in 1964, and a number of travelling exhibitions, including Nehru: His Life and India (1965) and The World of Franklin and Jefferson (1973).

David Gebhard
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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