The Eames Lounge and Ottoman: Design Beauty

The Enduring Influence of Charles and Ray Eames

The Eames Lounge and Ottoman: Design Beauty

The design legacy of the husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames has exerted a phenomenal influence on America, and the world. Since the 1940s their work has had a profound effect on furniture, product design, architecture, graphics, textiles, sculpture and filmmaking.

Charles Eames was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1907, later attending Washington University where he was reputedly thrown out after two years for his advocacy of Frank Lloyd Wright. He then worked in an architecture office before opening his own practice in 1930. He won a fellowship to the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan where he was head of industrial design.

Ray-Bernice Kaiser, born in Sacramento California in 1912, was an artist, graphic designer, collector and filmmaker. It was at Cranbrook that Ray and Charles first met. Ray assisted Charles and Eero Saarinen in preparing designs for New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s Organic Design in Home Furnishings Competition where their designs of complex moulded plywood curves won them the two first prizes.

Eames Workshop 1950 - Seen on Set Charles and Ray Eames in their workshop circa 1950
Exhibition Mathematica Concept - Seen on Set The concept model for the Exhibition Mathematica, 1960

Charles divorced his first wife, Catherine Woermann, with whom he had one child, Lucia, in 1941. Charles and Ray married later that same year. They moved to California and set up their own design firm named Eames Office.

Charles headed the product and furniture design projects at Eames Office which was located in a converted garage on Washington Boulevard, Venice, then an industrial area of Los Angeles. Ray, who trained in expressionist art in New York under the abstract painter Hans Hoffman, was in charge of all graphic, textile and exhibition design as well as the company’s advertising. She also designed several covers for the magazine Arts and Architecture. Examples of Ray Eames’ textile designs can be found in many museum collections. Charles said, “Whatever I can do, Ray can do better”, and it was this collaboration of their domestic and professional lives together that resulted in their phenomenal influence on contemporary culture, that is still evident today.

Initial Design of Dot Pattern - Seen on Set Ray Eames initial designs for the Dot Pattern
Dot Pattern - Seen on Set The Dot Pattern, one of their most popular textile designs

Their collaboration with Henry Ford in 1954 found Charles urging Ford to make “standard production models”. In correspondence between the two (available at the Eames Museum) Charles proves just how forward thinking he was by telling Ford that “industry and designers could collaborate to produce beautiful, mass-produced goods”. Charles and Ray also worked with IBM to help ordinary people make sense of science and technology. As their influence and interests grew, they developed partnerships with universities and government agencies. Charles later became a cultural diplomat, serving on various arts councils. They owned a collection of 350,000 slides on which they based their elaborate presentations to clients, their “cabinet of curiosities” according to Ray.

In 1949, the Eameses designed and built the Case Study House Number 8, the Eames House, which was to remain their home until their deaths. Built on a cliff-top overlooking the ocean in the Pacific Palisades neighbourhood in Los Angeles, it was one of a series of radical low-cost houses sponsored by the magazine Arts and Architecture. With its rectangular volumes, steel structure, expansive glazing and multi-coloured panels, it personified the Eameses’ innovative and ground-breaking use of materials. It had a profound influence on architects and designers and is still considered to be one of the most important post-war houses in the world.

Original Eames House Drawing - Seen on Set An original architectural drawing for the Eames House
Eames House Construction - Seen on Set Charles and ray on site during construction in 1949
Eames House - Seen on Set The Eames House as it appears today. It is officially designated a National Historic Landmark

Whilst in California Charles also worked at MGM in Hollywood, and in the mid-1950s they focused on their film making and photography, and made more than one hundered films together. In 1968 the Eameses designed the Eames Chaise for their friend, the movie director Billy Wilder. But it is the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman created in 1956 that arguably has become their most famous design and subsequently a movie constant. It has appeared in countless films and TV shows, a small sample includes:

  • Tony Stark’s living room in Ironman,
  • a white version in Flynn’s off-grid house in Tron: Legacy,
  • as Michael Newman clicks his life away in Click,
  • Arthur’s study in The Holiday,
  • the apartment living room in Frasier,
  • and a very stylishly re-upholstered version in Gossip Girl
Eames Lounge and Ottoman in Tron Legacy - Seen on Set The Eames Lounge and Ottoman, Tron: Legacy (2010)
Eames Lounge and Ottoman in Frasier - Seen on Set The Eames Lounge and Ottoman, Frasier (1993 - 2004)

The Eames Lounge and Ottoman, an enduring star in its own right, evolved from Charles and Ray’s research into moulded plywood and applying that design aesthetic to the familiar English lounge chair. Charles wanted to produce a modern version of the chair that would have “the warm receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt”. It is the only exception to their visionary creed of good design as an agent for social change by mass producing well designed furniture that would be available to all – the Lounge Chair is not cheap – and yet it became an almost instant American design icon. The production rights for the Lounge Chair, along with many other Eames pieces, is exclusively owned by the award winning American furniture manufacturer Herman Miller.

The Eameses won countless awards throughout their career including Most Influential Designer of the 20th Century (1985) and Queen’s Gold Medal for Architecture (1979). Their designs are included in museum collections worldwide – for instance, the Eames Lounge and Ottoman are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Their phenomenal continued influence has merited exhibitions and retrospectives including Mathematica: A World of Numbers, with IBM (1966); Charles and Ray Eames at The Design Museum (1998); Library of Congress Exhibition (1999); The Barbican retrospective, and most recently, The World of Charles and Ray Eames (2016). The latest was a sold out show, testament – if needed – that the pioneering work of Charles and Ray Eames is as insightful, influential and sought after today as it was 60 years ago.

Chales & Ray Eames - Seen on Set

Charles died of a heart attack in 1978 while on a business trip to St. Louis, where he was born, and is buried there. Ray died exactly 10 years later, to the day, and is buried beside him in the Calvary Cemetery.

This husband-and-wife design team remain one of the most celebrated and loved designers the world has ever seen.

Written by Published on 17th February 2016

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