In a 1972 short film titled “Design Q&A,” Charles Eames offered answers to a series of questions about design, a field in which he and his wife, Ray, had envisioned everything from medical splints and airport seating to low-cost housing and children’s toys. “What is your definition of design, Monsieur Eames?” asked the interviewer, Madame L’Amic. “One could describe design as a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose,” Charles replied. They continued:
MADAME L’AMIC: What are the boundaries of design?
CHARLES EAMES: What are the boundaries of problems?
This Eamesian understanding of design as a solution rather than a luxury—as something that’s about industry as much as art—encapsulates the unique philosophy and vast influence of Charles and Ray Eames, a husband-and-wife team whose lightness of touch and Californian joie de vivre infuses contemporary offices and homes. Would Ikea be the same without the Eameses? Would Apple? Their work is best remembered via the molded-plywood and leather lounge chair that bears the Eames name, but their vision of design as something that could get “the best to the greatest number of people for the least” lives on in less tangible ways. The Eameses, above all else, helped democratize the genre.
The couple are currently the subject of a major retrospective at London’s Barbican Center. The World of Charles and Ray Eames incorporates the breadth of their influence, opening with the plywood nose cone they designed for a military aircraft during World War Two, and recreating “Think,” a mid-1960s immersive installation made for the IBM Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair that draws parallels between human brains and computers. Although the Eameses were practical about their work, they were idealistic about the coming information age, seeing the ability to rapidly communicate with others all over the world as a powerful force for global change. “Beyond the age of information,” Charles Eames said in 1971, “is the age of choices.”
Charles and Ray Eames arrived in Los Angeles in 1941, a year after they met at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Charles was married to his first wife, Catherine at the time, but Ray began assisting him and Eero Saarinen in their designs for the Museum of Modern Art’s Organic Design in Home Furnishings Competition, and soon he divorced Catherine and married Ray. Their early years in California were spent trying to mass-produce the molded-plywood furniture Charles and Saarinen had pioneered, but they began shaping their designs to aid the war effort instead, making splints, stretchers, and airplane parts with their new technique. This shift said as much about the Eameses’ philosophy regarding their work as it did their patriotism. “Design,” Charles said, “addresses itself to the need.”
The two brought numerous skill sets to their work—both had an interest in film (Charles subsidized their studio in the early days by painting sets for MGM), and Ray was a visual artist who designed textiles and sketched covers for the journal Arts & Architecture. After the war they returned to their commercial efforts, completing the Eames House in Los Angeles in 1949 as part of a Case Study program for Arts & Architecture. The house was intended as an experiment to realize the design of a house for a young married couple needing a place to live and work. Like so many of their designs it became inextricable from the couple themselves, who lived there until their deaths (Charles in 1978, Ray 10 years later).
The Barbican exhibition offers countless examples of the chairs for which the Eameses are best known, and which encapsulate their spirit of “way-it-should-be-ness”—when an object, through hard work and meticulous process, is finally realized in the incarnation of its ideal state. More than artists, the couple considered themselves to be tradesmen and engineers, combining ingenuity and technological progress to produce playful, practical, reliable designs. Their tandem sling seating, first installed in Washington’s Dulles Airport and Chicago’s O’Hare, is now mimicked in waiting rooms all over the world. The sleek curvature and durability of their chairs has made them a staple in offices and homes, although the current $5,000 price tag for an Eames lounge chair at Herman Miller rather belies the idea of producing low-cost, stylish furniture for the masses.
But it’s impossible not to sense the Eamesian influence in low-cost, flat-packed furniture sold at Ikea, or Crate and Barrel, or Target. The way-it-should-be-ness of their chairs so infuses modern design that their own works have inspired countless contemporary imitators—something Charles himself might have appreciated. “To be realistic,” Charles Eames once said, “one must always admit the influence of those who have gone before.”
Much of their impact is harder to trace: The designer Dieter Rams, whose work for Braun is unmistakably felt in the work of Apple’s chief designer, Jonathan Ive, has credited them as an influence, and certainly Apple’s synergy of form and function, lightness of spirit, and commitment to process borrows heavily from the Eamesian model. Their belief that everyday objects can both define and provide meaning makes them one of the most enduring creative forces of the 20th century. They predicted the future even if they couldn’t describe it. “What is the future of design?” Madame L’Amic asked Charles Eames at the end of their Q&A. His response: a montage of images featuring fruit, plants, and flowers, as if to point at how the encapsulation of function and beauty has really been all around us, all along.