Ray and Charles

When buying and selling from a stall in Camden Market on Sundays in the late 1980s, I managed to pick up the odd bit of nice ‘Mid Century’ furniture and glass. Now, in no way was I an expert in that world, but I had a good eye and my instinct on buying pieces cheap and selling on for a tidy profit, worked well. Once I got to a certain point with my limited knowledge however, I knew I needed to do more research and so one day in the Barbican Library – being a member there was a perk of me working in the City of London in my Fleet Street days – I picked up a book called Mid Century Modern, in which were photographs of some amazing houses and interiors out in the States. Whilst making note on the furniture within the houses, I  noticed a lot of it was credited to a couple called Charles and Ray Eames, who at the time I guessed were brothers. Further research on them, revealed they were in fact husband and wife. I guess their most famous design to the masses, is the Lounge Chair and Ottoman, which I coveted badly at the time. Sadly, I never did find an original one in a jumble sale or down Westmoreland Road market, but many years later I bought a copy of one, somewhat cheaper than the current price of  £7,000.00 that the real deal go for. From then on,  I was hooked in on the world of Charles and Ray and they are the subjects of this week’s Speakeasy.

Charles Ormand Eames Jr., was born in St. Louis in 1907. Bernice Alexandra “Ray” Kaiser was born in Sacramento in 1912.
Charles initially studied architecture on a scholarship at Washington University from 1936, only to be expelled two years
later, due to his fierce loyalty to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work was frowned upon by his tutors. Charles then lived up to his rebel status, by constructing some housing and a couple of churches in Arkansas, without his architecture license.

He then pitched up at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan in 1940. There he met Bernice or Ray as everyone called her. She had left Sacramento for Manhattan, New York in 1933 and enjoyed a life of fashion, theatre design and the arts in general . At Cranbrook she studied abstract art, eventually becoming the founder of the American Abstract Artists group.

Whilst he was there, Charles entered a furniture design competition run by the Museum of Modern Art in New York , along with his then best friend Eero Saarinen. They won first prize with their Organic Chair which was made from one piece of moulded plywood. Ray had helped the pair with the graphic design of the piece. They got on so well, Charles divorced his first wife Catherine and married Ray in the summer of 1941 with the couple then relocating to Los Angeles, to live as design partners.

‘Take your pleasure seriously.’ – Charles and Ray 

Once settled, they set about creating the tools that could then mass produce the Organic Chair. They worked out of a design office in Venice and were there from 1943 to 1988. Known for their work ethic, which was second to none, their philosophy of ‘learning by doing’, slowly began to bear fruit .

‘Genius? Nothing – we just worked harder.’ – Charles 

As part of the effort to contribute to the Second World War, they developed wooden leg splints for wounded soldiers. The funding they received for this work, later enabled them to experiment with other general designs and they began to mass produce them.
Among that early work, were the wooden Dining Chair, the metal Dining Chair and the Eames Chaise which they designed for their good friend, the film director Billy Wilder. They also developed design techniques using fibreglass along with designing a number of toys. 

Toys are not really as innocent as they look. Toys and games are precursors to serious ideas.’ – Charles 

The company Herman Miller picked up the license to fully mass produce the business in the US, alongside the Swiss company Vitra who looked after Europe and the Middle East. Today, these two companies still remain the only licensed manufacturers of Eames products.

The couple then took part in the ‘Case Study House Program,’ sponsored by Arts and Architecture magazine, which showcased cost effective housing using industrial and surplus wartime materials. The magazine’s editor John Entenza became a close friend and firm supporter of the couple . As part of the program, Charles and his old pal Eero Saarinen designed number 8,  later to become the home of Charles and Ray. Number 9 later  belonged to Entenza. Charles and Ray would remain in the house for the rest of their lives and today it is considered an important building in the world of modern architecture.

‘We want to make the best for the most for the least.’ – Charles 

As well as furniture and housing, Charles and Ray experimented with photography and filmmaking and went on to produce 125 short films, mainly for the educational market. ‘Powers of Ten’ made in 1977 for IBM, was described as such – ‘(it) gives a dramatic demonstration of orders of magnitude by visually zooming away from the earth to the edge of the universe, and then microscopically zooming into the nucleus of a carbon atom.’ It won praise from by  fellow filmmaker in Hollywood for its revolutionary techniques

See for yourself here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ww4gYNrOkkg

Charles’s daughter Lucia inherited their collections and the Eames house after first Charles died in 1978, followed by Ray in 1988. Ray always had one eye on their legacy and donated 1.5 million two-dimensional objects (including 750,000 prints and photographs) to the Library of Congress. Lucia went on to set up the Eames Foundation in 2004 and when she died in 2014, left the name and company to her five children.

Over the years Charles and Ray picked up many accolades, including in 1979, the Royal Institute of British Architects gold medal. They were also named as the ‘most influential designers of the 20th century’ by the Industrial Designers society  of America in 1985 and featured on US postal stamps in 2008.

Peter Pearce of the Eames office – ‘Just observing Charles’s behaviour, from his work ethic and his reactions to ideas, ensured that everyone who worked there rose to his or her highest levels of performance. Charles Eames’s urgency about quality may be his greatest contribution. The standards of quality he exemplified must become the standards to which we all aspire.’

Charles – ‘Anytime one or more things are consciously put together in a way that they can accomplish something better than they could have accomplished individually, this is an act of design.’

Ray – ‘What works good is better than what looks good, because what works good lasts.’


The Mumper of SE5

Read The Mumper’s other weekly musings on ‘The Speakeasy’ blog page




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THE SPEAKEASY Volume Three by Mark Baxter (The Mumper)

Illustrations by Lewis Wharton

Foreword by Eddie Piller

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The Speakeasy Volume 3 by Mark Baxter, Bax began writing for the The Speakeasy on the Art Gallery Clothing site in 2017 & has covered various mod related subjects from music to film & clobber to art & literature.




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