furniture designer & architect
Born: Saint Louis, Missouri
“The recognition and understanding of the need was the primary condition of the creative act. When people feel they had to express themselves for originality for its own sake, that tends not to be creativity. Only when you get into the problem and the problem becomes clear, can creativity take over.”
– Charles Eames
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Charles Ormond Eames, Jr. was born in 1907 in Saint Louis, Missouri. By the time he was 14 years old, while attending high school, Charles worked at the Laclede Steel Company as a part-time laborer, where he learned about engineering, drawing, and architecture (and also first entertained the idea of one day becoming an architect).
Charles briefly studied architecture at Washington University in St. Louis on an architectural scholarship. He proposed studying Frank Lloyd Wright to his professors, and when he would not cease his interest in modern architects, he was dismissed from the university. In the report describing why he was dismissed from the university, a professor wrote the comment: “His views were too modern”. While at Washington University, he met his first wife, Catherine Woermann, whom he married in 1929. A year later, they had a daughter, Lucia.
After he left school and was married, Charles began his own architectural practice, with partners Charles Gray and later Walter Pauley.
One great influence on him was the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen (whose son Eero, also an architect, would become a partner and friend). At the elder Saarinen’s invitation, he moved in 1938 with his wife Catherine and daughter Lucia to Michigan, to further study architecture at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he would become a teacher and head of the industrial design department. One of the requirements of the Architecture and Urban Planning Program, at the time Eames applied, was for the student to have decided upon his project and gathered as much pertinent information in advance – Eames’ interest was in the St. Louis waterfront. Together with Eero Saarinen he designed prize-winning furniture for New York’s Museum of Modern Art “Organic Design” competition. Their work displayed the new technique of wood moulding (originally developed by Alvar Aalto), that Eames would further develop in many moulded plywood products, including, beside chairs and other furniture, splints and stretchers for the US Navy during World War II.
In 1941, Charles and Catherine divorced, and he married his Cranbrook colleague Ray Kaiser, who was born in Sacramento, California. He then moved with her to Los Angeles, California, where they would work and live for the rest of their lives. In the late 1940s, as part of the Arts & Architecture magazine “Case Study” program, Ray and Charles designed and built the groundbreaking Eames House, Case Study House #8, as their home. Located upon a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and constructed entirely of prefabricated steel parts intended for industrial construction, it remains a milestone of modern architecture.
In the 1950s, the Eameses would continue their work in architecture and modern furniture design, often (like in the earlier moulded plywood work) pioneering innovative technologies, such as the fiberglass and plastic resin chairs and the wire mesh chairs designed for Herman Miller. Besides this work, Charles would soon channel his interest in photography into the production of short films. From their first one, the unfinished Traveling Boy (1950), to the extraordinary Powers of Ten (1977), their cinematic work was an outlet for ideas, a vehicle for experimentation and education.
The Eameses also conceived and designed a number of landmark exhibitions. The first of these, “Mathematica, a World of Numbers and Beyond” (1961), is still considered a model for scientific popularization exhibitions. It was followed by “A Computer Perspective: Background to the Computer Age” (1971) and “The World of Franklin and Jefferson” (1975-1977), among others.
The office of Charles and Ray Eames, which functioned for more than four decades (1943-88) at 901 Washington Boulevard in Venice, California, included in its staff, at one time of another, a number of remarkable designers, like Don Albinson and Deborah Sussman. Among the many important designs originating there are the molded-plywood DCW (Dining Chair Wood) and DCM (Dining Chair Metal with a plywood seat) (1945), Eames Lounge Chair (1956), the Aluminum Group furniture (1958), the Eames Chaise (1968), designed for Charles’s friend, film director Billy Wilder, as well as molded plywood leg splints for the US Navy, the playful Do-Nothing Machine (1957), an early solar energy experiment, and a number of toys.
Short films produced by the couple often document their interests in collecting toys and cultural artifacts on their travels. The films also record the process of hanging their exhibits or producing classic furniture designs, to the purposefully mundane topic of filming soap suds moving over the pavement of a parking lot. Perhaps their most popular movie, “Powers of 10”, 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. Charles was a prolific photographer as well with thousands of images of their furniture, exhibits and collections, and now a part of the Library of Congress.
Charles Eames died of a heart attack on August 21, 1978 while on a consulting trip in his native Saint Louis, and now has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
The Eames philosophy was very much entrenched in process. Process to get to the final product often took years of trial and error.
At one time, Charles gave a series of lectures called the “Norton Lectures”. At the lecture, the Eames viewpoint and philosophy is related through Charles’ own telling of what he called the banana leaf parable. A banana leaf being the most basic dish off which to eat, in southern India. He related the progression of design and its process where the banana leaf is transformed into something fantastically ornate. He explains the next step and ties it to the design process by finishing the parable with:
“But you can go beyond that and the guys that have not only means, but a certain amount of knowledge and understanding, go the next step and they eat off of a banana leaf. And I think that in these times when we fall back and regroup, that somehow or other, the banana leaf parable sort of got to get working there, because I’m not prepared to say that the banana leaf that one eats off of is the same as the other eats off of, but it’s that process that has happened within the man that changes the banana leaf. And as we attack these problems – and I hope and I expect that the total amount of energy used in this world is going to go from high to medium to a little bit lower – the banana leaf idea might have a great part in it”.