Most people enter the world of Charles and Ray Eames through the door of furniture. On these first pages you will almost definitely recognize at least one of their chairs, of twentieth century design. You may recognize the luxurious Eames Lounge Chair—probably the chair most people think of when they say “Eames Chair.” Or you may recognize the fiberglass chairs, best sellers in their own right, widely copied, and influential in their innovative use of the material. Or the LCW. Or, perhaps, the tandem seating—a comforting fixture of airports everywhere. Some people come to Charles and Ray’s work first through their classic short film Powers of Ten, a tool for thinking out of the box and almost literally mind-expanding. Other people will tell you about playing with the House of Cards as a child. Here are a few more portals into the world of Charles and Ray Eames…
ABOVE: A diagram of the design process drawn by Charles.
“The details are not details. They make the product. The connections, the connections, the connections”
MAKING CONNECTIONS In the narration he wrote and recorded himself for a film he and Ray made to explain a storage system they designed, Charles Eames says, “The details are not details. They make the product. The Connections, the connections, the connections.” Nothing he or anyone else has ever said or written comes closer than that to the heart of the work, and thinking and convictions. And nothing anyone has ever said or written comes closer to describing the pattern of the Eames design practice, which might be defined as the art of solving problems by making connections. Connections between what? Between such disparate materials as wood and steel, between such seemingly alien disciplines as physics and painting, between clowns and mathematical concepts, between people—architects and mathematicians and poets and philosophers and corporate executives. Perhaps this is as good a place as any to call attention to the connection between Charles and Ray Eames. They are husband and wife and they are full collaborators, as they have been since the early forties. This in itself is hardly remarkable: design is rarely a solitary activity, and husband and wife teams are not uncommon. But the collaborative nature of the Eames work is easily obscured by the enormous public
recognition of Charles as an individual designer discussion is certainly too abstruse for lay viewers and thinker. While he and Ray have justly shared to follow in detail, and it is not necessary or even many honors, many others have justly come to desirable that they do; the film’s point comes him alone. He is the spokesman for the two, the through at least as well without it. But if they public figure, and that fact dictates the use of could understand it in detail they would recogmasculine singular pronouns at time. Ray Eames,nize it as the real thing and viewers sense that. however, plays a personal and essential role in every design decision. They design together, andIn product design as well, the rigorous attention with their staff. to detail results in a formal clarity that can be betrayed by exhibition. When a large number There have been great designers whose profes- of Eames products are shown together just as sional lives were bound up with the search for a products, the effect is surprisingly undramatic. unified field theory of design, a single underly- The whole seems less thanthe parts. Each ing explanation of the designer’s role in society. design, as one recalls is, was startling at the I doubt that Eames has ever thought in these time it appeared; each was received almost as terms. Instead of an umbrella effect he has if it had been sent for. Yet because they have sought an umbrella form—that is, an assembly been so thoroughly assimilated into our lives of components that have had to be forged and culture, they are almost anticlimactic on and linked in his own shop. Eames designs are show. Even the Quadraflexspeaker, considered anything but ambiguous. They are characterized too extreme, too visually dominant for the high by the kind of clarity people looked to photog- fidelity market in 1959, is absorbed comfortably raphy for when the art was new. This clarity is into exhibit surroundings. To truly see the prodnever confused with severity; there are no easy ucts is essential to see the process, and geometric solutions. Rather the designs have a that means seeing the connections. quality of being “in focus” that may derive from the defensibility of each detail. The film called “Think” contains a scene in which a group of scientists are discussing the role of computer technology in scientific inquiry. Some of their
following questions were asked by Madame Amic and answered by Charles. The Questions WHAT ISThe and answers were the conceptual basis of the exhibition What is Design? An edited and slightly
DESIGN? changed version of the questions was used as the basis of the 1972 film Design Q&A: What is your definition of design?
Does design imply industrial manufacture?
A plan for arranging elements in such a way as to best accomplish a particular purpose.
Some designs do and some do not—depending on the nature of the design and the requirements.
Is design an expression of art (an art form)? The design is an expression of purpose. It may (if it is good enough) later be judged as art.
Is design an element of industrial policy?
Is design a craft for industrial purposes? No—but design may be a solution to some industrial problems.
Ought design to care about lowering costs?
What are the boundaries of design?
Does the creation of design admit constraint? Design depends largely on constraints.
What are the boundaries of problems?
Is design a discipline that concerns itself with only one part of the environment? No.
Is it a method of general expression? No—it is a method of action.
Is design a creation of an individual? No—because to be realistic one must always admit the influence of those who have gone before. …a creation of a group? Often.
Is there a design ethic? There are always design constraints and these usually include ethic.
Certainly; as is any other aspect of quality, obvious or subtle, of the product. It seems that anything can be an element in policy.
A product often becomes more useful if the costs are lowered without harming the quality.
What constraints? The sum of all constraints. Here is one of the few effective keys to the design problem—the abilty of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible—his willinness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints —the constraints of price, of size, of strength, balance, of surface, of time, etc.; each problem has its own peculiar list.
Does design obey laws?
Aren’t constraints enough? Are there tendencies and schools in design? Yes, but this is more a human frailty than an ideal.
In some cases, one may seem appropriate. In some cases, the other, and certainly in some cases, both.
Is it able to cooperate in the creation of works reserved solely for pleasure? Who would say that pleasure is not useful?
What is the relation of design to the world of fashion (Current trends)?
Can the computer substitute for the designer? Probably, in some special cases, but usually the computer is an aid to the designer.
Those needs and designs that have a more universal quality will tend permanence. To whom does design address itself: to the greatest number (the masses)? To the specialists or the enlightened amateur? To a privileged social class? To the need. Can public action aid the advancement of design? The proper public action can advance most anything. After having answered all these questions, do you feel you have been able to practice the profession of “design” under satisfactory conditions, or even optimum conditions? Yes.
Have you been forced to accept compromises? I have never been forced to accept compromises but I have willingly accepted constraints.
What do you feel is the primary condition for the practice of design and its propagation? Recognition of need.
What is the future of design? (No Answer)
Ought the final product to bear the trademark of the designer? Of the research office?
Does design imply the idea of products that are necessarily useful? Yes—even though the use might be very subtle.
Ought form to derive from the analysis of function? The great risk here is that the analysis may not be complete.
Ought it to tend towards the ephemeral or towards permanence?
The objects of fashion have usually been designed with the particular constraints of fashion in mind.
Is design ephemeral? Some needs are ephemeral. Most designs are ephemeral.
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ABOVE: Ray and Charles Eames selecting slides for the exhibition, Photography & the City (1968). LEFT: The graphics room at the Eames office. TOP RIGHT: Ray testing out the SX-70 polaroid.
A 30 YEAR FLASH Charles was once asked, “Did you think of the Eames chair in a flash?” He replied, “yes, sort of a 30-year flash.” And when he said that, it had indeed been over 30 years since he and Eero Saarinen has won first prize in the 1940 Organic Furniture competition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)—or, tracing, roots, even longer if you start with his earliest seating, the pews in Helena, Arkansas, with armrests in gentle curves. But Charles’s remark clearly expresses something more than specifics: his fundamental belief indesign as a process, rather than a single outcome—a process that’s never really over. One of the Eames office’s last projects, abandoned after Charles’s death, was a timeline and exhibition on invention. It may well have been abandoned anyway had Charles lived longer, since he was already frustrated with it. He came to feel that the more one explored a famous invention, it was virtually impossible to pin down a single moment.
The Eameses’ own 30-year flash is a perfect example. In the film Design Q&A (1969), Charles is asked, “Is design a creation of an individual?” He responds, “No, because to be realistic one must always acknowledge those who have gone before” Though interestingly, in a sense, what Charles and Ray ultimately developed was a way of creating whereby, after a time, they themselves became the ones who had gone before. The 30year flash began with the Kleinhans chair, which Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen designed for the Kleinhans music hall in 1939, and achieves a certain kind of completeness with Charles and Ray’s design of the fiberglass chair in the early 1950s. However, as late as the early 1970s, the Eameses were still exploring related ideas such as the Two Piece Secretarial chair (this accounts for the 30 years). Thisevolution is a perfect example of the design process as it worked as the Eames Office: the feeling that, rather than a single moment of inspiration, there was a constant working out of each issue one by one, a kind of learning by doing until a solution was revealed.
The solution then became the starting point for the next part of the journey. In project after project, Charles and Ray practiced this philosophy; viewed in this way, the length and breadth of their careers trace nothing more (or less) than the logical extension of that design process into way of life. In a way, this flash becomesa metaphor for the way Charles and Ray approached design. If this was their way of working, then unquestionably it bore its earliest full fruit through the furniture.
ABOVE: Charles and Ray working in studio. TOP LEFT: Eames chairs on display at the MOMA. BOTTOM LEFT: The layout area at the Eames office.
THE NEW COVETABLES Over the course of the Eameses’ lives and work, these beliefs, ideas, and experiences coalesced into a formalized concept that they called the “New Covetables.” Charles talked about this idea at length in the Norton Lectures, describing humanity that had sort of painted itself into a corner “where information and imagery–and I think it’s largely through television–[the world] has gotten so completely homogenized so that, in many respects, everybody has been getting the same. [And] it has been one of the things that’s given rise over these past 20 years to a rising expectancy—rising to the point that there is and exists today a universal expectancy in which every person feels he has the right to everything everybody else has.” Charles felt this development created a number of problems. For starters, there were so many consumer goods out there that one no longer needed to go through the trouble of selectivity. In fact, on the level of effort, even the most expensive product was cheapened because no real effort (beyond paying for it) was asked of the would-be owner. But Charles and Ray also saw a practical (one might even call it environmental) problem: if our standard of success is owning, say, a Mercedes, then we have doomed most of the world’s population to failure because it will be
physically impossible to make enough of these cars with the Earth’s limited resources. The solution the Eameses proposed, the New Covetables, would have certain characteristics: “It can’t be too easy for them. You must be able to have them. You must not be able to have them without first wanting them. The price must really have a price. It must be a real price, but the coin in which that price is listed must be available to everyone. Now, the question is, what kind of things qualify?” In other words, the “coin of the realm” is not money, but effort, hard work. There is another quality: “The point is that these things will not diminish as they’re divided. They’re endless.” So what sorts of things qaulify? Charles listed some examples: learning to read a map; learning to speak Chinese; learning to ride a unicycle; graphing mathematical functions; getting to know a city; or even a story like “King Lear, the model of the inevitable situation which you can apply.” The point with all these things is that “the coin of the realm is the ability you give yourself to master it” The other wonderful thing is that if you acquire a New Covetable, it does not diminish it for the next person; it might even slightly increase its value for both of you.
The New Covetable was as much an Eames product as was the fiberglass chair. (In fact, the idea of New Covetables is, in a way, itself a New Covetable.) Ultimately, Charles and Ray viewed the Eames Office as a holistic practice within which all of the work was deeply interrelated, which made separating out furniture or exhibitions or another fact counter-productive. Though there were various areas in the office and different project leaders, there were not really formal divisions. The people who worked on the Aquarium, on the chairs, and on the films were fluidly interwoven, and that is what the Eameses offered to their clients– and what the clients came to value. Charles and Ray imparted and invited a seamless dialogue between work and play on every level: in their own work, in their own lives, and in the gauntlet of connection they routinely laid down for their clients.
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