Ray Eames, Design Icon
By Rebecca Gross
National Endowment for the Arts Blue Star Museums Blog
August 23, 2013
Even the most philistine among us can’t escape the art of industrial design. Industrial design affects the cars we drive, the phones we use, the chairs we sit in, and the keyboards we type on. In our latest research report, Valuing the Art of Industrial Design, we examine the field’s cultural and economic impact. It’s hot off the press, so check it out!
Since we had industrial design on the brain, we thought we’d get up close and personal with Ray Eames, who along with her husband Charles, formed one of the world’s most accomplished industrial design duos. Among their vast portfolio is the “Eames chair,” whose form was so innovative that it was awarded a U.S. design patent in 1948.
To commemorate what would have been Ray’s 100th birthday, The California Museum in Sacramento is hosting Ray Eames: A Century of Modern Design, which will be on view through February 23, 2014. The exhibit focuses on the Sacramento native’s career prior to meeting her husband, and celebrates the influence she had on women in the arts.
Although best-known for her design work with Charles, Ray’s earliest artistic endeavors were rooted in fashion. “She started making paper dolls when she was about three years old,” said Brenna Hamilton, the communications and marketing director for The California Museum. “They’re spectacular. They’re better than what most adults could do.” By high school, she was illustrating outfits for friends, and later, she took to designing her own clothes as well.
“She designed all the clothes that she wore herself,” said Hamilton, including her trademark pinafore. “She would design a whole line of clothing for herself for a trip or for a season, often on the back of an envelope or some scrap of paper.” Many of her paper dolls, fashion illustrations, and items of clothing are featured in the exhibit.
It was painting however that Eames chose to pursue professionally, and she studied with the abstract expressionist painter Hans Hofmann for seven years in New York City. Her paintings, several of which are also on display in the exhibit, hint at what would one day emerge from the Eames Office design firm. “If you look at all of the things she created from before she met Charles, through the chairs, there’s a continuity in the design and in the aesthetic that clearly influences Eames Office in terms of shape, color, and composition,” said Hamilton. “You can definitely see the visual relationship.”
When Ray and Charles met in 1941, Charles was already beginning to experiment with creating molded plywood chairs. Together, the couple honed the design and developed a means of production, revolutionizing the way Americans thought about furniture in the process. In the 1940s, upholstered furniture was still considered the pinnacle of comfort and elegance. But as Hamilton noted, “Upholstery is expensive, it doesn’t last long, and it needs to be cleaned. [The Eameses] were trying to do away with it…. They were trying to come up with a low-cost piece of furniture that was well designed.” Not only was the Eames Lounge Chair Wood (LCW) comfortable but it was beautiful to boot, and has since gone on to become an icon of modern design. Their Lounge Chair with Ottoman is equally well-known, and an example can be found in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
Beyond furniture and architecture, the couple also funneled their creativity into toys, films, and even the design of museum exhibitions. Their House of Cards toy is still sold at the MoMA store, and their exhibit Mathematica: A World of Numbers…and Beyond remains on display at the New York Hall of Science.
Regardless of the medium however, Hamilton said that their creative interdependence remained a constant. “It is clear from the research that we did that they were true 50 percent collaborative partners,” she said. “He was sort of the substance I think, whereas she would have been more the style. That made a great partnership—function and form.”
It was also an unusual partnership, given the subordinate social status women held at the time. Perhaps more than anything she designed or painted, her role in the business of Eames Office is what marked Ray as a true trailblazer. “She broke barriers for women in the arts at a time when women were not necessarily taken seriously as businesspeople or as creative, collaborative partners,” Hamilton said. “I don’t think she thought of herself as breaking barriers and that was never what she set out to do…. But I do think that’s her legacy.”