Charles and Ray Eames were the powerhouse design duo of the 20th century.
CAN playfulness do the world any good? In the case of the late Charles Eames (1907–1978), taking fun seriously certainly did the design world – not to mention our rear ends! – a lot of good because his “playtime” created one of the 20th century’s most iconic chairs as well as other treasured objects for living that have made a great deal of difference over many decades.
The interplay between playfulness and thoughtfulness is well explored in the Essential Eames: A Herman Miller Exhibition currently on at the Marina Bay Sands’ ArtScience Museum in Singapore.
The exhibition captures the philosophy adopted by what is arguably the most famous couple in design, Charles and his wife, Ray (1912-1988).
Based on a book by the Eameses’ grandson Eames Demetrios called An Eames Primer, the exhibition traces the life and work of this American couple credited with “changing the way the 20th century sat down” ( The
Co-presented by the ArtScience Museum and Herman Miller in collaboration with
Eames Office, Essential Eames showcases rare if not never-before-seen works from the Eames’ family collection, the Eames Office brand, and Herman Miller archives. The Eameses worked with Herman Miller, an American furniture manufacturer established at the turn of the last century, from the 1940s onwards.
Charles Eames was born in St Louis, Missouri. He showed an interest in and aptitude for architecture and engineering early on and enrolled in Washington University in St Louis. He was said to have been in awe of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), an attitude that led to Charles’ expulsion from the university after two years, supposedly for being overly aggressive in championing the viewpoint of the (then) controversial architect. To add insult to injury, Charles was also deemed to be “too modern” in his outlook!
Undeterred, Charles then began working on his own, developing concepts that laid the foundation for his unique brand of furniture in the future. He was just 23 when he opened his own design office.
Apart from Lloyd Wright, another great influence on Charles was Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. It was due to Saarinen’s invitation that he moved in 1938 to Cranbrook, Michigan, to further study architecture and design at the Cranbrook Academy of Art where the Fin was teaching.
Charles ended up becoming a teacher and head of the industrial design department.
It was here that he began demonstrating his prowess by taking first prize (along with colleague Eero, Saarinen’s son) at the Museum of Modern Art’s Organic Furniture Competition.
Their work displayed the new technique of wood moulding, which Charles further developed with many moulded plywood products. Other than chairs and other furniture, he developed splints and stretchers for the US Navy during World War II.
At the end of the war, Charles’ moulded plywood chairs began to be manufactured by a company called Evans Products, and their influence and popularity exploded, with some critics even referring to them as the “chair of the century”.
When Charles met Ray
Charles met Ray Kaiser in 1940 when she was a new student at Cranbrook and they married the next year after a brief courtship. The union turned out to be wildly synergistic – and so began the odyssey of one of the most fruitful collaborations in art and design history. As designers, the Eameses kept experimenting with materials that were considered radical at that time, including plastic, wire, fibreglass, and aluminium.
Other than furniture, the Eameses also turned their visionary eye to architecture, photography, filmmaking, toymaking, and exhibition design; they came to understand that there is really “no division between design and science, or between education and the human experience.”
A man of wide interests, intellectual curiosity and dazzling talent, Charles left an indelible mark on furniture design and filmmaking, as well as creating exhibitions. His interest in photography developed into a series of fascinating short films, and even IBM commissioned him to do educational films.
The Eameses also conceived and designed a number of landmark scientific and educational exhibitions. The first of these, Mathematica, A World of Numbers And Beyond (1961), is still considered a model for exhibitions that want to popularise science among the masses.
But it has been said that most people “enter the world of Charles and Ray through the door of furniture”, and rightly so, for the couple is credited with some of high-end furniture manufacturer Herman Miller’s most enduring designs.
In this regard, this exhibition shows how the Eameses defied conventional wisdom, and freely experimented with novel materials in their quest to create objects or furniture that are not only good looking but also highly functional and ergonomic.
They designed their furniture based on the belief that some of the natural beauty of the earth should be reflected in every piece.
One of their most famous creations, the Eames Chair, is a curvy and delicately-contoured side chair that comes in natural earth or wood tones, made from a then
unheard of material called plywood, which at the time was viewed with suspicion but has now become a staple of modern design thanks to the Eames’ technique of moulding.
For anyone who appreciates beauty
Eames furniture is about “complimentary contradiction, modern design, and great pieces”.
Proof that their designs have withstood the test of time and the vagaries of fickle consumer tastes can be seen in how the iconic Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, or even their simple moulded plastic chairs, can be so stylish, functional and comfortable at the same time – and still keep selling after decades.
On display at the exhibition is a leather chair designed for Pope John Paul II, as well as signature creations like the fibreglass Eames Shell Chairs, the La Chaise Lounge, the Time Life Chair and Stool, the Drafting Chair, and the Intermediate Desk Chair.
The Eameses were hired by Herman Miller after George Nelson was made director of design at the company in 1945. Nelson saw what the Eameses could do with moulded plywood and insisted that they be hired by telling the head of Herman Miller at the time that “this is the future of your company”.
More importantly, the exhibition affords viewers that precious opportunity to delve into the minds of America’s most important design couple of all time. As such, you don’t even have to be a fan of beatiful furniture to visit. As long as you appreciate good design and out-of-the-box approaches to creativity, you should enjoy Essential Eames, as it displays the vast range and variety of the couple’s unmatched creative output.
Personally, I walked out with a better understanding of why Herman Miller chairs are so exalted for both their comfort and functionality. It was indeed a fruitful afternoon, and enthusiasts can easily spend a couple of hours inside this very well-curated exhibition. Maybe it’s time I pay a visit to a Herman Miller store as well....
The Essential Eames Exhibition is on in Singapore, at the Marina Bay Sands’ ArtScience Museum, until Jan 5, 2014; there is a lucky draw for visitors that offers a Herman Miller chair as a prize, among others. For details, visit marinabaysands.com/ArtScienceMuseum. More information on Eames design can be found at eamesoffice.com.
Dynamic duo: The late charles and ray (right) eames are considered one of america’s most important designers.
TheHouseofcards, that was made by the eameses for their grandchildren, is one of many intriguing exhibits at essentialeames. For charles, there was no such thing as a ‘useless’ toy, as toys could be ‘precursors to serious ideas’.
The iconic curvy eames moulded Plywood chair.
The legendary eames Lounge chair and Ottoman is shown here broken down into its individual components at the exhibition. This design has been in continuous production by Herman miller since 1956 and is the first chair charles and ray designed for the high-end market; it is also part of the permanent collection at new york’s museum of modern art. Inset, above: The writer took the opportunity to try out the legendary chair. The verdict? comfy!
among the scientific objects charles created is this mobius band on a grand scale that helps the layperson appreciate how the mathematical construct works.