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Charles and Ray Eames: Mid Century Modern American Designers you need to know

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Charles and Ray Eames: one of the most powerful design teams of the 20th century. The husband and wife are known for their innovative furniture designs, but their body of work encompasses architecture, film, photography, and even toys. Active between 1941 through the 1970’s, the couple totally re-imagined what American furniture looked like and how it was made. Today their designs can be found in penthouse apartments from LA to Delhi, to public school gymnasiums, and airport terminals around the world.

The Eames home, photo by Edward Stojakovic under CC 2.0

Charles began his career in architecture and Ray studied painting and furniture design before they married in 1941 and moved from Michigan to California. Landing in Los Angeles, the couple began experimenting with molded plywood as a building material, using a machine they designed and fabricated themselves. During their first year in California, the couple was commissioned by the US Navy to design and supply molded plywood leg splints for soldiers during WWII.

Eames Plywood Splint in front of Eames Chair Eames Plywood splint in foreground, photo by of Nika Vee via Wikimedia Commons

The couple's innovative building technique caught the eye of George Nelson, a designer at Herman Miller. In collaboration with the team at Herman Miller, in 1946 the Eames began the first mass production of their now iconic molded plywood chair. Though the shape and style of the Eames chair is familiar to the general public today, in 1946 it was groundbreaking. So much in fact, that Time Magazine named it the best design of the 20th century.

The chair was lightweight, streamlined, and easy to mass produce. It was designed to be comfortable without any additional padding, considerably reducing the cost of manufacturing and at home maintenance. The mass production of the chairs made it a beautiful, affordable furnishing option in post-war America, and recently returned service men and women were eager to outfit their homes elegantly after the war.

An Eames Chair at the Honolulu Museum of ArtPhoto by Hiart, via Wikimedia Commons

The production of the Eames Plywood Chair was the beginning of a lifelong collaboration between the couple and the designers at Herman Miller. Working for Herman Miller gave the Eames great creative freedom. They began making chairs with leather, molded plastic, and metal to create shapes the world had never seen before. In a televised interview in 1956, Charles noted “the Herman Miller furniture company has never requested we do pieces for a market,” meaning that there was never a commercial expectation placed on their design process.

In addition to designing chairs for homes and offices, the Eames created plastic molding chairs for schools and designed seating for airport terminals. Because Charles and Ray’s innovative work was not hindered by ego or a commercial pressure, the Eames met functional needs with pure creativity.

Molded Plastic chair by the EamesOne of the Eames' molded plastic chairs, photo by Vitra under CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Though most well known for their furniture design, their contributions to the practice of design are remarkable. Outside of furniture design, they created architectural plans, industrial products, toys, and contributed significantly to the art of design. Perhaps their most notable foray outside of furniture design is the short film The Powers of Ten, commissioned by IBM, which visualized the vast scale of human existence within the universe.

The Eames delved into every project with great excitement, never hindered by medium, allowing their designs to be as holistic as their creative practice itself. Charles is quoted as saying "Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design," an ethos that transcended their work beyond aesthetics or function.