“Eventually everything connects – people, ideas, objects. The quality of the connections is the key to quality, per se.” – Charles Eames
Our first official On Design conversation and event centered on the Bauhaus—founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius. This movement’s core objective was a radical concept: to reimagine the material world to reflect the unity of all the arts. The main influences behind the Bauhaus were Modernism, the Arts and Crafts movement and, perhaps most importantly, Constructivism.
The Bauhaus school was closed in 1933 by its own leadership under pressure from the Nazi regime and many of the designers and artists who had been working within the school and those with similar philosophies, moved to the United States. Those of you who were present for our On Design: Bauhaus discussion (or who read about it) will remember that this movement came to change my life (and save my life), because the School of Design at North Carolina State University grew out of Black Mountain College—where some of the instructors from the Bauhaus settled. And, thus I essentially received a Bauhaus training.
The reach of the Bauhaus school is immeasurable. The foundations and design approach influenced designers like Frank Lloyd Wright, Edith Heath, Mies Van De Roe, Le Corbusier, Herbert Bayer, Philip Johnson, Marcel Breuer, and eventually Ray and Charles Eames.
The Mid-Century Modern movement in the U.S. was really an American reflection of the International and Bauhaus movements. Like Bauhaus, the Mid-Century style was manifested in all of the disciplines of art and design. It was, in some ways, Bauhaus theory come to life.
Mid-Century architecture was frequently employed in residential structures with the goal of bringing Modernism into America’s post-war suburbs. This style emphasized creating structures with ample windows and open floor plans, with the intention of opening up interior spaces and bringing the outdoors in. Many Mid-Century houses utilized then-groundbreaking post and beam architectural design that eliminated bulky support walls in favor of walls seemingly made of glass. Function was as important as form in Mid-Century designs, with an emphasis placed specifically on targeting the needs of the average American family.
Frank Lloyd Wright was is often considered to be at the founder of what’s come to be known as Mid-Century Design, produced primarily from 1933 to the early 1960s—with most of the iconic pieces of this period emerging in the 1950s. Wright was a direct influence upon young architecture student Charles Eames of St. Louis.
While employed as an architect, Eames also worked at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield, Michigan, alongside noted architect Eero Saarinen. They teamed up to prepare designs for the Museum of Modern Art’s “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition. While working on the competition pieces, Charles met Ray Kaiser—a Cranbrook student who studied abstract expressionism with painter Hans Hoffman—in 1940. The two married a year later and moved to Los Angeles to begin their lives and careers as designers together.
In 1945, Arts & Architecture Magazine introduced their Case Study program with the idea to commission eight design offices, each focusing on specific clients, modernist ideals, and post-war technology reuse efforts. Charles and Eero Saarinen worked on the original design, known as Bridge House; after seeing the meadow upon which the house was to be built, Charles and Ray decided to rework the design so that it was constructed on the hillside of the property—sparing the meadow and creating an efficient design with a novel use of materials. The house, now known as the Eames House, was completed in 1949.
In 1946, the couple designed and produced several pieces of plywood furniture and began a partnership with industrial furniture maker, Herman Miller. The Eamses continued to expand the concept of curved, molded furniture that Charles and Eero previously developed – eventually producing the curved chairs and furniture that is now synonymous with their name. (The Herman Miller company still produces Eames furniture today.) Noteworthy and popular furniture designs include the LCW (Lounge Chair Wood), Eames Lounge, and RAR (Rocker height, Armchair shell, Rocking base), along with other plywood-based furniture. Their designs and materials offered consumers beautiful, functional, and affordable products. The style is iconic and has served as inspiration for future designers.
As they expanded their design philosophy, the Eamses expanded their focus to multi-disciplinary art and communications systems—producing exhibitions, publications, and films. They created and collaborated with governments all over the world, industrial companies, corporations (like IBM and Polaroid), and educational organizations. Their films offered various cultures opportunities to learn from one another, by seeing. Overall, they created more than 20 films. For them, the educational element of design was as important as functionality; design was a way to solve problems and improve lives. In effect, Charles and Ray became, to quote The Library of Congress, “cultural ambassadors overseas and interpreters of the meaning of America at home.”
Charles and Ray Eames created a body of work that was a combination of art and science, design and architecture, process and product, style and function. Charles, when asked, “What are the boundaries of design?” answered, “What are the boundaries of problems?” The husband and wife serve as inspiration for all designers who want to marry the practical and the beautiful. For more information, we recommend watching the documentary, The Architect and the Painter, which details their interesting, symbiotic relationship.
The book, Eames: Beautiful Details—pictured here, is a beautiful testament to the work of Ray and Charles Eames and, simply, a beautiful object. Purchase your copy here. (Natalie’s personal copy shown here photographed by Abraham Rowe)