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Dialogues with Creative Legends and Aha Moments in a Designer's Career: Charles and Ray Eames

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David Calvin Laufer discusses Charles and Ray Eames, two of the most influential designers of the modern era.

Charles and Ray Eames: The Connections

Charles Eames (1907–1978) and Ray Eames (née Kaiser, 1912–1988) were among the most influential designers of the modern era. Ray, an abstract painter and graphic artist, was in the Avant Garde in New York in the 1920s. Charles studied architecture at Washington University, but was dismissed for his espousal of the work of modernists like Frank Lloyd Wright and Eliel Saarinen. Charles and Ray met at Cranbrook Academy. Among their earliest collaborations was a furniture exhibition with Eero Saarinen. The breadth of their creative output was exceptional, encompassing furniture, graphic design, exhibition design, film, product design, and teaching. Their house in Pacific Palisades, made entirely from off-the-shelf industrial components, became a touchstone for modern residential design and brought them considerable publicity. The Eameses displayed an exceptional talent for picking projects that brought modernism into the mainstream. They experimented with bent plywood, then a new manufacturing technique, to produce a generation of stylish, comfortable, and affordable furniture, and made good design more affordable for a large market. Their films and displays for IBM made mathematics and computing much more exciting for the post–World War II generation of students. The Eameses’ clients included IBM, Herman Miller, and the Smithsonian Institution.

FEBRUARY 1970 The auditorium is packed for Charles and Ray Eames. They have brought in special 70mm projection equipment to show some of their experimental films, including the just-released Powers of Ten. Their theme for the evening is “Connections.” This word is a mantra for them, useful for describing the process of design, the relationships between designer and client, and the layering of generations of designers, each one upon the preceding. They show their work and bring the lights up for remarks and questions. To my astonishment, about half of the audience gets up to leave when the films are done. We move closer to the front.

  1. Mathematical display for IBM
  2. Promotional coasters for the Eames design office
  3. Chair designs for Herman Miller in wire and cast aluminum
  4. Furnishings, with lamp and modern decorative birds
  5. Galaxy frame from the Eames film Powers of Ten
  6. Herman Miller chair and ottoman
  7. Entrance to the Eames residence in Santa Monica, California

As a husband-and-wife team, the Eameses are at ease with each other as creative peers. They express many of their ideas contrapun-tally. They are too coherent to be improvised, yet their enthusiastic repartee feels too spontaneous to be rehearsed!

Ray says, “When we talk about connections, it’s important to understand the science of heuristics. It is an enthusiastic intellectual wandering, a search for patterns of meaning. We as designers must constantly look to make connections between successes and innovations—sometimes between seemingly unrelated disciplines to see what might be useful to our current project.

“We made Powers of Ten because our clients at IBM were concerned that mathematics are not well taught in school nor well understood by the populace. We wanted to take math out of the textbook and put it into visual terms to make it easily accessible.”

A student asks a rambling question, which Charles deftly interprets for the audience as “Why do we choose such difficult media for our projects, like bent plywood and motion pictures?” The question strikes Charles and Ray as humorous, and the audience picks up on their mirth.

  • “The science of heuristics: it’s an enthusiastic intellectual wandering, a search for patterns of meaning. We as designers constantly seek connections—sometimes between seemingly unrelated disciplines—to see what might be useful to our current project.”

Charles answers, and demonstrates his talent for making connections and analogies, explaining, “Film is actually a very easy medium—you just load the camera and shoot. But the camera lets you do all sorts of meaningless imagery with barely any effort at all! Doing something meaningful and entertaining—that is more difficult. Now bending plywood, I grant you, is difficult. You might go off and start shooting film without an idea just to see where it takes you. You probably would not start bending plywood without some fairly specific ideas about what you wanted to do. There is a relationship between the difficulty of the medium and the amount of forethought you put in. In an easy medium you can do something bad with little or no effort. A difficult medium fights you; it restricts your ability to play with it, so if you’re going to use it, you’re more likely to plan and treat the medium with respect. Our plywood chairs required a healthy respect for the limits of the curves that could be made, and some experiments into what curves were sit-table. It was not easy to do something good, but it was also hard to do something bad. The reward with difficult media is usually that they are very durable, permanent. But easy or difficult, it’s the connections that hold the key. You have an idea of something you want to say.”

  • “There is a relationship between the difficulty of medium and the amount of forethought you put in. An easy medium lets you do something bad with little effort and no forethought.”

Ray takes advantage of the pause. “Or that your client wants to express in some positive way.”

Charles says as an aside, “Right, first you have to sort out—simplify—what they really want to say, then you have to figure out how to say it in a way that will hold the audience’s attention!” Then he picks up his media thread. “The message drives the choice of media. We talked about making Powers of Ten an exhibit, moving from one order of magnitude to the next, but it only took a few minutes of discussion to realize that it wanted to be a film. The exhibit format had some interesting possibilites in terms of scale, but the film medium gave us the ability to control the timing of the experience so much more closely than an exhibit.”

Another student asks a long question, which Charles fields as, “How do you get playful results with ‘difficult’ media? Is that right?

” Ray suggests, “I think she’s asking how you sketch your ideas for the difficult media to keep the playfulness of ideas.”

The questioner nods vigorously. This pair has a great talent for reframing questions to be more insightful than their originals.

“Right, great question. Would you agree that is largely a personal question?” Charles asks, raising his brows to Ray.

Ray begins. “Charles and I work with different sketch media. You want something to play with that lets you work fast. Pencil on tracing paper is inescapable. For 3-D I like clay—actually we use Plasteline. Film is much harder. We end up taping all sorts of stuff to the wall so it can be rapidly reordered.”

Charles picks up as if on cue. “I should say that it takes a few tries to get a good ensemble of media before you really get one that gives you great results. Penciling out each scene may give way to making paper or clay models and taking still photos. The key to maintaining that playfulness you asked about,” Charles gestures to his questioner, “is working as fast and loose as possible until you can convince yourself—and your client team—the whole concept is working. Then you go into the finish mode, where the medium is more rigid, more unforgiving.”

Ray adds, “And more expensive. You want to make your experiments, your mistakes, your false starts, your near misses, early and cheap; preserve as much of your budget as possible for getting good imagery and sound in a finished take.”

  • “Make your experiments, your mistakes, and your near misses early, fast, and cheap; preserve as much of your budget as possible for getting good image and sound in the final production.”

Charles carries on. “We actually want to redo Powers of Ten in more detail. It is going in the right direction, but it is really a sketch for a film, as the title says. Looping back to what Ray said a minute ago, there’s another inverse relationship in media. A spontaneous little sketch in an ‘easy medium’ like pencil is not all that remarkable. Seeing sculpture in very durable medium like marble or steel that still appears spontaneous—lifelike—is truly extraordinary.”

Ray finishes the evolution of this answer. “The ability to retain something transitory—an emotion, a personality, a fleeting moment—in a very permanent form, that ability is highly prized. It is one of the ways we judge the mastery of a designer or artist.”

  • “The ability to retain something transitory—an emotion, a personality, a fleeting moment—in a very permanent form, is one of the ways we judge the mastery of a designer or artist.”

As the presentation winds down, there’s a charge in the audience that seems electric, a feeling of unity of mind more akin to the experience of a rock concert than an academic lecture. There is vigorous discussion of the topics in class and over coffee for the next few weeks. It hits me. The Eameses took questions during their presentation as a way to be more directly connected with their audience. It was disruptive, but it gave the audience a way to shape the direction of the discussion. That is where the buzz came from, and that was, in a profound way, the subject of their presentation. Connecting for the Eameses is not an abstract design principle; it is essence of a creative life.

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