Charles and Ray Eames: Modern Furniture and Architecture

Charles and Ray Eames are two American designers that shaped 20th-century design and architecture. Read along to discover more about the famous couple.

Nov 7, 2020By Marie-Madeleine Renauld, MA & BA Art History and Archaeology
charles and ray eames
Photograph of Charles and Ray Eames, via Eames Office; Rocking Armchair Rod (RAR) by Charles and Ray Eames, designed 1948-50, via Museum of Fine Arts Boston


Charles and Ray Eames count among the few American designers that stand out in 20th-century modernism. Their furniture pieces are easily recognizable with a unique “Eamesian touch.” Bestsellers, to this day, they can reach high values on the market. Charles and Ray Eames indeed met the goals of modernism: the association of art and industry. Read along to discover more about the American couple who shaped twentieth-century architecture and design.


Charles And Ray Eames: Beginnings


Charles Eames, A Promising Architecture Student

photograph of charles eames
Photograph of Charles Eames, via Eames Office


Born on June 7, 1907, in Saint-Louis, Missouri, Charles Eames comes from a family he defined as “super middle-class respectable.” After his father died in 1921, the young Charles had to pile up modest jobs to help his family while pursuing his education. He studied first at the Yeatman High School and then at Washington University in St. Louis. Charles showed promising artistic potential as he followed architecture education. Yet, he thought the university program to be too conventional and constraining. Eames admired Frank Lloyd Wright’s modernity and advocated for his work in front of his professors. Embracing modernism lead to Eames’ expulsion from Washington University.


A Challenging Start During The Great Depression

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Mexican Watercolors by Charles Eames, 1933-34, via Eames Office


During his time at university, Charles Eames met and eventually married Catherine Dewey Woermann in 1929. The couple spent their honeymoon in Europe, where they discovered modern architectures, such as Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Walter Gropius. Back in the United States, Eames launched an architecture agency in St. Louis with associates Charles Gray. Later, Walter Pauley joined them. However, it was a bleak period in the country, and they accepted every kind of project to earn some money. It was not easy to run a business in the 1930s. The Great Depression began in 1929 in the United States with the market crash and soon spread worldwide. Employment became scarce, and Charles Eames took the difficult decision to leave the country in the hope of finding better opportunities and inspiration elsewhere. 


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In 1933, Eames left his wife and three-year-old daughter, Lucia, to his in-laws and went to Mexico with only 75 cents in his pocket. He wandered through different rural regions, including Monterrey. As he traded his paintings and watercolors for food, he discovered that he did not need much to live. Later, these months proved to have played a decisive role in his life and work.


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St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Helena, Arkansas, designed by Charles Eames and Robert Walsh, 1934, via Architecture for Non Majors


Back in St. Louis, Eames started a new project with renewed confidence. He launched Eames & Walsh with his business partner and friend Robert Walsh. Together they designed several buildings such as Dinsmoor House in St. Louis, Missouri, and St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Helena, Arkansas. The latter got noticed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, father of the famous Eero Saarinen. Eliel was impressed by the modernity of Eames’ work. At the time director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, Saarinen offered Eames a scholarship. Charles accepted and started the architecture and urban planning program in September 1938.


Charles Eames And Ray Kaiser: Partners In Work And Life

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Photograph of Charles and Ray Eames with chair bases, via the New York Times


At Cranbrook Academy of Art, Charles Eames met the person who changed his life: Ray Kaiser. Bernice Alexandra Kaiser was born in Sacramento, California, in 1912. Yet, everyone called her by the nickname Ray-Ray, and she used the name Ray all her life. She showed early artistic talents and developed those skills during her education. She studied at different places, including the Art Students League in Manhattan, where she followed the teaching of Hans Hofmann, a famous German abstract expressionist painter. Hofmann greatly influenced Ray’s future works. She even took part in creating the American Abstract Artists (AAA), a group promoting abstract art. 


Ray Kaiser joined the Cranbrook Academy of Art as a student in 1940; Charles Eames was head of the Industrial Design department. We know little of Ray and Charles’ private life, as both were always discreet. At the time, Charles was still married to Catherine. Yet the couple was no longer happy, and they divorced in 1940. Charles and Ray probably met while working on Eames and Eero Saarinen’s application to the Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition.


First Experiments With New Techniques

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Low-back and High-back Armchairs (Entry panels for MoMA competition for Organic Design in Home Furnishings), designed by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen, 1940, via MoMA


In 1940, The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) launched the contest of Organic Design in Home Furnishings. As the 20th century brought tremendous changes in lifestyles, furniture making stood behind the fast-paced demand changes. Eliot Noyes, the MoMA’s director, challenged designers to create new pieces of furniture. They needed a modern look while meeting practical, economical, and industrial imperatives. Winners of the competition would see their work exhibited the following year in the museum. Twelve leading department stores would manufacture and distribute the winning models. The museum received 585 applications from all over the world. Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen won first prizes for both projects they submitted. 


Eames and Saarinen created several innovative seat models. They designed curved-line seats using new techniques: molded plywood. Plywood is a cheap material, permitting industrial production.  Ancient Egyptians and Greeks already used it. Yet its boom happened during the end of the 19th century and the interwar period. Plywood consists of thin layers (or plies from the French verb plier, meaning “to fold”) of wood veneers glued together. This material is more stable and robust than wood and allows new shapes. 


Unfortunately, Eames and Saarinen’s model seats proved to be hard to produce industrially. The seats’ curved lines required an expensive hand-finish, which was not intended. The approaching World War II swayed technological advances in favor of military forces.


Perfecting The Molded Plywood Technique

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Kazam! Machine (in the collections of the Vitra Design Museum) by Charles and Ray Eames, 1942, via Stylepark


Soon after Catherine and Charles divorced, he married Ray in June 1941. The couple moved to California. In Los Angeles, Charles and Ray Eames met John Entenza, architect and editor of the notorious Arts & Architecture Magazine. They soon became friends, offering work opportunities to the couple. While Charles started working in the artistic department of   Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM Studios), Ray regularly contributed to Entenza’s magazine. She conceived covers for the Arts & Architecture and sometimes wrote articles together with Charles. 


Charles and Ray Eames never stopped developing furniture models in their spare time. They even invented a machine to shape and test the resistance of their molded plywood seats called the “Kazam! Machine.” Made using wooden strips, plaster, electrical coils, and a bicycle pump, the machine enabled them to create and mold plywood in curved shapes. The Kazam! Machine held the glued wood plies in a plaster mold, and a membrane helped keep its form while the glue dried. The bicycle pump served to inflate the membrane and blow pressure on the wood panels. However, as the glue needed several hours to dry, it was necessary to pump regularly to keep the panels’ pressure.


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Leg Splint by Charles and Ray Eames, 1942, via MoMA


In 1941, a doctor and friend of the couple suggested the idea of using their machine to create plywood splints for the war-wounded. Charles and Ray Eames proposed their prototype to the US Navy and soon began the series production. The increase in work and John Entenza’s financial help enabled them to open Plyformed Wood Company and their first shop on Santa Monica Boulevard in Venice. 


The first prototype of the Kazam! Machine was unable to attain effective industrial production. But the Eameses persevered and improved its functioning as soon as new materials were available. While working for the US Navy, the couple had access to materials requested by the army. It helped to improve their technique, and it became possible to make cost-effective, high-quality objects. Their invention played a fundamental role in the progress of molded wood furniture design.


Post-War And Need For Cheap, Good-Quality Objects

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Tilt-Back Side Chair by Charles and Ray Eames, designed c. 1944, via MoMA; Low Side Chair by Charles and Ray Eames, designed 1946, via MoMA


After the end of World War II, more materials became available again. Everyone had now access to classified information on technological materials discovered during the war. The demand for cheaply manufactured furniture grew increasingly. Charles and Ray Eames made it their goal to reach a design enhanced by mass production. 


Eames started to produce furniture series with his improved Kazam! Machine. Instead of the long hours needed by the first version of Kazam!, it took only ten to twenty minutes for the newest version to mold plywood. The production of two-pieces seats proved to be cheaper, so it influenced the design. Eames used wood veneers such as rosewood, birch, walnut, and beech to decorate his chairs, but also fabric and leather.


In 1946, Eliot Noyes of the MoMA offered Charles Eames the first exhibition dedicated to a single designer. “New Furniture Designed by Charles Eames” was a great success for the museum.


Eames’ Architectural Projects: Case Study House No°8 And 9

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Case Study House no°8 (interior and exterior) designed by Charles and Ray Eames, 1949, via Architectural Digest


John Entenza had an ambitious project to build several Case Study Houses for his magazine Arts & Architecture. He wanted to design building projects serving as examples for the post-war period. Entenza selected eight architecture agencies to work on his project, including Eames and Saarinen’s. Entenza chose their agency to work on the Eames couple’s house and his own, respectively Case Study House no°8 and 9. 


Located on a hilltop overlooking the Pacific Ocean, in Pacific Palisades, Eames designed two innovative yet different houses. He used standardized materials to build modern and affordable housing. It took him several years to finish the projects, as materials were not always available right after the war. Eames published the architectural plans and each modification he brought to it in the Arts & Architecture magazine. He finished Case Study House no°8 in 1949 and no°9 in 1950. 


Eames imagined Case Study House no°8 for a working couple: Ray and himself. The layout followed their lifestyle. The large windows with scenic views and the proximity of nature offered a relaxed environment. Eames imagined a minimalist design, with big open-plan rooms. He wanted to achieve maximum space for minimum materials. The house’s outside look is attributed to Ray. She mixed glass windows with color panels, forming a composition reminding Mondrian’s paintings. The interior design was in constant evolution. Charles and Ray Eames furnished their home with diverse objects, including travel souvenirs, which were easy to change position at their convenience.


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Case Study House no°9 (exterior) designed by Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen, 1950, via Arch Daily


Eames and Saarinen conceived Case Study House no°9 for John Entenza. They drew the plans for a house and working space for a bachelor. The house followed the same structure as no°8, yet the execution was different. The architects hid the metallic structure behind plaster walls and wooden ceilings.


Taking Advantage Of Technological Advances

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Prototype for Chaise Longue (La Chaise) by Charles and Ray Eames, 1948, via MoMA, New York


In the 1950s, Charles and Ray Eames started to use plastic for their furniture. These technological materials were developed during the war and made accessible afterward. The US Army used fiberglass for their equipment. Charles desperately wanted to use this innovative material. The Eameses created colorful molded fiberglass seats with interchangeable metal legs, adapting to its use. This design soon became iconic. 


Charles also used metal to design new seat models. He used the same shape as the fiberglass chair, but with black wire mesh. The Eames Office received the first American mechanical license for this technique.


The Eames Lounge Chair: Culmination Of Charles And Ray Eames’ Seat Design

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Lounge Chair and Ottoman by Charles and Ray Eames, 1956, via MoMA, New York


The famous Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman of 1956 represent the culmination of their experiments. This time, Eames designed a luxury seat, not destined for mass-production. Charles started developing this model in the 1940s. Yet he created the first prototype only in the mid-’50s. The lounge chair is made of three large molded plywood shells, garnished with black leather cushions. It was machine-produced but had to be manually put together. Herman Miller Furniture Company took an interest in Charles and Ray Eames’ designs, following the MoMA exhibit. The company produced and commercialized their furniture and still does today. Herman Miller sold the lounge chair for 404 dollars, a high price for the time. It turned out to be a real hit. Today Herman Miller still sells the lounge chair and ottoman with a price tag of 3,500 dollars. 


After Charles Eames died in 1978, Ray devoted the rest of her life to cataloging their work. She died exactly ten years later. Most works of this avant-garde couple are still visible in museums and libraries both in the United States and abroad. The couple left a durable mark on twentieth-century design and architecture. Their furniture pieces continue to inspire many creators today.


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By Marie-Madeleine RenauldMA & BA Art History and ArchaeologyMarie-Madeleine is a contributing writer and antique furniture restorer. She holds an MA and BA in Art History and Archaeology from the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL), Belgium. She also followed training in antique furniture restoration. In her free time, she enjoys creative activities, and hiking through the Swiss mountains where she now lives.