“The Best Design of the 20th Century”
—Time Magazine on Eames’s Plywood Chair
World-famous architect Charles Eames made his claim to fame with inexpensive but elegant furniture. In the 1940s and 1950s, he practically redesigned America when it came to home furnishings, toys, movie sets, and houses. Long before the days of decorating shows on cable television, Charles, along with his wife, Ray, were the true superstars of interior design.
THE EARLY YEARS
Charles Ormand Eames was born in St. Louis on June 7, 1907. His early working years built the foundation for his later success. In his early teens, he worked at Laclede Steel Company, which fueled his interest in design and engineering. He enrolled at Washington University for undergraduate studies but dropped out because of frustration with the lack of imagination being taught by the professors. So in 1929, he packed his suitcase to study in Europe, which at the time was known as the cradle of the modern movement in design.
RISE TO FAME
He returned to St. Louis from Europe around 1930 and established the firm of Gray and Eames, but times were getting tough and there was little money in the architectural field in the early days of the Depression. Tough times forced Eames to expand his designs to include household items like furniture and ceramics. The hard times also forced him to expand his horizons, so in 1936 he took a job at the prestigious design program at the Cranbrook Academy in Michigan, where he developed the basis for many of his future designs.
After four years at the Department of Experimental Design, Charles moved to California with his new wife, Ray Kaiser. They worked on a wide range of designs, even branching out to build movie sets. The couple received critical acclaim for their unique designs while becoming a major force in the film industry.
SHOW ME SUCCESS
The next step on the road to fame was an architectural competition. The Eameses entered the Case House Study Program, which was a competition among architects to create inexpensive housing with standard materials from a catalog. Twenty-two of the Eames’s thirty-six projects were ultimately built, including Case House Number 8, which was a magnificent home overlooking the ocean in Pacific Palisades, California, which is the design that many say is still his claim to fame.
In addition to his homes, the Eames design firm gained worldwide acclaim for their mass-produced but elegant furniture. They are best known for the Eames chair, constructed of two pieces of molded plywood joined by stainless steel tubing. The furniture-manufacturing firm, Herman Miller, mass produced their
molded plywood furniture.
Eames died in 1978, and many of his designs are still being produced and sold today, including his world-famous chair. His products saw an increase in popularity in the early 2000s as baby boomers bought them in bulk, harkening back to the 1950s. Charles Eames did not have a formal architectural degree, but his work continues to have a profound effect on designs around the world.
*Eames forged a close relationship with another famous architect and fellow faculty member in Michigan, Eero Saarinen, the man who designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
*Eames’s form-fitting shell chair design collaboration with Eero Saarinen, won first place in the Organic Design Competition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
*He was elected to the Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1977.