Ray and Charles Eames were arguably two of the greatest innovators of American industrial and furniture design. Charles Eames is well known for his quote, “We don’t do art, we solve problems,” a philosophy evident in all their work. This beloved husband-and-wife duo was the guiding force behind the storied Eames lounge chair, one of many of the designers' pieces.
Their contributions to American culture in the early 20th century went beyond the furniture showroom floor to reach across boundaries that influence the ways in which we work and live. The couple is responsible for producing an enormous amount of furniture designs along with toys, a staggering number of exhibitions, lectures, and dozens of films, but they are still most famously known for the sculptural chairs that continue to bear their name.
The Beginning of Eames Design
The Eames era was a pivotal time, not only in American design but for the country as a whole. In 1940, when Ray, a student and Charles, a teacher, met at the Cranbrook Academy of Art near Detroit, the nation was just coming out of the Great Depression and only a few years away from entering World War II.
Cranbrook Academy's 1940 Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition inspired design team Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen to embark on a bold new idea. Inspired to combine a modernist aesthetic with the Industrial Age boon of mass production, the duo aspired to create a chair from a single piece of plywood that could be mass produced for the modern home and meant to replace older and more expensive upholstered seating. They won the contest, though the chair wasn't viable. There was simply no process at that time for bending plywood into the shape needed for the chair to work. After a few more tries, Eero Saarinen scrapped the idea entirely, which opened the way for Charles and Ray to create the process that would ultimately lead to the Eames lounge chair in years to come.
The First Eames Molded Chairs
The first generation of the Eames molded and bent birch plywood side chair began rolling off the production lines in 1946. Though it wasn't crafted from a single piece of plywood as originally intended, the design nevertheless evoked the feeling of a chair perfectly molded from a single piece of wood. That same year the Ray and Charles formed a partnership with furniture maker Herman Miller, and over time, applied their molded plywood technique to folding screens and other household accessories.
The Introduction of the Eames Lounge Chairs
After 10 years of pioneering and innovative, including molded plastic and wire mesh seating, the Eameses returned to their roots, unveiling what would long be considered their masterwork, the legendary lounge chair. The story behind its creation is nearly as famous as the chair itself.
It's said that the Ray and Charles wanted to design a better version of a lounge chair as a result of watching their friend, Hollywood director, Billy Wilder, try to relax in various lounge chairs during the chaotic flurry of filming. The designers set out to create a better lounge chair with the feel and aesthetic of a well-used baseball mitt. The result became a luxurious and smoothly reclining chair designed with a molded plywood shell, headrest, and ottoman, all upholstered with tufted, buttery soft leather.
The Eameses debuted the lounge chair to America in 1956 on NBC's "Home" show, hosted by television legend Arlene Francis. The show catapulted their already famous name beyond the design industry and into the lexicons of American households, even to this day.