4 Tenets of Eames Design that Ensured their Iconic Status

published Jul 31, 2015
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(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

For devotees of mid-century modern style, the mention of Charles and Ray Eames always elicits enthusiasm and zeal. How could it not? The husband and wife pair—known for such pieces as the Molded Plywood Lounge Chair (1946, Lounge Chair (1956), and Tandem Sling Seating (1962)—are two of the most important designers of the twentieth century. Their designs became iconic works being studied, lauded, and often outright copied. But what made the couple’s work so prolific and significant? Here are four notable aspects of Charles and Ray’s work that helped them reach worldwide prominence.

(Image credit: The Brick House)

1. Utility is Important

Something that was important to the Eameses when designing furniture was creating something with a high degree of utility. In Ray Eames’s words “What works is better than what looks good… The looks good can change, but what works, works.” The Eameses were not simply trying to create something handsome, but something that was durable and sensible. They created chairs that could be frequently stacked and un-stacked, office storage that maximized space, and airport benches that could take the abuse of constant use.

Charles and Ray wanted their designs to be able to exist outside of the void in a practical manner, not just look good undisturbed. They viewed the designer as “a good host anticipating the needs of the guest,” and providing everything the guest might need. The practicality of their designs meant that they were used in businesses and homes around America and Europe, which meant they were being constantly seen and used.

(Image credit: Natalie Jeffcott)

2. Keep Prices Affordable

Charles Eames’ first success came in designing The Organic Chair (with famed architect Eero Saarinen) for a Museum of Modern Art competition in 1939. That design was geared toward creating affordable furniture for customers seeking livable, modern, familial decor. Initially, this proved a difficult task as Eames’ chair cost $75 in a time when most American families made $10,000 a year. Despite the difficulties, the Eameses were determined to drive down the cost.

After dedicated effort the Eameses were able to minimize production overhead, and developed their plywood molding with military funding and a partnership with Herman Miller. This economical ethos stayed with the Eameses throughout their career as they attempted to create well-designed furniture that was relatively affordable for the average consumer. Charles Eames stated that he had little interest in securing patents on his furniture. When asked about the copying of his famous designs, Eames remarked that the only frauds he worried about were “the bad copies, when your idea is used in a boobie way.” As long as their work wasn’t compromised, profit was not the Eameses primary concern.

(Image credit: Sarah Dobbins)

3. Beauty in the Ordinary

While the Eameses wanted to make practical and affordable furniture, their chief goal was still creating a beautiful design. From their architecture to their films, the Eameses were passionate about finding and creating beauty in the everyday and commonplace. In the world of machine production, they attempted to add a sense of comforting craft motifs to their designs. In another example, the Eames Lounge Chair aimed to evoke “the warm receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt.” Eames molded plywood was useful for mass production, but even more important was its ability to create organic shapes. Shapes that, while factory made, reflected an appreciation for the handmade.

Working toward a visual that merged svelte, clean lines with the comfortable, they sought to create beautiful pieces that could be at home anywhere. No matter what, Charles and Ray were careful to make sure their furniture achieved a careful balance between the machine aesthetic and organic modernism.

(Image credit: Breanne Johnsen)

4. Design Shouldn’t Be All Consuming

The Eameses were not purists when it came to bringing their designs to reality. In 1972, during a Q & A, Charles remarked “One could describe Design as a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose.” For Eames, design was more important as an expression of purpose that could become art than vice versa. Unlike Charles’ early partner Eero Saarinen, the Eameses were ready and willing to sacrifice style to keep the technology coherent. The vast majority of their furniture designs fit into three groups: molded plastics, molded plywood, and aluminum.

While other designers might have insisted on strict instruction and craftwork for their works, the Eameses were happy designing their pieces in multiple parts aimed at simple assembly at the production line. By orienting their industrial design towards the ability to mass-produce furniture, Charles and Ray were able to gain prominence. Otherwise, their furniture would have remained collectors’ items instead of industry standards.

The Eames pieces are as phenomenal as they are because they aren’t brilliant in just one way. They didn’t design solely with aesthetics in mind, but also with practicality, affordability, and reproducibility. The Eameses made beautiful furniture, but their focus on the other tenants made their designs ubiquitous and with staying power.

The legacy of Eames design is everywhere you look: from the original pieces to those inspired by them to identical replicas. The forethought and practicality of the Eameses guaranteed their status as icons of the design world.