Design Profession: Architect, Furniture Designer, Industrial Designer, Interior Designer
Building Types: Civic, Commercial, Religious, Residential
A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Charles Eames was the son of a Pinkerton detective and a St. Louis housewife. After the death of his father, Eames helped support his family by taking on odd jobs until finding employment at the Laclede Steel Company. At Laclede he was introduced to engineering and drawing, which inspired him to become an architect.
Eames attended Washington University's architecture program, but was dismissed from the strict Beaux Arts-based school in1929 for voicing his support for Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1930 he opened an architectural office with Charles Gray. In 1933 Eames spent a year in traveling in Mexico before returning to Saint Louis and establishing an architectural firm with Robert Walsh in 1934. That firm operated for three years, and one of their most significant commissions was the design of the Alice Meyer House in Saint Louis, which represents a modern design aesthetic. Their design of the St. Mary's Catholic Church in Helena, Arkansas, was published in Architectural Forum magazine and captured the attention of Eliel Saarinen who invited Eames to visit the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Saarinen offered Eames a fellowship to Cranbrook in 1938 and Eames accepted.
It was at Cranbrook that Eames' interest in and experimentation with industrial and furniture design grew. He became friends with Eliel's son, Eero, and they collaborated on a number of competitions including a faculty exhibition; furniture for the Kleinhaus Music Hall in Buffalo, New York; and for a proposed Smithsonian Gallery of Art. In 1939 Eames was named a faculty member at Cranbrook and eventually headed its industrial design program.
In the fall of 1940, Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen entered the Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. A team of students from Cranbrook helped complete some of the drawings for the competition. Among them was a new student Ray Kaiser, a painter, who later became Charles Eames' wife. Eames and Saarinen won the MOMA competition in both the chairs and case goods categories for their entries of molded plywood chairs, tables, and case goods. Their entry pieces and winning designs were displayed in an exhibition at MoMA in September 1941, which brought them national recognition. A small number of the molded plywood chairs were produced for sale at Bloomingdale's in New York City, but they were too expensive to produce in mass quantities due to limitations in manufacturing technology.
Charles Eames and Ray Kaiser married in June 1941. They left Cranbrook for Los Angeles, California, and Charles found work in the art department at MGM Studios designing movie sets. He and Ray experimented with creating a machine, which they called the "Kazam! Machine," that would enable them to mold plywood into furniture pieces. In 1942, during World War II, the Eameses began manufacturing molded plywood splints and body litters for the U.S. military through a company they created, the Plyformed Wood Company. John Entenza, editor of Arts & Architecture magazine, was an investor. With the income that resulted from the military contract, the Eameses were able to purchase 901 Washington Boulevard in Venice, California, and the Eames Office was born. There they experimented not only with molded plywood, but also with industrial design, exhibition design and filmmaking.
Charles and Ray were able to apply the same materials and technology used to produce the splints to develop new furniture prototypes ready for mass production. Up to this point the Eames and Entenza's Plyformed Wood Company had handled all the manufacturing of the Eames Office products. However, with steady increases in orders the company was bought by a Michigan company, Evans Products, whose Molded Plywood Division went on to produce the Eameses' early plywood chairs.
The year 1945 was an important one for Charles and Ray Eames. John Entenza asked Charles to participate in a program he was developing for Arts & Architecture magazine. His idea was to create a series of case study houses that would illustrate that well-designed, affordable homes could be developed for the average family. The program was unique because the homes were to be built and opened to the public. Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen teamed up to design two of the eight houses that were commissioned for the initial Case Study Program. Completed in 1949, Case Study House #8 was designed as a home for Charles and Ray Eames and become a symbol of American modernism. Case Study House #9, located next door to the Eames house in Pacific Palisades, was designed for Entenza.
In 1945 Eliot Noyes, the director of industrial design at the MoMA, saw the Eames molded plywood furniture at a press event at the Barclay Hotel in New York City. He came across them again at an exhibition held at the Architectural League in February 1946. Noyes, asked Charles Eames to present his own one-man show at the MoMA. Titled, New Furniture Designed by Charles Eames, the exhibition showcased the Eameses' newly developed work with molded plywood furniture. Included in the show were the Dining Chair Wood (DCW), Lounge Chair Wood (LCW), and the Dining Chair Metal (DCM), as well as their line of children's furniture.
The exhibition at the MoMA was seen by many visitors including George Nelson, the newly appointed head of design for the Herman Miller Furniture Company in Zeeland, Michigan. The forward thinking designs created by Charles and Ray piqued Nelson's interest, and he approached Herman Miller's president, D. J. De Pree about carrying the line. Thus began a long collaboration between the Eameses and Herman Miller, which resulted in some of the world's most iconic Modern furniture pieces, including the Eames molded plywood chairs, the fiberglass shell chair, the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, and the Aluminum Group of office furniture.
In addition to designing furniture for Herman Miller, Charles and Ray also collaborated to design a home in Michigan is for Max De Pree, the son of Herman Miller CEO D. J. De Pree. Max himself became CEO in 1980. The De Pree House, located in Zeeland, was completed in 1954 and is similar in style to Case Study House #8 though the materials were adapted to Michigan's weather conditions.