Design Profession: Artist, Furniture Designer, Industrial Designer, Interior Designer, Textile Designer
Building Types: Commercial, Residential
Born in Sacramento, California, as Bernice Alexandra Kaiser, Ray was raised in an artistic family and took dance lessons and drawing at an early age. Her father was a theater professional and worked as the manager of the Grand Theater in Sacramento for a time and then ran the first Loew's theater on the West Coast, where he introduced his daughter to performers like Al Jolson and Anna Pavlova and actors like Buster Keaton and Alla Nazimova.
After finishing high school in Sacramento, Ray enrolled at May Friend Bennett School, a finishing school in Millbrook, New York. After completing two years at May Friend, she moved to New York City. During the next six years Ray studied painting with the artist Hans Hofmann. Modern art was a passion of Ray's, so much so, that she was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists (AAA) group in New York City. Most of the members were students of Hofmann's, and they attracted artists like Josef Albers, Lee Krasner, Piet Mondrian, and Arshile Gorky to come and showcase their work. The group's primary purpose was to provide an environment where abstract painters and sculptors would be valued and appreciated. For a short time, while participating in the AAA, Ray teamed up with architect Ben Baldwin to paint murals for some of the buildings he had been commissioned to complete. Ray enjoyed the introduction to architecture and became interested in exploring the interplay between the worlds of art and design.
Ray applied to the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and began her studies in the fall of 1940. With a plan to audit Marianne Strengell's weaving classes, Ray also began visiting the industrial design shop and helping Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen with their entry drawings for the Museum of Modern Arts's Organic Design in Home Furnishings contest. Though her time at Cranbrook was short (she left in December 1940), it was life changing. Her experience at Cranbrook gave Ray a chance to explore avenues of design outside of her art-based background. It also resulted in a lifelong partnership with designer and architect Charles Eames, whom she married in 1941.
Ray and Charles Eames moved to Los Angeles, California, shortly after their marriage where they met John Entenza, the owner and editor of the influential Arts & Architecture magazine. Entenza helped the Eameses get a unit at Richard Neutra's newly completed Strathmore Apartments where he was living. As their friendship with Entenza deepened, Charles and Ray began making contributions to his magazine. Between1942 and 1947 Ray designed twenty-eight covers for Arts & Architecture magazine that demonstrated her modernist philosophy. She also served as a member of the magazine's advisory committee. In 1945 Entenza invited Charles Eames to submit a design for the Arts & Architecture Case Study House program. Case Study House #8 became the Eameses own home and Ray brought a painter's eye to its design. Today the Eames House is considered a Modern icon.
Charles and Ray first set up a design shop in their home at the Strathmore. It was there that they created the now infamous "Kazam! Machine," which helped them to delve deeper into the design and manipulation of molded plywood. Through their experimentation process the two tested various methods of bending plywood, pushing the material to bend as many times, in as many angles as possible, resulting in some fantastic sculptural pieces and interesting prototypes of chairs.
Their molded plywood forms began to gain momentum when a contract between the United States Navy and the Eamses was signed to commission molded plywood leg splints and full body litters during World War II. The money from the military contract gave the Eameses the financial means to open their own office in Venice, California. By the war's end, Charles and Ray had a number of new molded plywood furniture pieces added to their portfolio, which they showcased in New York City at the Barclay Hotel for members of the press.
The new pieces attracted the attention of Eliot Noyes, the director of industrial design at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Noyes invited Charles to develop his own show for the MoMA where the Eameses' molded plywood pieces would be featured. The exhibition opened in the spring of 1946 and drew a number of visitors, including George Nelson, the newly appointed head of design for the Herman Miller Furniture Company in Zeeland, Michigan. Nelson facilitated an agreement between the Eameses and the president of Herman Miller, D. J. De Pree, for the couple's designs to be mass produced by the furniture manufacturer. A relationship continues to exist to this day between the Eames family and the Herman Miller Furniture Company, and it has brought the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, the Eames Lounge Chair Wood (LCW), and the Aluminum group to homes and offices across the country.
In 1947 Ray submitted a number of her textile designs to a competition held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Her entry named Sea Things, or Free Shapes, won honorable mention, while another design, Crosspatch, was picked up by the fabric manufacturer Schiffer Prints and produced commercially. In addition to Crosspatch and Sea Things, Ray designed a number of other patterns, such as: Dot, Small Dots, and Circles; which have found a new audience in the current generation of design enthusiasts. Currently all five MoMA competition fabric designs are being reproduced.
Ray Kaiser Eames was one half of a dynamic whole that inspired and created explorations in design execution and theory. Ray produced extraordinary work for the Eames Office, collaborating on a wide range of projects from textiles to chairs to films. Nothing was off limits for Charles and Ray when it came to design and creativity. The pair challenged traditional design ideals and found inspiration in everyday objects and activities while solidifying themselves as one of the most influential design teams of the twentieth century.