Charles and Ray Eames were partners in life and in work. Yet throughout their joined careers, Charles often served as the mouthpiece for all things Eames. For example, in the 1972 documentary Design Q & A, a curator asks five acclaimed designers a set of questions. “For Eames, the person answering the questions is Charles,” says Eames Demetrios, grandson of Charles and Ray. “He represents their ideas; it came out through Charles’s fingertips.”
A recent exhibit has now explored some of the work that, as Demetrios puts it, came through Ray’s fingertips. Held at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, the show included paintings, letters, prototypes, and outfits, all by Ray. It took a colossal amount of research and time to sift through the Eames archive. After Ray passed away, Demetrios’s mother gave 850,000 of the Eames’s photographs and about 150,000 other manuscript Eames items to the Library of Congress. (At the time of the donation, Demetrios says, it comprised an entire 5% of the library’s prints and photographs section.)
The show didn’t aim to distort the fact that Charles and Ray were a team. But it did shed new light on some of Ray’s practices and philosophies–traces of which can be seen in the work of today’s leading design entrepreneurs.
When Ray was as young as three years old, she was making her own paper dolls with different outfits and accessories. That childhood hobby would influence how Charles and Ray created their catalogs. “In some Eames work later on, they would photograph models and ask friends and their staff to line up and be photographed in various outfits, and they’d cut them up for catalogs,” Demetrios tells Co.Design.
She continued to work this way–by swapping in different versions of one idea–later in life, especially in her graphic design work. One piece in the exhibit is a paper mock-up of a foot silhouette Ray created during the course of designing a magazine cover. The final cover selection didn’t use the foot, but it pops again, on another magazine cover, that was published 13 months later. Likewise, while creating the title sequence for the film Love in the Afternoon, she hand cut fonts out of paper, snipping and tweaking until she achieved the desired effect. Little was discarded, in idea or material; it was often repurposed.
One myth that’s been perpetuated about Ray is that she was the painting half of the duo and that she preferred 2-D work. (The title of the 2011 documentary, Eames: The Architect and the Painter, might be to blame.) She studied painting with Hans Hoffman, an abstract artist who also taught Jackson Pollock* and Lee Krasner, and under his tutelage produced colorful works that echo Juan Miro–an observation that didn’t escape her clients.
She would eventually give up brush and canvas, and instead channel her knowledge of painting into design. “What bothered her was that she was trying to apply a philosophical set of ideas to her work, but the limitations of painting meant that it was always, ‘that looks like this, or that looks like that,'” Demetrios says. “Someone asked her how did it feel to give up painting for design. She said, ‘I never gave up painting, I just changed my palette.’ They did furniture, graphic design, fashion, toys, and architecture. In some ways they invented the modern design practice. You have people today like Yves Béhar who work in different mediums.”
In the 1940s and 1950s–while Charles and Ray were designing for the home–Emily Post was the authority-at-large when it came to hosting etiquette. Housewives often had to follow a formula for arranging tables, or designing living rooms.
That wasn’t the Eamesian way. Their ergonomic chairs promoted the idea of comfort, but even in the dollhouses that Ray built, “there was experimentation,” Demetrios says. Their approach changed the guest-host dynamic, and was a precursor to the proliferation of apartment blogs that do well online today. “It was about the house that you want, that people like different houses. You can experiment and not get caught up in ‘doing it right.'”
In the end, Ray and Charles both espoused an approach of curated independence. “It’s about what you want and making it work for you,” Demetrio says.
[*This article was updated to correct a misspelling of Jackson Pollock’s name]