Happy birthday Charles Eames! Born June 17, 1907, Charles would have been 105 years old this year. In celebration, we thought it would be fun to look back at Charles and his “monkey mind” by sharing a few paragraphs from an August 1959 Vogue magazine article. Vogue, being a fashion magazine, paid particular attention to Charles’ style.
“In spite of the whir of his mind and his life, Eames has a great inner quiet. A thin, tanned man, with brown gay eyes, deep laugh ruts, and a sudden stutter, he is a fascinating man. And clothes fascinate him, too. He likes to wear yellow-beiges, yellowish-greens, shirts of wonderful subtleties, roughly textured jackets, often with silver Navaho buttons which his wife, Ray, sews on a with special curved needle. These buttons are a partial clue to both the Eameses. They see the beauty in small oddities that others may miss. They are intensely practical. They work as partners, both designers, both filmmakers, both at ease in their life.”
“Charles, however, has a monkey mind that leaps about, exploring. He has great capacity to see, to think out problems as though no one had ever pondered them before…. Added to those qualities are his sense of structure and, finally, his wide keyboard, beyond the eighty-eight notes, of enthusiasms.”
In 1969, Eames was interviewed by Madame L’Amic of the Musée des Arts Decoratifs as part of a design exhibition showing at the Louvre that year. The session proved fruitful, the source of several well-known Eames quotes, and eventually became an audio track on Design Q&A, an Eames Office film on the design process.
As the new film about them makes clear, Charles and Ray had so much confidence in the way they went about solving a problem—whether designing a chair, an exhibit, or a film—they didn’t entertain thoughts of failing. Other factors, besides their design brilliance, helped. Two of the most important were maintaining artistic control and having the ear of the CEOs at their client companies.
There is much proof of their successes, including the string of designs they did for Herman Miller, beginning with the groundbreaking plywood chair. But one clinker stands out: their 1976 show for the bicentennial of the American Revolution, “The World of Franklin and Jefferson.” Hilton Kramer writing in the New York Times panned it as overly ideological. Others saw it as overwhelming: too much information, too many artifacts.
But as Donald Albrecht, architecture and design curator, points out in “Eames: The Architect and the Painter,” the exhibit can be seen less as a failure and more as a reflection of the restless minds of the Eameses. Layering the material, as we do today in digital experiences, would have made it compelling and digestible. Perhaps this exhibit was simply another example of Charles and Ray being ahead of their time.
“It’s not about the pieces. It’s how the pieces work together,” says LA-based rapper Ice Cube. Whether sampling beats or designing architecture, beautiful things happen when you “take something that already exists and make it something special.”
Touring the Eames House, Ice Cube calls attention to the off-the-shelf pieces that make up the modern icon. Built by designers Charles and Ray Eames using a steel-frame, factory windows, and prefabricated walls, the home is more than its parts—a fine example of the rapper’s maxim.
June 17, 2011, would have been Charles Eames’ 104th birthday, so maybe the question should have been, “can you stand to see 104 in a row?”—I don’t think Charles would have shied away from a few more.
Charles saw his challenge as balancing craft (beauty) with industrial process (make-ability), a challenge that he worked hard to answer in all of his work. If the design was too heavy in one direction, it didn’t work. For me, the Eames molded plastic chair is Charles’ best answer to his own question.
Durable, colorful, and economical, the molded plastic chair became ubiquitous. I sat in them at school, at church, and even while I waited with my mother at the post office. They are beautiful around a dining table or, quite literally, “100 in a row” since they can gang together. Launched in 1950 and still in production today, the chair has withstood the test of time—proof of successful “balance.”
Checkout Lifework for a cool video of Eames Demetrios talking about his grandfather’s legacy.
Charles Eames said, “Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design.” It’s a quote several interns took seriously last year when John Aldrich, our VP of New Product Development, asked them to experiment with one of the most recognizable Eames designs—tandem sling seating.
You’ve probably seen it before. Designed for O’Hare International Airport in 1962, the sleek, contemporary design remains in style for all kinds of public waiting areas, especially airport terminals.
However, as airports continue to update their facilities with trendy shops and an increasing number of dining options, the challenge to find electrical outlets to recharge cellular devices, tablets, and laptops remains the same.
After meeting Charles Eames’ grandson, Eames Demetrios, Director of the Eames Office, the interns received his support for moving forward with adding electrical outlets to the tandem seating design.
The interns began working with John Berry, a representative for the Eames Office, and with his help they developed several different electrical outlet options.
“Respecting and maintaining the aesthetic of the Eames chair was the overall goal for the project and with John Berry’s insight we were able to honor that,” says Andrea Nelson, who recently received a master’s degree in Interior Architecture and Product Design from Kansas State University.
After testing and monitoring the use of their designs for four days at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the team knew it was something special. And the airport facilities team also liked the idea, says Nelson.
The team now is refining their ideas, but has established that it will place the outlets between the seat and back.
Adds Aldrich, “It’s a premium product, so it deserves a premium design.”
Intern project team:
Andrea Nelson, Kansas State University
Anthony Herrera, Grand Valley State University
Jane Zhang, Auburn University
Adam Koehler, Kettering University
Jacqueline Xu, Thunderbird University
Brian Chuang, University of Michigan
Jep Cohen, Rose-Hulman
Update: This solution is currently in development and is not commercially available.
It’s well known that Charles and Ray Eames played with plywood for years, experimenting with the strengths and weaknesses of the medium. They worked on plywood airplane parts, stretchers, and leg splints for wounded soldier in World War II before creating their iconic chair designs.
For those who earn their bread through the sweat of creative idea-making, Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, says to take a page from a child’s playbook.
“When they are in an environment where they feel secure, children can be more creative,” says Brown in a 2008 talk at the Art Center Design Conference. “They don’t fear the judgment of their peers. They don’t apologize for crazy ideas or second-guess themselves.” He adds, “They’re the ones who feel most free to play.” Similarly, a workplace in which people are asked to be creative should feel safe and comfortable. It should be designed to help people feel relaxed.
Second, children haven’t learned to categorize so quickly, so they can create new connections and use everyday items in novel ways. The proverbial cardboard box on Christmas morning, for example, is limited only by imagination while the toy in the box can only do one thing. It was that child’s viewpoint that could see the ball on the roll-on deodorant and apply it to a computer mouse.
Third, young kids do “construction play” with blocks and tape and crayons. David Kelley, founder of IDEO, calls it “thinking with your hands.”
Fourth, kids play house and tea party and cops and robbers; they become super heroes or villains or imaginary creatures. Role play is a powerful way to imagine an experience. How is it possible to design airport seating or a cart for emergency-room nurses without viscerally knowing what is involved in each experience? “When a kid dresses up as a firefighter, he’s beginning to try on that identity,” says Brown. “We’re doing the same thing as designers. We’re trying on these experiences.”
“Finally,” says Brown, “at some point, you have to get serious again. Playtime is probably most useful for the initial generation of new ideas, but there’s also a time to identify and develop the best ideas like serious adults.”
Restored in the early 1990s, the art deco masterpiece features furnishings and works designed not only by Eliel Saarinen, but also by his wife Loja, a textile artist, his son, Eero, and Cranbrook students and instructors, too.
Saarinen, Cranbrook’s first president, intentionally planned that the home be a complete work of art, where one room flows to the next. Every aspect of it works in harmony, from the patterns in the rugs to the details of the silverware. Even the bathrooms are perfectly symmetrical, with streamlined sinks where no faucets clutter the view.
Whether you are an architect, a designer, or someone who simply appreciates well-crafted, finely-made objects from an era long gone, you must put the Saarinen House on your top 10 list of places to see. (And while you’re there, take a look around; the Saarinen-designed campus is designated as a National Historic Landmark.) Photo via: Cranbrook Academy of Art
“As Charles Eames said, Herman Miller should make ‘the best for the most for the least,’” says Susan Lyons, design consultant for Herman Miller’s Materials Program—now one-year old. “So let’s call this the year of Grades 1 and 2.”
“We have been working hard to design and develop innovative materials that are both purposeful and beautiful, as well as low cost.”
The work has paid off with great reviews. In fact, the program received a Silver award from the International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA, sponsored by Business Week) in the Design Strategy category.
Developed by the Michael McGinn Design Office, the Materials Program consists of two equally important components:
• The Materials Collection: physical sampling to be seen and touched.
• The Online Materials Program: a website to explore and understand our materials and their application.
Here are a few choice tidbits from that session (which, by the way, was later used as the audio track for a film the Eames Office made on the design process called, “Design Q&A”).
Q: What is your definition of design?
A: A plan for arranging elements in such a way as to best accomplish a particular purpose.
Q: What are the boundaries of design?
A: What are the boundaries of problems?
Q: Does the creation of design admit constraint?
A: Design depends largely on constraints.
Q: What constraints?
A: The sum of all constraints. Here is one of the few effective keys to the design problem: the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible (and) his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints—the constraints of price, size, strength, balance, surface, time, etc.; each problem has its own peculiar list.
Q: To whom does design address itself: to the greatest number (the masses)? The specialists…the enlightened amateur…a privileged social class?
A: To the need.
Eames also helped design Herman Miller’s Los Angeles Showroom. Check out the vintage photos Eames Office shared with us to create a slideshow on Discover.