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All About Eames

Eames House: Charles and Ray Eames

by James Steele
Phaidon Press/Chronicle Books, 60 pp., $29.95

Eames House

by Marilyn Neuhart, by John Neuhart
Berlin: Ernst und Sohn, 64 pp., DM 58.00

The Films of Charles and Ray Eames, Volumes I-IV

Pyramid Home Video, $39.95 each

1.

Since transformations in architectural style often follow major economic, social, political, or technological upheavals, it is not surprising that the building art in this century has been so marked by change. And certainly few periods in modern history were more marked by a conjunction of sudden changes than the years just after World War II. With America’s industries reinvigorated by the all-out military effort and its primacy on the international scene confirmed by victory, peace brought an urgent need for new civilian and commercial construction. For fifteen years there had been an architectural hiatus in the United States, imposed by the Great Depression and protracted by the wartime ban on all non-essential building.

Thus in 1945 opportunities for American architects at last seemed almost limitless, especially in housing for homecoming veterans and their new families. That day had not been unawaited. Long before the end of the conflict, forward-thinking architects, critics, and editors began to plan for large-scale construction, the first such boom in a generation. An unprecedented opportunity presented itself: the chance to reshape the world in the gleaming image of Modernism, which before World War II had been largely experimental in Europe and little more than a sporadic phenomenon in the United States.

Despite avid proselytizing in this country during the 1930s by Philip Johnson and others on behalf of the arbitrary version of Modernism they called the International Style, it took the forced industrialization of American architecture in the first half of the 1940s to make a case for a truly mechanized Modernism. Before World War II, Modernist architects sometimes had to resort to custom fabrication or outright fakery to achieve the machine imagery advocated by the Bauhaus after its initial, Expressionist, phase. Stucco masqueraded as reinforced concrete; rivets were used for decoration. All such strategies exposed the fact that theories calling for architecture to reflect technology had outpaced technology itself. The war brought with it the real thing. Construction using advanced engineering developments in the use of steel, concrete, glass, and plastics supplanted the highly aestheticized version of Modernism that had been presented in such attention-getting exhibitions as Johnson’s Machine Art of 1934 at the Museum of Modern Art, with its clever appropriation of propellers and ball bearings as sculptures trouvées.1

During the years before World War II it was easy for architects to make use of the ornamental detail that was common to many styles of twentieth-century architecture—from the high manner of Beaux-Arts Classicism and the Arts and Crafts movement to such populist modes as Art Deco and the Spanish Revival. The architects could rely on the cheap labor of immigrant artisans, and the deflationary economy of the Great Depression prompted a flurry of applied decoration. That tradition came to an abrupt end with America’s entry into World War II and was to return only with the advent of postmodernism in the 1980s.

The unheralded and seemingly automatic acceptance of the unornamented International Style in this country after 1945 was among the significant legacies of the war. Even before the hostilities, the influx of refugees from Hitler’s Germany had changed the nature of American architectural education, previously dominated by the historicizing Beaux-Arts method. In 1938, two former directors of the Bauhaus assumed influential academic positions: Walter Gropius as chairman of Harvard’s Department of Architecture, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as head of the architecture school at the Armour (later Illinois) Institute of Technology in Chicago.

The euphoria of the immediate postwar period was reflected in the particular qualities that the International Style assumed in this country—buildings became bigger, more expansive, and more transparent than any that had been built in pre-war Europe, thanks to the structural capacities developed through wartime engineering. The new architecture was seen as expressing America’s optimistic outlook, just as the fragmented visions of German Expressionism had mirrored the anxieties that accompanied the end of World War I.

The endorsement of the International Style as the official architectural form of the American business establishment was rapid and nationwide. Between 1946 and 1952, for example, commissions from General Motors in Warren, Michigan, Equitable Savings and Loan in Portland, Oregon, Lever Brothers in New York, and Alcoa in Pittsburgh gave prestigious corporate approval to a movement that had been considered alien and radical when those companies had previously built their headquarters. The move away from the tepid Classical Eclecticism of the 1920s and toward a bold new Modernism signaled one of the most astonishing shifts in the annals of public taste and patronage.

No American architect and designer better exemplified that change than Charles Eames, who, with his wife and partner Ray Eames, marketed high-style Modernism more skillfully, successfully, and influentially than any of their contemporaries. From their marriage and the founding of their firm in 1941 until Charles’s death in 1978, the Eameses produced an astonishing outpouring of work ranging from architecture and interiors to the design of furniture, graphics, and exhibitions, as well as films, multimedia presentations, advertising, and the logos and other emblems of what is now known as corporate identity. Through their concerted, consistent approach, anchored in the almost religious postwar belief in rigorous research and patient experiment, the Eameses dominated Modernist design in this country throughout the third quarter of the century. They achieved what no other practitioners before them had been able to do: they gave late Modernism, in its otherwise corporate phase in America, a human aspect and made it not only nonthreatening but indeed personable.

2.

Charles Eames was born in 1907, six years after Louis Kahn and one year after Philip Johnson. Son of a Civil War veteran, he was a member of the architectural generation whose youthful prospects were circumscribed by the Great Depression. Eames’s boyhood fascination with mechanics and engineering is not at all evident in the neo-Georgian and semi-Art Deco houses he built in the 1930s, after being dismissed from Washington University in his native St. Louis. One reason given for his expulsion was his overzealous support of the then-unfashionable work of Frank Lloyd Wright, even though that earthy aesthetic had no discernible impact on Eames’s style then or thereafter. Doubtless it was Wright’s heroic sense of himself and his grand conception of architecture and design as an indivisible, organic whole that appealed to the young man; and the overall consistency and integrity of the mature Eames style does indeed recall Wright in its unity if not its specifics.

Publications showing Eames’s early buildings caught the eye of Eliel Saarinen, the émigré Finnish architect and director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, the Michigan design school that was America’s closest equivalent to the Bauhaus (although only in the Bauhaus’s early phase emphasizing craft). Saarinen recognized a kindred spirit in Eames, some of whose better early schemes bore a certain resemblance to the master’s own style, a Nordic variant of the Arts and Crafts movement that, in his adaptation, had its origins in the designs of the Vienna Secession and its use of stylized folk motifs. Saarinen, who offered Eames a fellowship in 1938, insisted on a unified approach in which the structure, the furniture, and the details of a building would all reflect the same concept of design. This was an early tenet of the Arts and Crafts movement, and it had a deep effect not only on Eames but also on another new Cranbrook student, Ray Kaiser.

Born in Sacramento in 1912, Kaiser began studying art in New York during the early 1930s with the painter Hans Hofmann, the most important avant-garde studio teacher of his time. Hofmann’s enthusiastic transmission of European principles of abstraction, his strong emphasis on the structure of the picture plane, and his incorporation of biomorphic and quasi-figural forms in non-representational compositions all became part of Ray Eames’s approach to design, after her work at Cranbrook redirected her interests from the fine to the applied arts.

The Eameses married six months before Pearl Harbor and settled in Los Angeles, which they chose for its informal way of life and its lack of social distractions. As their longtime friends and associates Marilyn and John Neuhart—compilers with Ray Eames of the essential reference work Eames Design2—pointedly observe in their informative new monograph on the Eames house, “Charles and Ray’s lives were structured in an almost monastic way and can be described very simply: Charles’s life was his work and Ray’s life was Charles.” Yet her work was also of paramount importance to Ray.

Together the couple embraced John Ruskin’s precept of “joy in labor” and took a puritanical pleasure in a hard-working routine that Pat Kirkham documents in a splendid new study, Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century. In it, she quotes Charles’s description of their way of life as “based on doing rather than having.”

Preferring to stay apart from Los Angeles life—visitors to their Venice, California, atelier remarked that it could have been almost anywhere in its complete detachment from the outside world—the Eameses conducted an energetic, and ultimately lucrative, practice in which their individual efforts were for the most part inseparable. Professor Kirkham (who was recently appointed to the faculty of the Bard Graduate Center in New York) reconstructs the working relationship of the couple in extensive interviews with former Eames Office employees—the only possible source of information, since the Eameses kept virtually no papers, communicating verbally and working with models and photographs rather than developmental drawings.

It is true that Ray Eames was not as fully involved as her architect-husband in the design of the firm’s very few buildings, in which he pursued the Modernist chimera of a building vocabulary based on interchangeable industrial components that would easily be available. Yet her deep engagement in all other aspects of the creative work of the partnership—at once intuitive and forceful—was greatly underestimated until the publication of Kirkham’s corrective study.

Indeed the central point of Kirkham’s book is to show that Ray was not an acquiescent helpmeet but equal partner in one of the most fruitful artistic collaborations of the century. As Kirkham makes abundantly clear—and what was evident to anyone who spoke with Mrs. Eames (who died in 1988, a decade to the day after her husband)—one of the leading culprits in unjustly downplaying her status was Ray Eames herself. With a minimum of feminist special pleading, Professor Kirkham traces Ray Eames’s self-abnegating tendency to prejudices against women in architecture (all too pronounced even today). Taking account of the difficulties that Ray Eames might have had if she had been on her own, Kirkham also gives a plausible interpretation of the private emotional contract that the Eameses worked out. As this most understanding of biographers sees it, Ray had a deep need to be protected, while Charles Eames possessed an equal desire to protect, though he also caused her great distress.

With an admirable tact rare today, Professor Kirkham shows that the diabolically good-looking Charles Eames had many extramarital affairs, and she describes their effect on his professional relations with his wife. Although she names no names (they will be familiar enough to those in the architecture world), the author reveals that during the late 1950s Ray Eames considered divorce: “Part of her decision to stay with Charles almost certainly was a desire to remain in a close working partnership—as was his decision to stay within the marriage and that partnership.”

  1. 1

    The exhibition catalog has been republished in a sixtieth-anniversary edition (Abrams/Museum of Modern Art, 1994).

  2. 2

    Abrams, 1989.

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