Master Spotlight :: Charles & Ray Eames

Charles and Ray Eames were modern designers who made major contributions to architecture and furniture. They also created fine art, film, industrial and graphic design. Their work was characterized by its thoughtful simplicity. Their most famous work is the Eames chair.

Charles Eames, Jr. was the son of an architect. When he was 14, he worked part time at a steel company where he learned about engineering, drawing, and architecture. He studied architecture at Washington University, but left after two years because his views were “too modern” for the school and he was distracted from school work by his job at an architectural firm.

So, Charles started his own architecture business in St. Louis, Missouri. He was inspired by Eliel Saarinen, a Finnish architect, who invited Charles to continue his studies at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Charles soon became a teacher there and the head of the industrial design department.

Ray-Bernice Alexandra Kaiser moved a lot when she was young. In New York City, she studied abstract expressionist painting with Hans Hoffman. She was a founder of the American Abstract Artists group, and one of her paintings is in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

She met her husband, Charles, at the Cranbrook Academy of Arts. She prepared drawings and models for New York’s Museum of Modern Art “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition. Together with Eero Saarinen, Eliel’s son, the Eameses designed prize-winning furniture for the competition. Their chairs used the new technique of wood moulding which they soon adapted to our products including splints and stretchers for the U.S. Navy.

Ray and Charles moved to Los Angeles soon after they were married. As part of Arts & Architecture magazine’s “Case Study” program, the Eameses designed and built the groundbreaking Eames House, Case Study House #8. Built on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the house was hand-built in just a few days using pre-made steel-parts. It remains a milestone of Modern architecture. Ray and Charles used it as their home and studio.

The Eameses continued their work in architecture and modern furniture design. They pioneered new design technologies like fiberglass and plastic resin and wire mesh. They made short films to experiment and to document their work. “Take your pleasures seriously,” They advised. Their hobbies often led to important or lucrative work. Powers of Ten, for example, was a documentary that zoomed – by powers of ten – from a family picnic to the edges of the universe. It is preserved by the National Film Registry for its “cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.” Because of their curiosity and communication skills, the Eameses were hired to create a number of educational exhibitions including Mathematica for IBM, the World of Franklin and Jefferson for the American Revolution Bicentennial, and Glimpses of the USA for the American National Exhibition in Moscow.

Charles Eames died on August 21, 1978. Ray died in 1988, ten years to the day after Charles. You can learn more about them at

As a teacher, I love how limitless the Eameses’ curiosity was. They explored everything from fine art to government filmmaking, and seemed to see no distinction between them. Their work is a wonderful example for students about the freedom and the power of art as investigation.

As a fan, my favorite piece by Charles and Ray is their home and studio, the Eames House. According to “Charles & Ray Eames: The Architect & The Painter,” the house was always in flux. Changing to suit the whims and needs of each day. I am powerfully inspired by that idea of a home as a work of art.

Portrait of the Eameses drawn by Rama Hughes.

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Thomas James

Thomas James

Thomas James is an Illustrator who has worked with The New York Times, WIRED, Pentagram, Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and many others. You can see his portfolio at
Thomas James

Posted by Thomas James on 11/04/12 under artists


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