Pioneers of Design Collaboration

CHARLES AND RAY EAMES ARE HOUSEHOLD NAMES. I mean that literally. It’s difficult to visit a household that doesn’t contain at the very least a nod to their bold, modern, clean industrial design, in the form of furniture, textiles, or architectural flourishes. From their molded plywood chairs to the iconic Eames Lounger, the husband-and-wife team collaborated to create some of the most recognizable shapes of our contemporary world. They so embodied the 20th century spirit of design and collaboration that they are, in some sense, emblems of very best of modernism itself. And they did it as a team. The modernist vision is a utopian one: designers can, it suggests, harness good design in order to effect positive social change. It is no surprise that Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO and author of Change by Design, heralds the Eames’ as exemplars of what he dubs “design thinking,” a mode of approaching design that identifies (and works within the constraints of) the overlapping needs of designer, consumer, and culture to develop products that serve all three (Brown 18). Cooperation is essential to “design thinking,” and the Eames leveraged one another’s skillsets to produce collaboratively: they even, in a sense, collaborated with the public to replace the the “lone design genius” archetype with a new focus on teamwork, respect, and compassion.

Collaborating with other human beings was how the Eames’ got their start. In “War Furniture: Charles and Ray Eames Design for the Wounded Body,” Jason Weems describes how the Eames’ “tuned in” to the needs of wounded soldiers. This became a major contribution to contemporary design philosophy, one that at the time went entirely against the grain of the modern, industrial, technophilic design paradigm: a focus on empathy and the needs of the unidealized human body. The Eames’s first product to go into large-scale fabrication was not a chair, but a leg splint for wounded soldiers. In 1942, the United States commissioned the duo to design lightweight plywood traction splints for the broken bodies of injured soldiers. “Rethinking the body as a once complete form now broken and compromised…” says Weems, “pushed the Eames’ into a new mindset… [because] The etiology of broken bodies… was as much cultural and psychological  as it was physical” (47). The Eames created a product that safeguarded the body and the self-respect of the injured soldier. Their splints didn’t just contour perfectly to the body, its design also jettisoned previous design aesthetics, splints which made little effort to hide the artificiality of their structure and materials. The Eames’ splints became nearly invisible. Moreover, they had a “…tactile naturalism [that] provided a psychological armature that stabilized the spirit,” and that “positioned the body—and more importantly the subject—as the proper focus in the Man-Machine amalgam” (Weems 47). In short, the splints were light, strong and difficult to identify as prosthetics. This “collaboration” with the human form was the first of a lifetime of human-centered designs.

Weems goes on to explore how this “human-centered” ethos carried over into the Eames’ other projects, notably their chairs, which they adapted to the needs of the “weary body” (47). In “Charles and Ray Eames,” Esther McCoy remarks that, “Most of the Eames furniture came out of needs we did not know we had” (25). Brown, too, discusses the need for “human-centered design:” he asks design thinkers to identify the unspoken, unrecognized needs of actual human beings, by watching for how they create “workarounds” for the products that don’t work right (39). People can’t voice needs they don’t know they have, he says, and thus these needs can be gleaned only by careful observation (Brown 43). The Eames clearly employed this technique, and after months (and sometimes years) of collaborative ideation, the resulting furniture they  created balanced the requirements of the human body with the aesthetic and financial demands of the modern world. And this ability to balance, says Brown, is the keystone of “Design Thinking” (18).

In her article “Living Images: Charles and Ray Eames ‘At Home,’” Rachel Stevenson remarks that because the Eames’ chairs were made to be mass-produced and affordable, “they went on to be purchased in extraordinary numbers by offices, schools, and universities, pervading American culture and beyond” (36). The Eames became synonymous with utopian social values because they privileged humanity over fame and profits. Stevenson discusses the humility that Charles and Ray Eames evinced in their corporate philosophy, which signified another departure from prevailing ideas about art and industry. The couple moved the hero-architect image away from Ayn Randian grandiosity, the “larger-than-life figure toward whom an awed admiration seems to be the demanded response” (Stevenson 32), toward a more intimate, humble, and cooperative relationship between designers, their creations, and their audience. Stevenson uses as the exemplar a photograph of the Eames’ in their Case Study House #8, a project commissioned by ­­­Arts and Architecture Magazine to create a post-war solution to housing shortages. The couple, seated comfortably on the floor, inhabit the space and invite other actual humans to envision themselves in the space with them. Says Stevenson:

In this [photograph] the presence of Charles and Ray Eames is clearly compelling, but it is not distracting. In fact, they seem essential to the shot. Their image becomes caught up with that of the house, and it becomes difficult to separate the image of the house from the image of its inhabitants” (35).

case study 2.jpg

Once again, the couple places the human being in the center of the equation, moving away from the tradition of portraying buildings and design elements as “objects of art,” which exist, in photography and advertising, as almost Platonic ideals, without the sullying effects of human activity. By making humans as important as (or more important than) their objects, the Eames’s were responsible for “moving modern architecture into the public domain” (Stevenson 36), an idealistic endeavor, and yet more proof that “The Eameses were on a moral campaign to improve the world through good design” (Stevenson 37). Stevenson goes on to elaborate on the way the Eames’s saw their own fame, and its relationship to their creations—the objects that we surround ourselves with, and which are designed to fit seamlessly into our everyday lives:

The Eames’s fame is not a fame of personal aggrandizement that aims to lift the artist above others to a position of unique isolation. Instead, the vehicles by which their fame travels… are everyday things with which it is easy to identify. A lifestyle is projected that offers a domestic aesthetic in which ordinary objects are elevated and given worth through personal creativity and choice. Living is placed at the center of architecture (Stevenson 41).

For the first time, the Eames’ created beautiful things for everyone to enjoy. They made human-scale artifacts, but harnessed technology in the form of mass factory production to make these artifacts widely available. They often employed the aesthetic of machines. As McCoy notes, “Much of the Eames imagery is from the archives of American machinery or from standard catalogues of machine parts… Their appeal is in the mixture of familiarity and surprise” (29). The Eames’ wed the needs of the human with the beauty of the technological age.

eames 7.jpg

The Eames’s humility was manifest in all their design practices, not just their products. In an interview with Owen Gingerich in 1977, Charles Eames discusses his reasons for deciding not to patent his products. He draws on the Bhagavad Gita for his inspiration: “Work done with anxiety about results is far inferior to work done in the calm of self-surrender” (328). Because some things are not patentable, he says, the projects they developed early on, when they still took out patents, tended to be designed to maximize patent profits. This, Charles remarks, hampered creativity. Gingerich seems alarmed at the Eames’s refusal to patent, but Eames’ response is

surprising. He remarks that “each time a copy appeared, the sales of the original went up” (328), and, when pressed about his feelings about industrial plagiarism, he cited an even more striking surrender to the philosophy of design collaboration: “You don’t mind if someone carries out your idea further in a better way” (Eames 329). His collaborators, in other words, are all people willing to improve on his design. It’s a magnanimous collaborator who “surrenders” his own ideas to the whole world. And it’s why there are so many Eames products and knock-offs, both good and bad, that flood the market. Eames is truly a household name, because the Eames’ made a product literally anyone can acquire, even if it’s not an original.

As collaborators, the two were inseparable and ever-respectful of one another. Charles was fond of saying “Any I can do Ray can do better,” remarks Martin Coomer in “Charles and Ray Eames: Four Things You Didn't Know About the World's Best Design Pair,” and, as Pat Kirkham notes in “Introducing Ray Eames,” “the interchange of idea between these two enormously talented individuals is particularly difficult to chart because their personal and design relationship was so close” (132), and, by mutual agreement, “They only ever took on jobs which they felt were morally worthy” (Kirkham 134). Moreover, they each contributed a unique skillset to their partnership, which is apparent in their work: Ray was an abstract expressionist artist, and Charles was an architect by training (Kirkham 134). They combined their talents and designed together as a harmonious couple for decades, and their personal harmony can be seen in the harmonious lines of their products. A good design partnership, Brown reminds us, can push individuals to be better than they are alone.

Charles and Ray Eames exemplify “design thinking,” in that they created enough space and time to experiment and prototype; they balanced their products’ desirability with its viability and feasibility, producing work that was beautiful, useful, affordable, and iconic; they willingly embraced restrictions, because, after all, “Without constraints design cannot happen” (Brown, 17); and they did all this together, as a team—all at a time when women weren’t on equal footing with men. They inspired Tim Brown to develop his novel way of approaching collaborative design, and inspired a whole new culture of aesthetic solutions to challenges faced by the modern world.

“Eames” deserves its status as a household name.

Cited Sources

Brown, Tim. Change by Design. New York: Harper Collins. 2009. Print.

Coomer, Martin. “Charles and Ray Eames: Four Things You Didn't Know About the World's Best Design Pair.” Timeout London. Oct 16 2015. Web.

Eames, Charles. “A Conversation with Charles Eames.” Interview with Owen Gingerich. The American Scholar Vol. 46, No. 3. (Summer 1977). 326-337. Print.

Kirkham, Pat. “Introducing Ray Eames.Furniture History Vol 26. (1990). 132-141. Print.

McCoy, Esther. “Charles and Ray Eames.” Design Quarterly No. 98-99. (1975). 20-29. Print.

Stevenson, Rachel. “Living Images: Charles and Ray Eames ‘At Home.’Perspecta Vol 30. (2005). 32-41. Print.

Weems, Jason. “War Furniture: Charles and Ray Eames Design for the Wounded Body.” A Journal of California Vol. 2 No. 1. (Spring 2012). 46-48. Print.