D&T2: Eames – The Architect and the Painter

This week we watched the 2011 documentary about the careers of the famous husband and wife design duo, Charles and Ray Eames. Despite neither being an outright designer, the Eameses have had a huge impact on modern day design and are regarded still as some of the most influential designers of the 20th century.

As described in the documentary, the couples first major project together was the Eames Chair. Initially Charles’ project, he set out to design a chair that could be mass-produced and affordable. The first chair created in collaboration with Eero Saarien, was made from moulded plywood and won the first prize at MoMA’s Organic Design competition in 1940. Despite getting this accolade, the chair was not actually able to be physically made as a mass-produced chair. The project was scrapped and not until Charles (and Ray at this point) had gained further experience using moulded plywood for manufacturing splints for the war effort, were they able to design what they had set out to achieve. A quote that resonates with me from the documentary is that ‘design must flow from the learning’. You learn by doing (and failing), and from looking at the Eameses careers, it is clear that physically doing, whether it be making something, photographing something or dismantling something for example, was essential in building their success. The office that they worked in for years of their lives was full to the brim of stuff and on-going projects. At one point in the documentary, Eames said ‘do not delegate learning’, which displays the importance that he believes learning has on the design process.

Part of the documentary that intrigued me was the relationship between Charles Eames and those that worked in his office. There are a number of people that worked with Eames over his career that have seemingly received no credit for their contributions. These designers for the most part seemed pretty happy with slapping Charles Eames’ name on their work, but to me it seems like they were being exploited slightly. They regarded him as a master and a mentor and seemed lucky just to be accepted into his workplace (I think many were not), but I think I would be challenged by the prospect of not gaining any recognition for my work. However, without being in that inner circle it is difficult to comment on the intricacies of their relationships.

Charles and Ray worked in close proximity on their designs

The other relationship of note was that between the Eameses themselves. It is clear that Charles was the boss, however the documentary made it very clear that Ray was critical to his success. Ray brought flamboyance and artistic genius to the couples work. Charles was able to recognise his limitations, and recognise her talents and harness them accordingly. An example of this is the use of colour, which Charles was almost completely reliant on Ray for. This is a reminder that however talented or experienced you might be as a designer, as clearly Charles was both of these, there is always opportunity for an outside opinion, which is very likely to add a new insight or addition to your work.

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