A molded-plywood sculpture by Ray Eames, 1943.
For years, a street named “Charles Eames” has run through the heart of the German campus of Vitra, the manufacturer that owns European rights to furniture designed by the Office of Charles and Ray Eames. But last Friday, standing on a ladder, Eames Demetrios, the couple’s grandson, unveiled a sign for a street dedicated to Ray when he pulled off a sock made in a gridded fabric of her design. The ceremony and press conference celebrated Ray’s 100th birthday, but the new Ray Eames Strasse also marked a high-profile step in the growing recognition of her contributions as a painter who brought a highly trained artist’s eye to the partnership that changed 20th century design history. She was a pro.
We’ve heard the lament before: the charismatic male lead in a design partnership got all the credit. A recent book by Marilyn and John Neuhart, The Story of Eames Furniture, sadly and erroneously strips Ray of credit, only perpetuating the prejudice against the female half of a partnership of equal talents. The received assumption, perpetuated by the book, condescendingly stereotypes her role to that of the “little lady” behind the “great man,” effectively relegating her talents to having a “knack” for color and form. Good at pink.
At the press conference, Fehlbaum, who remains a faithful supporter of Eames designs even as he champions new talents, supported Ray’s claim to design credit with an incontrovertible piece of evidence, which he conspicuously placed at the front of the press conference, like a diamond broach too big and brilliant to miss. Standing near the speakers’ platform, encased in plexiglass, was one of the plywood sculptures that Ray had shaped, with Charles. In Los Angeles during the War, like other inventors of the time experimenting with plywood, he developed the technology for bending the laminated wood into compound curves, and she carved what had been flat sheets into beguiling pretzels of form weaving in and out of the surrounding space. She locked form and space into space-form.
The couple did not consider the highly sculptural piece “art,” but a test in bending wood into the curviplanar shapes that would inform their organic chairs. The rare experimental "sculpture" (pictured), which the eagle-eyed Fehlbaum recently scooped up at auction, contains the DNA that would inform a generation of chairs that came out of the Eames Office. Architecture historian Esther McCoy called the DCM, a direct descendent of the sculpture, “the chair of the century.”
The key to unlocking the facts of what Ray knew, when she knew it, and what she brought to the partnership lies among the mountain of papers and artifacts she left to the Library of Congress, in what is affectionately called “Ray’s trunk.” McCoy called Ray a “sublime packrat,” and during the 1930s Ray swam in the heady artistic waters in and around Manhattan, when she studied at the avant-garde Bennett School and enrolled in courses taught by Hans Hoffman. She was exposed to the tense, dense and rich artistic milieu in which European modernism confronted American realism during the furious debates of the time.
From Hoffman, she learned how to paint abstract forms that activate space around them in what he famously called the “push and pull” that spatialized two-dimensional canvases. Just as Kandinsky, Klee and Feininger informed the design process at the Bauhaus, where art was used to elevate the quality of utilitarian products, Ray acted as the artistic conscience of the office, importing the rigorous training she received with Hoffman to the design studio. At the Eames Office, the goal was the same as at the Bauhaus: to bring good design informed by both artistic principles and advances in technology to the masses. Life would be better for everyone. Any scholar who attempts to understand Eames furniture without diving into Ray’s Trunk misses a fountainhead of influences that informed the everyday workings of the office, especially during its early post-War period. Not only is Ray shortchanged, but the furniture’s roots in Modernist traditions of European abstraction are inadequately acknowledged.
Ray was not just the little lady with a knack for color and form. She was highly trained in a way that brought spatial richness to furniture that floated in spaces that its forms activated. The chairs no longer belonged to the wall but fluttered into the room. When Charles first met Ray after she completed her studies in New York, he not only married her. He hired her. As she signed onto his enterprise, she also hired him: her expertise found an unexpected canvas.
It was a partnership of equal talents in different spheres of complementary expertise. As one observer of the time noted, “Charles could not have been Charles without Ray.” Thanks to Fehlbaum and a growing body of research, the reciprocal argument holds: Ray would not have been Ray without Charles. As Fehlbaum noted during the press conference, acknowledging Ray’s contributions does not diminish Charles's role. The process is one of addition rather than subtraction in one of the most productive design equations of talents of the 20th century.