Design by Charles and Ray Eames

The name Eames is synonymous with early modern chair design, but duo Charles and Ray Eames also designed architecture and other artifacts for mass production.

Design aficionados are accustomed to buying objects for the sake of owning a particular style or brand. The idea of owning objects merely for their utilitarian value is foreign. High on most consumers’ list of contemporary must-have design would be an Eames chair.

Charles and Ray Eames, the husband and wife behind the chair, began their practice with the goal of making beautiful, well-designed, mass-produced modern objects for Everyman. Designing in the period after WWII, they hoped to contribute to an environment ripe for social change. The last thing on their minds was creating a luxury brand.

The Eames developed moulded plywood furniture as a way of mass producing affordable design. Their personal residence, now The Eames Office, reflected a similar goal.

Postwar Housing and the Case Study House Program

Commissioned as part of Arts & Architecture magazine’s Case Study House program, the Eames house (1945-49) aimed for a lofty goal: to serve as an example of low-cost, pre-fabricated construction using a kit of parts.

With the return of GI’s after the war, a housing boom was anticipated. The Case Study House program envisioned good design being married with mass production to meet the coming demand.

The initial design for the Eames house was created by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen in 1945. The edifice was designed to accommodate living and studio space for a working couple with grown children. This first design was known as the Bridge House.

Construction of the steel structure was delayed by a materials shortage following the war. In the intervening years, the Eames realized the Bridge House did not do justice to the site. When the kit of parts was finally delivered in 1948, Ray and Charles reconfigured the design.

As Eames Demetrios explains in his book, An Eames Primer, the Eames wanted to respect the site’s meadow and to deploy materials more efficiently. In a tight, two-month timeframe, the couple reworked the original design.

The 2500 square foot house is composed of two connected structures, built on a modular bay of about 7.5 feet (2.3 metres). The house, at 1500 square feet, is eight bays and the studio is five bays, with a patio in between of four bays.

The last-minute changes to the design necessitated the purchase of only one more steel beam. When the house was finally constructed 1948-49, it went up in a few months, with the steel frame being erected in a day and a half.

A Legacy of Great Design

In 1957, the Eames designed a prototype house for Kwikset Lock Company. The Kwikset House was designed to encourage owners to customize the basic kit of parts to their own needs. When Kwikset Lock was sold, the project never went into production.

Ironically, most suburban development over the last 60 years has eschewed pre-fabrication in favour of more traditional construction techniques, for products that are different in only minor respects.

Notwithstanding the preferences of the development industry, the Eamses’ practice remains a source of inspiration for contemporary architects and industrial designers. Most of this recent design caters to more generous pocketbooks, not the Everyman envisioned by the Eames. The Duchess County Guest House by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture offers a stunning example of modular steel construction and integration with a natural setting.

The philosophy of the Eames, to combine a beautiful aesthetic with functionality, has not been lost. As designers recognize that sustainable living calls for smaller houses and more efficient use of materials, the Eames legacy is enjoying closer attention.