Ray Eames (December 15, 1912-August 1988) is best known for her personal and artistic collaboration with Charles Eames, and together, their innovative designs shaped the course of modernism. Although Charles often gave the firm its public face (particularly in the male-oriented world of mid-century design), the two designers are almost always discussed as a couple and every project that their office pursued was in fact a team effort. When asked about any particular piece of furniture, for example, Ray always maintained that she contributed to the details of the design in a “million ways” and considered the overall form of each project in a critical fashion, emphasizing the collaborative nature of not just their partnership, but their entire office.
Nicknamed Ray-Ray by her family, Bernice Alexandra Kaiser was born in Sacramento, California. Her artistic talent was recognizable from a young age, so after high school Ray left California to study in New York City with German Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann. She then went on to study at the Art Academy in Cranbrook, Michigan, where Charles Eames was one of her teachers. Charles divorced his first wife and married Ray in 1941, and the two moved to Southern California where they opened their famous design firm.
Their firm worked on a diverse array of projects, with designs for exhibitions, furniture, houses, monuments, and toys. Together they developed manufacturing processes to take advantage of new materials and technology, aiming to produce high quality everyday objects at a reasonable cost. Many of their furniture designs are considered contemporary classics, particularly the Eames Lounge & Shell Chairs, while the Eames House is a seminal work of architectural modernism. Together they also produced over 80 experimental films that showcased many of their philosophies on design.
In the early years of their collaboration, Ray spent much of her time painting and designing textiles and title illustrations for “Art and Architecture” journal, but she shifted her focus after 1947 to concentrate on expanding the work of their design studio. They initially supplied the American Navy with leg splints and stretchers during World War II, and following the war they took what they had learned about molded plywood and applied it to their groundbreaking furniture designs. Their furniture made of cast aluminum, fiberglass-reinforced plastic, wire mesh, and molded plywood was distributed by Herman Miller and brought their studio international acclaim. As early as 1945 the couple became successful enough to design and build the Eames House, the work they are most known for in the architectural realm.
By the 1970s Ray’s role in their design studio had become increasingly public, with feminist art critics drawing particular attention to her contributions to the design duo. Her specific role in many of their projects can be difficult to determine, but the “Time-Life chair” is often attributed specifically to her. She is also lauded for her obsessive attention to details as well as her holistic approach to furniture design. After Charles’ sudden death in 1978, their office was closed and Ray dedicated all of her time to organizing and archiving their lifetime body of work in addition to collaborating on numerous books about their design studio. Interestingly enough, Ray passed away on the same day as Charles exactly ten years later, but the significance of Eames Design lives on to this day.
Some of the following videos were produced by the Eames themselves and include HOUSE (a tour of their home), Powers of Ten (their 1977 exploration of the universe’s magnitudes), this 1956 clip of the pair’s first TV appearance, a video of the construction of the Shell Chair and, at the Vitra Campus, the Eames Lounge, the TED Talk delivered by the pair’s grandson, and the trailer to The Architect & The Painter (the must-watch documentary on the pair’s lives).
Films by Charles & Ray Eames
Manufacturing the Chairs
The Power Couple