Nº 275

The Power of Design
Ray and Charles Eames

Text: Jörg Stürzebecher

Translation: Nicholas Grindell

Like almost every history, the history of design is male-dominated. This is clear even when looking at design couples, from Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova, to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, to Lucienne and Robin Day or Alison and Peter Smithson, not forgetting the special case of Otl Aicher and Inge Aicher-Scholl, who split into design and administration.

Enthroned over them all, like Zeus and Hera, sits the design couple Charles and Ray Eames, to whom the Vitra Design Museum has now devoted a four-part show. One should plan at least two days for the visit, as the film section alone, housed in Zaha Hadid’s former fire station, fills eight hours. There are prototypes at the Schaudepot, a hands-on exhibition for children, and finally the main show, “The Power of Design”, at Gehry’s museum building.


The latter is an expanded and modified version of the 2015 Eames show at London’s Barbican Art Gallery. From the outset, it becomes clear how unusually this couple lived and worked, although not necessarily on equal terms. This part of the overall show begins with several little-known drawings, magazine covers, and organic sculptures made from 1940 by Ray Kaiser (born 1912); work from the same time or earlier by Charles Eames (who was five years older) does not feature. The reason for this is not mentioned, but previous descriptions of the Eameses life and work, and the “Eames Furniture Sourcebook” published to coincide with the show (not a catalogue!) offer clues. Before he met Ray, Charles may have been someone with ideas, a good teacher, and perhaps a good technical all-rounder, but as a draftsman or architect he was primarily conventional, at best moderately modern(ist). It was only working with Ray, who took his name after they got married in June 1941, that freed up the potential that made them ideal types: designers in whose work coherent combinations of form, colour, material, and technique lead to function as something that feels natural in buildings, devices, and information. As the Eameses understood it, function went far beyond a Taylorist maximisation of utilitarian value, as reflected in the solar-powered Do-Nothing Machine (1957), to include pleasure in seemingly purposeless but in fact fulfilling play. One example of this playful approach to functional precision is the narrow recliner La Chaise, suggested by film director Billy Wilder, a friend of the couple. The aim was to design a piece of furniture for short breaks that would not be associated with the (currently much discussed) Hollywood casting couch. The result allows one person to lie down with their hands folded on their stomach, the arms eventually falling down and thereby waking the sleeper.


Play inspired many Eames designs: the elements of their House of Cards whose punched out areas allow them to be combined in many ways, their spinning tops, and kites, and construction kits as well as their films like “Toccata for Toy Trains” (1957). But play also always risks becoming a gimmick, a fact that also the Eameses couldn’t escape, as reflected in the unsettled floor construction of the prototype of the Wire sofa (1951) and in the Eiffel Tower leg construction of the wire chairs designed around the same time, whose playfulness is especially evident when compared with the legs of the wire furniture designed slightly later by Harry Bertoia.


It is also worth mentioning here that Eames office staff – including Bertoia – are rarely named. It is well known that this non-naming was a rule of the office, and that it led to the departure not least of Don Albinson, but the omission of these details is intended in a spirit of family harmony. This exhibition is not supposed to compare or analyse, and certainly not to criticise. Instead, almost forty years after Charles’s death and almost thirty years after that of Ray Eames, the exhibition celebrates a life’s work, doing so without disruptions – hence, the beautiful model of the Eames house, with no mention of the fact that it is in permanent need of repairs. But there are riches to discover here. The first room of the exhibition, for example, contains a reconstruction of the model room from “An Exhibition for Modern Living” (1949) based on a drawing by Ray Eames. The full-scale model makes something clear that is easily missed in the drawing, namely that the side walls present two ordering principles, with stowing away on the right and hanging up on the left: stowing hides, hanging shows. Hanging here is based on a pattern of short rods punctuating the wall at regular intervals, anticipating both the works of the Zero movement a decade later and the radical simplicity of the Hang It All coatrack (1953). In this and other rooms, differences, meaning details like the famous shock mounts, are cleverly shown in their development, showcasing the diversity of the couple’s oeuvre – architecture and furniture, exhibition design and films, typography and theory. Then, almost at the end of the exhibition, something strange happens: whereas the whole show stressed that Charles and Ray Eames can only be conceived together (a view they promoted themselves with arrangements and staged photographs), a 1956 feature on the Eames Lounge Chair on the US television programme Home shows a smart female presenter who lets Charles speak, then summons Ray, who appears from the wings, says little, smiles all the time, then hands back to Charles, who announces a film about the Lounge Chair: an Eames employee assembles a chair, sits down casually, a female doll glides by like a robot, and a woman briefly sits at the man’s feet. Here, it is at last, not the lived utopia of the Eamesian living and working environment, but the Doris Day America of the 1950s, the period of the couple’s most important designs. And right at the end of the show we hear Charles – and only him – answering questions on design philosophy.


Despite this, and even in the knowledge that far more than two people were involved, the quantity and quality of the work on show here is intimidating, causing pleasure to slip into frustration. So, one leaves the exhibition, maybe buys a book or an Eames spinning top, hopefully not some domestic horror like the Elephant mouse pad, and then outside, takes the bus back to Weil/Rhine or Basle. But even here the Eameses don’t let go, as the bus stop, too, is fitted with Eames wire seats. When one breathes a final sight of relief, there is still a touch of melancholy, but also a measure of longing.


The exhibitions at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil/Rhine run until 25 February 2018; the exhibition for children “Play Parade” and the film screenings at the former fire station are free of charge. The extensive programme of events can be viewed on the museum’s website and the accompanying book can be purchased for 49.90 euros.

Jörg Stürzebecher is a writer and lecturer. He has written, among others, about the designers Max Burchartz, Richard Paul Lohse and Anton Stankowski. He lives in Frankfurt/Main. He last wrote for form in issue 273, where he presented the design history of Canada.


Nº 281
Design and Archives

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