The woman behind the chairs

The Eameses revolutionised modern design. So how exactly should credit be allocated in this husband-and-wife team?
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The Independent Culture
Bumper-sticker aficionados may recall a particularly tart example, popular with Midwestern Republicans circa 1992: "Impeach Clinton (and her husband)". The joke was on our gender expectations: if a generic surname is up for grabs in a marriage, then it is the husband who automatically gets it. For the Design Museum's lastest offering - "The Work of Charles and Ray Eames" - the merchandisers may yet hit upon the idea of bumper- stickers as take-home trophies for punters.

In design circles, the name "Eames" is more or less inseparable from the word "chair". Between 1945-55, the Eames Office in Los Angeles produced a range of seating systems which - in the words of the Washington Post - "changed the way the 20th century sat down." This claim may be mildly hyperbolic, but not unforgivably so. In essence, the Eames chair introduced to the American psyche the idea of mass- production chic. The Eames Office - its products made of bent plywood or wire mesh, with such parodically utilitarian names as "DCM" (Dining Chair Metal) and "DCW" (Dining Chair Wood) - was able to harness America's post-war craving for technocratic newness to its spending power. The wistful admiration of Fifties' Europe for all things American meant that the trademark "organic" designs appeared in magazines like Domus, then in the fleshy curves of things like Gio Ponti's coffee machines.

But this fortunate timing does little to explain the lasting appeal of Eames furniture. More than half a century after the DCM first saw the spindly light of day, the chair remains in regular production; originals change hands for thousands of pounds. Another Eames piece - the Lounge Chair and Ottoman of 1956 - has netted its makers more than $100m. Proof of the immortal nature of Eames chic is on display in Waterloo's new international terminal; at the express command of its architect, Nicholas Grimshaw, the Eurostar waiting room is kitted out with row upon aluminium row of Eames Tandem Seating.

Explaining the apparently unstoppable nature of products like the DCM calls for a spot of deconstruction. The chair in question may be read in one of two ways. First, it is a piece of overt technology, a relic from the post-war cult of techno-optimism: the perverse bending of the DCM's plywood elements clearly suggests the triumph of technology over nature. (The Eames Office also designed plywood parts for aeroplanes.) Second, it is a piece of sculpture: an arrangement of linear planes and curves, tensely counterpoised in three dimensions.

The traditional way of reconciling this double act has been to split the genius behind it fifty-fifty, crediting Charles with the chair's technocratic elements, Ray with its decorative ones. This seemed sensible enough. Charles was a football star turned architect, the kind of man who was good with his hands; Ray was an artist whose work was heavily influenced by contemporary masters like Mir, Arp and Kandinsky. Look at the DCM chair on its pedestal in the Vitra Design Museum and its status as a piece of sculpture suddenly becomes clearer. It is a Calder stabile; the fact that it can be sat on seems almost coincidental. Arguably, the Eamesishness of the Eames chair lies with Ray's sculptural input rather than Charles's technologising.

Given this, the anomalous way in which history has treated Ray and Charles Eames may seem especially odd. In the index of any standard work of reference on the subject, listings for Charles outnumber those for Ray by a factor of 10 to one. When they were profiled on NBC's Today in 1956, Charles was introduced as the creator of the Eames Office; Ray was merely asked along as his helpmeet. Then it was Charles who was voted the world's most influential designer by the 1985 World Design Conference. Ray was allowed to attend the ceremony on his behalf - but then Charles had died seven years earlier. The US Library of Congress exhibition of their work - the same show that opens at the Design Museum this week - was entitled "The Work of Charles and Ray Eames", in that order.

This pro-Charles bias may seem faintly mysterious, but it is worth pointing out the precise nature of the Eameses' relationship. Ray was neither Charles's father, brother nor his son. She was his wife. The sexual ambiguity of her name is not without its ironies. (She was, for the record, baptised Bernice.) As Pat Kirkham notes in her excellent study. Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth-Century, the 1950s were a better decade for American consumerism than they were for American women. Ray Eames was a victim of the so-called "refeminisation" of women after a war in which they had been encouraged to do such hermetically masculine things as work in factories and make furniture. (Her own plywood sculptures grew out of work on lightweight splints for the US Army: their influence on the organic forms of the "Eames Look" is inarguable.)

Ray Eames was not the first wife to be unjustly overshadowed by her designing husband, but her exclusion seems particularly cruel. First, because the work of the Eames Office was in all other respects idealistic: forward- looking, rational, democratising. And, second, because the most iconically Eamesish qualities owe rather more to Ray.

This is not just to do with the way they look. Although one contemporary (female) critic suggested that "the prettiness of our lives now [is attributable] to Ray even more than to Charles," she only got half the point. Prettiness remained within the realm of the feminine; Ray's work for the Eames Office stepped smartly outside it.

While Charles worked on the MGM studio lot to make ends meet during the early 1940s, his wife was at home experimenting with plywood moulding systems. The specific technology that would allow the manufacture of, first, a suite of children's furniture, and then, the prototype DCM and Plywood Lounge chairs, was perfected not by the football-playing Charles Eames, but by his pretty little wife.

And what became of that pretty little wife? Ray outlived Charles by exactly 10 years. As in life, her posthumous reputation remains overshadowed by his. Although the Design Museum's exhibition is unusual in allowing Ray as much coverage as it does, the show's publicity material cites Charles's appreciation of her as a justification for doing so: "She has a very good sense of what gives a ... piece of sculpture its character ... She can see when there is a wrong mix of ideas." Ray's career as a fine artist and co-founder of the American Abstract Artists Group is alluded to and her likely influence on the Eames organic look hinted at. But the gender divide is somehow allowed to stand nonetheless. As you walk around the show, imagine how different things might have been had it been titled "The Work of Ray and Charles Eames". It would certainly have made for a snappier bumper sticker.

`The Work of Charles and Ray Eames': Design Museum, SE1 (0171 378 6055), Tues to 4 January 1999.