25 JANUARY, 2012
By: Maria Popova
“You will not grasp how this furniture came into being or what it really means unless you understand this also about Charles Eames.”
Charles and Ray Eames have pioneered modernist furniture, carved out a new way to think about design, and even changed our understanding of the scales of the universe. Appearing in the September 1946 issue of arts & architecture magazine is a fantastic profile of Charles Eames (PDF) by industrial designer and architect Eliot Noyes, most famous for the IBM Selectric typewriter. Noyes captures Eames’ sprit and vision with equal parts creative admiration, entrepreneurial appreciation, and astute observation of the deeper cultural resonance — with a special emphasis on the designer’s personal values of integrity and intuition (more on that) as the building blocks of his professional legacy.
There is no need to qualify the statement. Charles Eames has designed and produced the most important group of furniture ever developed in this country. His achievement is a compound of aesthetic brilliance and technical inventiveness. He has not only produced the finest chairs of modern design, but through borrowing, improvising, and inventing techniques, he has for the first time exploited the possibilities of mass production methods for the manufacture of furniture. With one stroke he has underlined the design decadence and technical obsolescence of Grand Rapids.
When you stop and try to analyze how he approached the problem, it sounds very easy and obvious. Whatever good modern furniture we have had in this country has always been expensive. Eames wanted to produce a good set of designs and ‘take them out of the carriage trade’ by designing them so that they could be economically in quantity and sold cheaply. This meant that he must be able to use the best ways of doing things that the 20th Century could offer. Naturally he wanted his furniture to be as comfortable and useful as possible, because he never forgot that he was making his designs for use. This very direct approach made it comparatively simple. He never worried much (as many designers do) about ‘what the public wants,’ or ‘what the public will accept,’ because he had a profound belief in the public, and the conviction that if they didn’t want or wouldn’t accept the furniture which he was designing for their use, the fault lay in his designs, not in the public. He knew very well the absurdity of trying to design to an assumed public taste. It is important to realize that the furniture is an expression of this direct approach; each piece is composed as much of the personal ingredients of Charles Eames as of wood and metal. If you examine this furniture, you will find sincerity, honesty, conviction, affection, imagination, and humor. You will not grasp how this furniture came into being or what it really means unless you understand this also about Charles Eames.”
For more on the Eames’ work and legacy, don’t miss the fantastic recent film Eames: The Architect and the Painter.