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Legendary Designer Charles Eames on Creativity, the Value of the Arts in Education, and His Advice to Students

“There is always a need for anyone that can do a simple job thoroughly.”

“If you examine this furniture,” observed a 1946 profile of legendary design duo Charles and Ray Eames, “you will find sincerity, honesty, conviction, affection, imagination, and humor.” Alongside this exuberant emotional dimensionality you will also find a dimensional approach to design itself — a fusion of science, technology, art, and philosophy, evident in everything from their iconic furniture to their clever educational films to, even, the handwritten love letter with which Charles proposed to Ray. Long before the acronym STEM came into popular use in contemporary education to connote the academic quartet of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and even longer before advocates of the indelible value of the arts motioned to revise the acronym to STEAM, the Eames ethos implicitly embodied these very values. Nowhere do they come to life more vibrantly than in An Eames Anthology: Articles, Film Scripts, Interviews, Letters, Notes, and Speeches (public library) — a rigorously researched, lovingly compiled treasure by Eames scholar Daniel Ostroff in collaboration with the Eames Office.

Charles and Ray Eames
(Copyright Eames Office)

In the introduction, Ostroff notes the duo’s singular approach to design and its wider cultural ripples:

In addition to all of the “good goods” that they produced, the Eameses were prolific as educators, making many important contributions to the world of ideas.

Underlying all of their work is the principle that design should not be an act of creative self-expression but rather a process of problem solving.

Although the Eameses were — and continue to be — educators primarily by example, they occasionally addressed the question of education explicitly. In a 1957 interview for the National Art Education Association Convention, Charles (June 17, 1907–August 21, 1978) makes a passionate case for the importance of the arts in education — a sentiment of growing urgency today, when funding for the arts in public education continues to dwindle:

It would never occur to me to consider art as a subject apart from any other in the curriculum. Art education increases in value to the degree that it is related to the whole academic picture. I see art education as a kind of thing that threads its way through every facet of academic work.

When asked about what he thinks would improve the state of art education, Eames responds:

First, better teachers. This involves better teacher training, better teacher preparation, higher salaries, better professional standing resulting in greater community respect. Secondly, a genuine rapport between all areas of learning.

Two years later, he revisits the responsibility of art education and educators in his correspondence with Richard Hoptner, a poet
and sculptor who taught industrial arts in Philadelphia’s public schools and who had written to Eames lamenting the insufficient understanding of the importance of design in secondary school. Eames responds in a letter from September of 1959:

I have a strong feeling that in the secondary school the role of the Fine Arts Department, and the Industrial Arts Department, is not to produce painters or designers, but rather to act in the role of a conscience with discipline to counteract the general tendencies to specialize, point up, develop, and capitalize the relationships of the various disciplines, and to be the constant watchdog of quality at all levels.

Addressing Hopster’s specific concern about “the incubation of self-propelled copycats,” Eames echoes the notion that all creative work builds on what came before and extols the larger significance of mastering the problem-solving process as the true conduit of creativity:

Much can be said for and against copycatting, but one thing certain — it is not bad to become familiar with the circumstances surrounding the creation of good things in the past — recent and distant.


Creative inventiveness I would put quite low on my list of ambitions for the student. I would be more than happy if he only ended up being able to distinguish the prime or basic objectives of a problem from the superficial or apparent objectives. If he knows the real objective and a few possible landmarks, then inventiveness will take care of itself, and he need never hear the word “creativity.”

Charles in his studio at the Eames House
(Photograph by Monique Jacot copyright Vitra AG)

But concerned as he was with the responsibilities of the education system in nurturing the creative spirit, Eames was even more invested in the responsibilities of students. Under the heading “Advice to students,” his notes for a 1949 talk at UCLA read:

Make a list of books
Develop a curiosity
Look at things as though for the first time Think of things in relation to each other
Always think of the next larger thing
Avoid the “pat” answer — the formula
Avoid the preconceived idea
Study well objects made past recent and ancient but never without the technological
and social conditions responsible
Prepare yourself to search out the true need — physical, psychological
Prepare yourself to intelligently fill that need
The art is not something you apply to your work
The art is the way you do your work, a result of your attitude toward it

Design is a full time job
It is the way you look at politics, funny papers, listen to music, raise children
Art is not a thing in a vacuum —
  No personal signature
  Economy of material
  Avoid the contrived

Apprentice system and why it is impractical for them
No office wants to add another prima donna to its staff
No office is looking for a great creative genius
No office — or at least very few — can train employees from scratch

There is always a need for anyone that can do a simple job thoroughly

There are things you can do to prepare yourself — to be desirable
  orderly work habits
  ability to bring any job to a conclusion
  drawing feasibility
  a presentation that “reads” well
  willingness to do outside work and study on a problem…

Primitive spear is not the work of an individual nor is a good tool or utensil.

To be a good designer you must be a good engineer in every sense: curious, inquisitive.

I am interested in course because I have great faith in the engineer, but to those who are serious (avoid putting on art hat) Boulder Dam all’s great not due engineer
By the nature of his problems the engineer has high percentage of known factors relatively little left to intuition
(the chemical engineer asking if he should call in Sulphur)

Charles and Ray in the Eames House living room, 1960
(Photograph by Monique Jacot copyright Vitra AG)

Twelve years later, he set down his advice to students in a less fragmentary form when the mother of an aspiring furniture designer wrote to Eames hoping for some words of wisdom to her son. Responding to this stranger — the very act bespeaking Eames’s enormous generosity of spirit — he writes in a letter from March of 1961:

Dear Mrs. Tornheim:

I wish I could answer your questions by suggesting a design school so perfect that it would take care of everything. It is not as simple as that, but here are a few suggestions. If he is really interested in design, there is no particular need in rushing into specialized design education. Looking, reading, drawing, and drawing, and drawing, and working in the summer if he can.

There are certain things, however, that he can only get in school. Physics is perhaps on the top of the list, then mathematics — especially the geometries. English literature and composition, then at least one foreign language — French, German, or Russian. If he does take any art courses, they should be in history and appreciation. He can paint if he wants to, but there is no point in wasting good school time doing it. Parallel to this education, he can develop the tools of his craft if he wants to. After this education, he can go to a design school and learn something about the specialties.

There are a thousand different ways to prepare oneself for a career in design. This may or may not be the one best suited to your son, but I hope it is of some little help.

Charles Eames

An Eames Anthology is a trove of timeless treasures in its entirety, exploring the influential duo’s trailblazing ideas on design, the deeper philosophies behind their iconic chairs, and the countless everyday credos, articulated in their letters and interviews and public talks, which converged in the making of their enduring genius. Complement it with Charles Eames’s most memorable aphorisms and this rare vintage Q&A the legendary designer, then revisit Werner Herzog’s advice to aspiring filmmakers and Cheryl Strayed’s advice to aspiring writers.

Published June 17, 2015




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