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Designer Spotlight: Ray Eames

Dwell features Eames furniture often, and it can be all too easy to see Charles and Ray Eames as an indivisible unit: they worked together, dressed similarly, and by all accounts had a perfectly happy marriage. But, it is important to recognize both of them as independent minds and partners, here Dwell turns the spotlight on Ray.

 

Charles and Ray Eames.

Charles and Ray Eames were true collaborators. Photo from Herman Miller.

Ray Eames was born in California and later moved to New York to study painting under Hans Hoffman. From there, she moved to Cranbook, Michigan, where she met Charles, fell in love, and married. At this point, despite her sharp design mind, in the eyes of some, Ray nearly disappeared under Charles’s “shadow.” 

According to Beatriz Colomina, in her essay “With, or Without You: The Ghosts of Modern Architecture,” even though Charles and Ray Eames were revolutionary by including her name in the brand as an equal partner, Ray didn’t always receive her fair share of credit. An editor from the New York Times once erased Ray’s name from an article on the Eameses, despite protests from the writer, Esther McCoy. McCoy was outraged, and wrote Ray an apology letter outlining her frustrations over the omission (and the editor’s insistence on calling the Eames lounge a casting couch), “This is sheer nonsense; the broad audience isn’t titillated by the phrase casting couch nor does it object to a woman being credited for work,” she wrote.
 
When MoMA held its first exhibition of their work, they referred to it as a “one-man” show—New Furniture Designed by Charles Eames—despite Ray and other members of the Eames’s office contributions (many of whom resigned as a result). Four years later when MoMA featured them again, they still declined to credit Ray’s work, despite the many photographs of her installing the exhibition. Repeatedly, publications referred to Ray as an assistant or dropped her name altogether, something that frustrated Charles.
 
According to the Eames Office, in 1952 Charles described their collaboration in a speech to the AIA like this: 
 
“My wife is a painter, and a very good one... and we’ve been working together for, oh, twelve years now, I guess... and at first I used to help and criticize things she was doing, and then she would help and criticize things I was doing, and we would … pitch in and do all the jiggering for each other and get it as people do...and then, gradually, things began to get shuffled, and pretty soon you didn’t know, sort of, where one started and the other ended, and anything that we’ve looked at or talked about here, you know, I say that I’m doing it, but actually, she’s doing it just as much as I am.” 
 
Like any true collaboration, it can often be difficult to separate which idea came from which brain. But it is precisely each person working as an individual that makes these couplings work, not the dissolution of two people into a mono-blob. 
 
We can most likely credit Ray for the Eames’ sense of playfulness. From lining the inside of her crisp jackets with purple polka dots, to handing out paper hearts to all who entered her home, it is difficult to find a recollection or photo without Ray’s cheery smile permeating through. Her background in painting and her excellent color sense undoubtedly benefitted the company’s design sensibility immensely. Of course, Ray also benefitted Charles’s famous style… After all, she designed his bow tie.

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