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Review by Glenn Adamson and Sarah Rich
Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century

Pat Kirkham. Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1995. x + 486 pp.; numerous color and bw illus., chronology, bibliography, index. $55.00.

If you live in America, it’s a safe bet that you’ve sat on a piece of Eames furniture. Most decorative arts scholars know the designs of Charles and Ray Eames intimately, and their status as landmark individuals in furniture history is taken for granted. The most renowned pieces, however, have also become the most commonplace examples of institutional furnishing—the 1946 DCW or “potato chip” chair in bent plywood and its metal-legged counterpart, the DCM; the 1955 stackable plastic side chair; the 1956 lounge chair and ottoman, a unique blend of the progressive and the luxurious; and the Tandem Sling airport seating of 1962. All pervade the American landscape, and we are all conscious of them to a greater or lesser degree as characteristic furniture of the postwar period. Most of us don’t realize, however, that we have also seen Eames films and perhaps visited an Eames exhibition. In her recent study, Pat Kirkham (formerly of DeMontfort University, Leicester, and currently at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts in New York City) addresses the whole panorama of Eames design in an even-handed treatment that emphasizes diversity and biographical backdrop and focuses more on process than on product.

Kirkham construes process broadly, and in many ways her book is a biography that focuses on Charles and Ray as a married couple as well as a design team. The book begins by comparing the respective childhoods of the two artists, in spite of the relative dearth of biographical information on Ray’s early life. Kirkham’s narrative assumes an almost affectionate tone, partially because she gleaned a good amount of her information from discussions with Ray herself. As a result, the Eameses as a couple undergo a metamorphosis in Kirkham’s book. Gone is the traditional vision of Charles as the mathematically inclined architect of design whose keen sense of corporate demand ensured his success in the financial, as well as aesthetic, domain. In its stead we get a personal picture of a fun-loving couple, whose creative energy could just as easily be expressed in the impromptu invention of Halloween masks as in the design of storage units. One never loses sight of the Eames collaboration as an interaction between soul mates of the most intimate and mutually encouraging variety. The Eameses’ “sense of fun” to which Kirkham repeatedly refers comes across in playful descriptions of studio debates, game playing, and Christmas cards designed by the couple. This image of a frolicsome, dynamic design duo palliates the Eameses’ reputation as the crafters of a design aesthetic for American big businesses. At times a bit too much confetti is thrown, and the “sense of fun,” for all its recreational ease, becomes an urgent mantra drowning out a less flattering story about Charles as the corporate design king. No matter how many times we read about his nice black Ford, chosen “only for beauty and good design, never for ostentation” (p. 61), it’s hard to forget the aura of wealth and good, old-fashioned capitalistic zeal that surrounded Eames production.

Kirkham’s study of “functioning decoration,” a phrase invented by the Eameses to describe their own novel use of imported and improvised knick-knackery, is also marked by an overgenerous handling of her subjects’ taste. Just what is meant by this seeming oxymoron is unclear, and in interpreting it Kirkham is ambitious rather than precise. For the Eameses, functioning decoration was a design strategy in which “objects were taken out of their usual contexts for visual effect” (p. 143). Their home was a pastiche of elements drawn from the realm of modern design and art, “the repertoire of white bourgeois taste” (p. 183), and a variety of traditional and touristic crafts idioms. They might juxtapose a Kandinsky painting, a run-of-the-mill glass candelabrum, and Native American basketwork, each element in the ensemble adding to the visual impact of the others.

Kirkham’s goal is to use the concept of “functioning decoration” to tie together the Eameses’ wide-ranging and often kitschy personal taste with their more high-minded design projects. To some extent, the connection is convincingly drawn, but the very flexibility of the idea inhibits its interpretive power. For instance, Kirkham’s account of the antecedents of the Eames house interior is very broad, touching upon nineteenth-century parlors, Victoriana, the arts and crafts movement, and “Mexicana” revivalism. Doubtless some or all of these historical moments may have influenced the Eameses, who apparently cared little for historical and geographical specificity. The vagaries of their decorating taste, however, are transported directly and uncritically into the book, duplicating their inconsistencies rather than dispelling them. In the process, Kirkham assumes a coherence that simply isn’t there. What exactly is the relationship between the Eameses’ obsession with masks, their insertion of whimsical elements into Herman Miller advertisements (like a ghostly image of Charles, sitting on the floor and proudly holding a fish up for inspection), their collection of Kachina dolls, and their commercial line of toys and children’s furniture? Despite Kirkham’s suggestion that “objects can and do carry and take on myriad meanings” (p. 175), such seemingly trivial manifestations of design are not rigorously analyzed. The inclusion of such diversity under the broad rubric of “functioning decoration” does little beyond emphasizing the diversity itself, without giving us insight into the underlying cultural assumptions behind the Eameses’ ideas about the decorative.

Kirkham’s biographical method is more effective when it is put at the service of one of the central projects of the book—the recuperation of Ray as an active participant in the Eames collaboration. There are a number of strategies Kirkham employs to this end. One of the most imaginative is an analysis of Ray’s characteristic style of dress. Her trademark A-line dresses and jumpers are read here as social texts. This outfit, which she wore into old age, becomes in Kirkham’s reading a site of negotiation where a woman in a male work environment could play with the signifiers of femininity to her own advantage. The denim and gingham fabrics favored by Ray connoted work, and the skirts were not so frilly or confining as to inhibit her movements or to impeach her authority in the workplace. At the same time, they were not so masculine as to raise questions about her sexuality. This section is remarkable for its methodological novelty in the wake of more conservative readings of the Eames design.

Much more traditional is Kirkham’s hirstory of Ray’s life in the pre-Charles era, when she emerged as a fully formed modernist acquainted with contemporary fine art idioms. As a member of the American Abstract Artists group, a student of Hans Hoffman, a friend of Lee Krasner, and an accomplished, published graphic design artist, Ray takes her place among the members of the New York avant-garde. Indeed, in Kirkham’s analysis, her constant grappling with modern forms is largely responsible for the characteristic, undulating shapes of Eames furniture. We see, for instance, that when Charles was pushing the envelope on plywood technology and demonstrating its uses to the military in the form of leg splints, Ray was investigating the formal possibilities of the medium in sculpture.

At times Kirkham’s efforts to establish Ray’s prowess as an artist in command of “modern structure” stretch farther than they have to. Trying to work the New York avant-garde connection to Ray’s benefit, Kirkham overemphasizes the affinity between her work and that of her teacher, Hans Hoffman. With the paradigmatic DCW, Kirkham sees the undulating forms of the seat and back in terms of Hoffman’s “push and pull” painting techniques. Although the push and pull effect may be there, anyone familiar with Hoffman’s work will pause at the comparison, wondering how its keyed-up colors and rectilinear patches actually bear any similarity to the biomorphism of the DCW. The argument is well made, nevertheless, that Ray was an accomplished and respected designer in her own right and that she was greatly responsible for the look of much of what has been attributed to Charles alone.

Kirkham’s personal approach, typified by this concentrated analysis of Ray’s early years, is justified by the fact that she is covering well-traveled ground. In addition to their appearance in virtually every survey of postwar design, the Eameses have been the subject of monographic texts since an issue of Architectural Design was devoted to them in 1966. Most significant among these historical accounts is Eames Design (1989) by one-time Eames office staff members John and Marilyn Neuhart in consultation with Ray. Kirkham’s book offers itself as a complement to this more encyclopedic treatment. Overall, the book steers clear of specific historical detail, instead emphasizing the designers’ personal outlook. Unlike the chronological Eames Design, the book is organized according to the Eameses’ various enterprises—architecture, furniture, exhibitions, and films. Within each of these categories, Kirkham tries to fill the gaps left by earlier, more focused studies. For example, the intensive scrutiny of the Case Study House #8 available in James Steele’s recent book, Eames House (1994), is not repeated here. Instead, Kirkham compares it with early architectural designs by Charles and the contemporary but less well-known Entenza house (Case Study House #9), designed in collaboration with Eliel Saarinen.

Readers interested primarily in furniture may be disappointed by the relatively light coverage (sixty of the book’s nearly four hundred pages) of it. In her rapid overview, however, Kirkham provides an important corrective to previously authoritative texts, such as Arthur Drexler’s catalogue for the Museum of Modern Art (1977). She places projects in their immediate context with brief histories of salient institutions and movements, such as the Cranbrook Academy of Art, California modern architecture, and the Herman Miller Furniture Company. Similarly, she compares significant Eames pieces to immediate precedents and contemporary works by designers like Marcel Breuer, Harry Bertoia, and Isamu Noguchi. She departs from the pure stylistic analysis of Drexler’s text and emphasizes the external dialogue that fed into Charles and Ray’s collaborations.

In some cases, though, Kirkham could do more in the way of analysis. While discussing the 1951 DCM, she remarks on the paradoxical reception of the side chair, which rapidly became “visible in design conscious circles and invisible in the ordinary world” (p. 236). Despite (or perhaps because of) its ubiquity, the DCM ceased to register as progressive design and instead became a fully normalized part of the American institutional landscape. The reader, however, is left to wonder whether this invisibility was intentional. Was this trait particular to the Eames design project? Or was it a larger phenomenon, symptomatic of the design climate of the 1950s?

In another tantalizing passage, Kirkham mentions a path-not-taken in table design. Although the famous elliptical coffee table of 1951—a landmark of postwar modernist design—is always seen in basic black, it was originally intended to have optional silver, gold, and patterned laminates. These planned surface treatments, she claims, “illustrate that there were more varied tendencies within modernist design than is often supposed” (p. 244). This claim is challenging and important, but Kirkham does not pursue it as far as she could. She refrains from extended speculation on the marketing potential of laminated pieces, closing the discussion abruptly. She argues that such decorative treatments were considered “vulgar” at the time and so would probably not have been viable. Possibly, but if so, then aren’t the laminates simply an aberration from modernism rather than an alternative strand of it? Kirkham identifies the most interesting aspects of the Eameses’ interaction with the broader world of design, but her intense concentration on Charles and Ray prevents her from capitalizing on her ideas.

More satisfying is the discussion of the critical reaction to the Eames collaboration. For example, one of the first applications of their new plywood technology resulted in the design of stackable children’s chairs, stools, and tables in 1945. Made of inexpensive material and stained in bright colors, this “modern design” had a slight wrinkle—a hand hole in the back of the chairs in the shape of a heart. Although critics admired the chairs for their demonstration of pure plastic form, the heart was called an “absurdly romantic symbol” (p. 216) and was attributed to Ray’s sentimental disposition. The assumption was that Ray, as a woman, had a greater proclivity for romanticism than did her more restrained husband. Kirkham impeaches this line of reasoning, demonstrating not only that hearts have long ornamented the backs of chairs but that both Charles and Ray used the motif throughout their careers. At this point her argument shines. The heart chairs exposed certain rules governing modern design and the inflexibility of those rules. Onto the Eames collaboration, critics grafted dichotomies of the scientific and the sentimental, the modern and the nostalgic, that were gendered at their base. By showing that both Charles and Ray shared responsibility for their designs, Kirkham exposes the binary categorizations of modernist criticism, which have placed Ray in the background.

The most successful sections of the book, and those that will ensure its importance as a reference text for scholars of design, deal with Eames films and exhibitions. Here Kirkham is in largely uncharted territory, and she adroitly communicates the designers’ development of these media for the presentation of information in a persuasive and appealing manner. Some examples will be surprisingly familiar to readers who only know Charles and Ray for their chairs. Many will have seen the exhibition Mathematica, still on exhibit at the California Museum of Science and Industry and the Boston Museum of Science, in which a random cascade of plastic balls forms a predicted bell curve; or the charming film Powers of Ten, in which the “camera” zooms in and out at exponential speed on a photo of a sleeping man, showing him at galactic and molecular scale. The inclusion of this material is instructive, particularly in that it sheds light on the ideas underlying Eames furniture design. For example, many of their films take a “how-to” approach to their subjects, reinforcing the Eameses’ consistent fascination with process. Similarly, their 1964 exhibition Think, shown at the IBM pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, entertainingly packaged science for mass consumption. In the same way, technology was foregrounded in Eames furniture as an attractive means to a more comfortable public environment.

With the inclusion of such material, Kirkham does justice to the diversity and scope of Eames production, finding new resonances within their work. By recovering the couple’s film and exhibition work, Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century shows that new methodologies can cast even the most canonical figures in a fresh, new light. Kirkham effectively combines personal anecdote and historical analysis, breathing new life into the biographical mode. In addition, the recounting of Ray’s prowess and experience with modern design introduces gender dynamics into furniture history. New avenues of inquiry into Eames design might move forward from this point, investigating not only the personalities behind the objects but the social function of the objects themselves. This book proffers valuable, new strategies of looking at modernism and its favored designers.

Glenn Adamson and Sarah Rich
Yale University

American Furniture 1997

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