It’s March, which means it’s Women’s History Month! Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring the lives of female designers, artists and architects who have made mid century modern design what it is today.
Ray and Charles Eames are, arguably, design’s most famous duo. But so much of what is written about them focuses on their work and not the designers themselves. We think it’s time for that to change, so we’re diving headfirst into the life of Ray Eames! Come along with us as we explore the life of the woman whose husband once said of her: “Anything I can do, she can do better.”
In 1912, Ray Kaiser was born in Sacramento, California. She was interested in art and design from an early age and studied a variety of media growing up, like fashion design and painting. Ray grew particularly skilled at painting and studied with Hans Hofmann in New York City.
Ray’s painting featured organic, abstract forms and a bold use of space— she was, after all, a founding member of the American Abstract Artists. And though much of her art from this period is lost, one painting still hangs in the permanent collection at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
In the late 30’s, Ray left New York City to care for her dying mother. After her passing, Ray considered moving back to California and building a house. But a friend recommended seeking a more holistic approach to art by attending the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where Ray ended up instead. While there, she met her husband, Charles Eames, as well as designer Eero Saarinen.
At Cranbrook, Ray, Charles and Eero worked together to create designs from molded plywood for the Museum of Modern Art’s Organic Furniture Competition, in which they won two first prizes. In 1941, Ray and Charles married and moved to Los Angeles.
From then on, Ray and Charles partnered together to create innovative and impressive designs. Throughout it all, Charles (who was better known in public) made sure to insist upon the collaborative nature of their work and how important Ray was to it. This was notable for an era where, if women were seen as a partner at all, they were seen as a lesser one.
Though Ray’s background was in painting, she never felt like her work with Charles was an abandonment of it. Instead, she believed she was taking her work in painting and expanding upon it by working with structure, color and form in different ways.
Most of Ray and Charles’ work centered around creating furniture, like the famous Eames Lounge Chair and the Eames Plastic Lounge Chair. They even created a few children’s toys, short films and exhibitions. And of course, the Eames dabbled in architecture too!
The Eames House was the Eames’ most famous architecture project and was constructed in the late ’40s. It was built on a picturesque bluff in Los Angeles and is comprised of a living space and a smaller studio space. The home is the perfect combination of good design and livability, demonstrating the beauty of form and function like nothing else.
Ray and Charles also believed that good design was nothing without good hospitality, and were excellent hosts to the many people who visited and stayed in their home. Ray’s calendar showed frequent visits of 50 to 60 students at a time, even as the decades passed and she and Charles aged.
Charles passed away in 1978, and Ray lived on another 10 years before dying in 1988. Ray Eames’ life left behind monuments the power of functional and innovative design— monuments that are still recognizable today.