If you’re a fan of Design Milk, you likely love the Eameses as much as we do or you’ve at the least heard of their brand. It’s nearly impossible to be part of the world of modern design and not know of the prolific husband and wife team – Charles and Ray – responsible for co-founding the Eames Office. As creators of so many iconic designs, they and their influence have been celebrated for decades.
Now, The Eames Institute of Infinite Curiosity has launched an exhibit – Ray’s Hand – that focuses solely on Ray, her talents, and the gender roles she worked against that were typical of the era. The exhibit opened on December 15, 2022 to mark what would have been her 110th birthday. Luckily for all of us, it’s free for everyone to explore and enjoy online.
Pulling from the Eame’s Institute’s collection – full of many things, including some that haven’t been seen since the Eames Office closed in 1988 – the exhibition highlights artifacts such as sketches, scraps, and tools that were integral parts of Ray’s creative process. Each item illustrates Ray’s contributions and talents, which can sometimes be seen as obscured. Meanwhile, Charles knew better, often saying “Anything I can do, she [Ray] can do better.” And he meant it. Ray’s Hand helps to shed light on the roadblocks she encountered, some of which women are still railing against today. A few of her many notable contributions to the Eameses’ iconic design portfolio include the House of Cards collection, the Time Life Stool, and the Sea Things Tray.
We had the opportunity to speak with Ray and Charles’ granddaughter, Llisa Demetrios, who is also the Chief Curator of the Eame’s Institute. She recalled, “When I would visit their office and see Ray and Charles working on projects at the office, there was always mutual respect. There is a quote by former Eames Office staffer Jeannine Oppewall in Pat Kirkham’s
book Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century that reads “…(the) method of working within relatively modest limits comes from the Eameses’ philosophy of ‘choose your corner, pick away at it carefully, intensely, and to the best of your ability and that way you might change the world.”
Initially known for her work as a painter, Ray transformed her palette into the Eames’ world of furniture, graphics, film, showrooms, exhibitions, and architecture. “I think this (transformation) is shown in how their designs always evolved from their original hands on learning. The artifacts in this current online exhibit demonstrate Ray’s exploration of solving problems and iterating on the solutions… As they collaborated, they grounded and supported each other’s creative process. I felt when I saw them working on a project at the office that each had 51% of the say in the final vote,” Llisa said insightfully.
Behind the scenes, Ray was also a set decorator, stylist, colorist, material consultant, and host – all roles that were downplayed and misunderstood at the time as small roles given to women. When in fact, Ray was a trailblazer who deserves her share of the spotlight for doing things that are now each their own individual industries.
We couldn’t help but be curious as to whether Ray had a favorite piece, category, or project. Llisa said that there was no favorite as far as she was aware, but that “… in an oral history that our friends at Herman Miller recently shared with us, she talks about her fondness for the plywood screen and for the wire chair with the two-piece “bikini” pad. Her focus was always about identifying, extrapolating, and creating for the need of each situation, in both her personal life and professional life – from a bouquet for a photograph to an exhibit graphic to a toy to a picnic to a furniture prototype.” Life was art and art was life in Ray’s eyes, and that comes through in her design work.
“When I think of Ray, I always think of her hands in motion as she was creating something – writing a note, cutting a shape out in paper with scissors, looking through a magnifying glass, arranging a bouquet, photographing a leaf on the ground, looking up something in a book, arranging seashells on a shelf, or winding up a tin toy. She always took delight and pleasure in nature – which is evident in the way they cultivated an indoor-outdoor lifestyle at their house,” Llisa said of fwhat kept Ray’s interests piqued and her mind full of inspiration. “You see it in her photographs of things like eucalyptus leaves dropped on the pathway, or geraniums in pots lined up outside, or kelp and seaweed washed up on the beach. And I think of her smile when she looked at something that was well-crafted by human hands – like a bundt cake dusted with powdered sugar or a bowl of fresh strawberries or a beautiful bouquet of roses.”
Not even Llisa realized what a design force her grandmother was until one time in college when she took the train into New York City to see Ray give a talk to an auditorium of college students. “I remember how her voice commanded the room. Everyone was listening to her every word. After the talk, we were supposed to go out to dinner – but before we could leave she was swarmed by students, professors, journalists, and old friends and acquaintances. Before that night, I just thought I was going out to dinner with my grandmother, but then I realized that if all these people wanted to hear what she had to say she must be pretty important.”
Ray’s love of functional design even spilled over into her own wardrobe. Llisa shared that Ray designed her own skirts and dresses to include lots of pockets “to hold a few coins, her wallet, a magnifying glass, pens, scissors in a sheath, little notepads, a calendar, safety pins, keys, hair pins, paper clips, a handkerchief with lace edge, grosgrain ribbons, paper color samples, business cards, a Polaroid camera – and even, on occasion, a present like a tiny Steiff bear that she gave me.” Those many pockets provided space to store, investigate, and take advantage of the world around her. “When I was little, I saw a lot of these objects as everyday, well-worn and functional… Today as a curator, I see them also as a set of powerful, well-crafted, often beautiful tools that helped her be effective in her work… Basically, she wore a fashionable toolkit.”
The world of design – and that available toolkit – has changed immeasurably since the heyday of the Eames, and we wonder how Ray would have approached all things digital when coupled with her trusty analogue tools.
“Every drawer from the Graphics Room spilled over with colorful papers from around the world, pieces of chalk in sawdust, crayons, colored pencils, paints, rubber stamps, silver/gold foils, tissue paper, and marbleized paper,” Llisa shared. The visuals she paints of the Eames Office are eye-bogglingly good. “On the tables, there were scissors, X-acto knives, paint brushes, magnifying glasses, and rulers. She was always working directly within the constraints of the materials and testing out ideas to see what worked best in 3D models.I would love to have seen what Ray would continue to do physically and what she would switch to digitally. In today’s time, I would have liked to hear her voice identifying important issues like sustainability, education, and conservation, and then talk about how to address these challenges that we are facing today.”
“The goal for both she (and Charles) to strive for was to let the design evolve from the learning. They developed a design process to address needs and solve the problems of their day. We’re continually inspired by the fact that so many of those challenges still resonate with those that we face today. Their boundless curiosity and relentless pursuit of solving problems inspired us to include “infinite curiosity” in the name of the institute.”
If only Ray could see the mark she left on designers and the industry, and it should go without saying that she influenced her granddaughter as well. “My grandmother helped shape my outlook on design. I saw from her how design was a powerful tool to assess and solve problems. I learned from Ray and Charles about how an object can become so well designed that you forget that it was ever designed in the first place – like a top or a kite. When an object like a toy has been honed for generations, its form has been slowly perfected over time with trial and error. Also, I like seeing how similar examples of an object might have evolved differently in different parts of the world.”
Ray’s Hand aims to realign how the relationship between Ray and Charles is viewed in regards to their work. In doing so, it demonstrates Ray’s contributions to what we now view as iconic designs. The larger hope is that the exhibition will continue to broaden conversations around giving women their due credit, historically and today.
To experience “Ray’s Hand” for yourself, visit eamesinstitute.org.
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