A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

Charles and Ray Eames were among the greatest designers of the 20th century, and their signature creation, the Eames lounge chair and ottoman, turned 50 this year. But Ray, who was born and raised here, is still a relative unknown in her hometown.

Self-portrait of Ray Eames in 1928, at age 15 or 16

Self-portrait of Ray Eames in 1928, at age 15 or 16

Courtesy and © 2012 Eames Office, LLC

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IIf you were one of the 17,000 fans who turned out to see Coldplay at Arco Arena earlier this 
year, you might recall the performance of their hit song, “The Scientist.” But what was that mesmerizing video that accompanied it as Chris Martin sat playing the piano?

The video opens deep in space, and begins its descent to earth, stars flying by like fireflies. The United States comes into focus, then Chicago, a lakefront park, and finally a man sleeping in a park. It continues down to his hand and ultimately his skin, molecules and atoms displayed across a panoramic screen. Science is humanized in one sweeping, simple sequence. It was the perfect complement to a 2006 modern rock ballad by the British supergroup. Which is saying a lot, since the woman who co-created the film, Powers of 10, was born in 1912. And she was born in Sacramento, only a few miles south of where her film would enthrall thousands.

Oprah would call this a full-circle moment.

But when it comes to Ray Eames and Sacramento, this moment is actually less rare than you might imagine. Even though few people here probably realize that one of America’s most important designers was born at Sutter Memorial on F Street, her presence here still remains. The lounge chair she created with husband Charles is no doubt in hundreds, if not thousands of local homes. Have you ever sat in one of those black rows of chairs at the Sacramento airport? Then you’ve sat in an Eames chair. And since it opened earlier this year, the new Design Within Reach store on 16th Street in midtown has had two giant pictures of Charles and Ray, one in the window display and another inside. But there’s virtually no talk of one of our truly great native daughters.

There may, however, be a few reasons why Ray’s not better known here. The fact is, even though she lived here in Sacramento until she was 19, she never much reflected publicly on her younger years. In fact, the Eameses didn’t reflect much at all. “Charles and Ray were always looking forward,” says their grandson Eames Demetrios, sitting in the study of the celebrated Eames House in Pacific Palisades. “They hardly ever told those stories [of their childhoods]. They were just so interested in what was going on; what new thing was happening. I always asked everybody, Did they ever talk about the early days? No.”

Another reason that she’s likely not better known is that, until recent years, Ray was never publicly accorded the credit for her role in the partnership with Charles. It was in 1995 that Pat Kirkham’s biography on the Eameses, Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century, came out, and helped shed light on Ray’s equal contribution to their body of work. In the ’50s, when the Eameses were at the height of their fame, society still found it hard to accept that a woman could be an equal partner in such a celebrated entity of what was then known as the Office of Charles Eames. To this day, many people still believe Charles and Ray were two men. In fact, in the May 2006 issue of Vanity Fair, they were erroneously referred to as “brothers.”

Charles and Ray

When scholars or even family try to connect the dots between what drew Charles and Ray together in 1941, one of the first things to emerge is always their respective backgrounds. Both were born in river cities; Charles in St. Louis. And Sacramento has long been considered to be the most-Midwestern of West Coast cities, filled with tree-lined streets and a deep agricultural heritage.

They were also brought up in homes with mixed religions, which Eames biographer Pat Kirkham suggests may have taught them both tolerance and an open-mindedness (especially in a time before that was common), which would prepare them for their explorations into art, design and innovation. Ray’s father, Alexander Kaiser, was Jewish, and her mother, Edna was Episcopalian, which is how Ray was raised.