All About Ray
Charles and Ray Eames were two of the 20th century’s greatest creative minds, but only recently has Ray received the public recognition she deserves.
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This is not the story of the woman behind the man.
It’s true that Bernice Alexandra “Ray” Eames spent most of her life without the accolades lavished on her husband Charles, an icon who was lionized for creating a futuristic vision in mediums like chairs, architecture and film that came to epitomize America’s post-World War II rush to modernization. It’s also true that throughout the almost 40 years of their marriage and working life, Charles—cool, smart, charming and overflowing with charisma—was the public face of the business they ran together. Charles was the one who received awards, was pursued by the press and met with the corporate titans who queued up to become clients.
But Ray, a Sacramento native with sparkling eyes, a deep laugh and a passing resemblance to Katharine Hepburn, was a 50-50 partner in effort, imagination and ability. A woman sequestered in the fog of her man’s importance, maybe—sometimes by choice, sometimes by neglect, sometimes by the nature of the era—but always at Charles’ side. In a famous 1948 photo of the couple posing on a Velocette motorcycle, it’s Ray who is gripping the handlebars, Charles loosely holding her waist from behind. In a time when Rosie the Riveter was expected to turn in her tools and head back into the kitchen, this is the image that captures Ray and Charles best—a meeting of spirits that transformed not just the way Americans sat, but what they stood for as well.
“Yes, Charles, he was the man, but I never really felt that she deferred,” says Petaluma-based sculptor Llisa Demetrios, Ray’s step-granddaughter. “They had equal say on everything. She was her own separate person and yet was in a partnership with my grandfather, and they made amazing things together.”
With the passing of what would have been Ray’s centennial birthday on Dec. 15 of last year, any brume of obscurity is about to burn off of her legacy. In February, The California Museum will debut its new 2,000-square-foot California Design Gallery with a yearlong exhibit featuring Ray Eames’ solo endeavors (the first-ever museum show anywhere in the world to focus entirely on Ray), as well as attempting to examine her role in her complex collaboration with Charles. Then on March 20, Charles and Ray will be inducted into the California Hall of Fame, a distinction extended to Golden State greats, including Steve Jobs, Ronald Reagan, Jane Fonda, Magic Johnson, Cesar Chavez and Barbra Streisand.
It’s an overdue honor because when it came to channeling the country’s post-war psyche, the Eameses were unparalleled. “They would have to be right up there among the most influential designers of the 20th century,” says Amanda Meeker, exhibits and programs director for The California Museum.
Their work remains hugely popular and significant today, both for pop culture and collectors, due in part to Hollywood’s enduring devotion on and off screen (as recently as 2011, PBS produced a documentary, Eames: The Architect and the Painter, on the couple’s life and career narrated by James Franco; Ray was even a voting member of the Oscar-bestowing Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences). Any fan of Mad Men is somewhat of an Eames expert, since the sleek Madison Avenue ethos of the show is heavy on their designs. Don Draper has been seen ruling his world from the comfort of an Eames Executive Chair, and he isn’t as alone as he feels. Their pieces have been featured as shorthand for cool in films including Tron: Legacy, Iron Man and The Big Lebowski. Brad Pitt, Clint Eastwood and
Julianne Moore are fans, John Leguizamo was said to have owned 16 Eames chairs at one point, and director Christopher Nolan paid homage by naming a character Eames in 2010’s Inception. Prada featured models in their aluminum group chairs last summer, and super siren Beyoncé even rested her booty on a pale yellow Eames DSS plastic molded seat in her 2011 “Countdown” video.
The Eames influence extended well beyond bringing youthful, cost-effective and well-constructed furnishings to the masses (their original goal, most exemplified by their signature leather and curved-wood Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman). But whether it was furnishings (with pieces now housed in institutions like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the MoMA in New York), short films like the study on scale, Powers of Ten (which was bankrolled by IBM, used in 2006 by Coldplay on tour and mimicked in films like Men in Black), or a groundbreaking prefab building like their Case Study House #8 in Pacific Palisades, the Eames name was and is synonymous with hipster innovation.
At Charles and Ray’s Venice, Calif. firm, the demiurgic duo created a crucible of ideas where the process was as important as the product. Months could go by with the staff intent on measuring volunteers’ posteriors to determine the perfect proportions for a seat, or conceptualizing how to cleverly show the planet from space before Neil Armstrong had taken his one small step. Ray in particular was noted for her attention to detail and “gift for color,” according to Eames Demetrios, another of Charles’ grandkids and head of The Eames Office. It was a place and a method that was mad to some, brilliant to others and befuddling to most.
But Ray was an esoteric artist long before she met Charles. An abstract expressionist lithograph by Ray is in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Library of Congress houses nearly a million papers, photographs, slides and other items that belonged to Charles and Ray—including hundreds of notes and sketches she scrawled on paper linings pulled out of her Benson & Hedges cigarette boxes (Ray was known as both an avid note writer and pack rat).
“It’s very hard to disconnect their contributions, especially when you consider how long they worked together and how much they influenced each other,” says Eames Demetrios, speaking on the challenge of creating a show on Ray alone. In fact, Ray herself was notoriously quick to say that “we did everything together” and that her input could not be pulled out of the finished product.
But, adds Eames Demetrios, “I think there is a way to do the exhibit and the celebrations in such a way that respects her genuine belief that there was no separation. One way to get at it is to take a look at those early years.”