Charles and Ray Eames

At the Kochi Biennale recently, I was pleasantly surprised to see an Eames exhibit — ‘Powers of Ten’ was playing on loop on a large screen in a dark room. Made in 1977, this simple but awe-inspiring film still seems to captivate everyone who sees it. Maybe because it seems so relatable, and just designed for the viewer to ‘get it’. In nine minutes, everything from geography, astronomy, biology and mathematics are referred to and yet the viewer sees the whole picture in one well told story.

It was at the National Institute of Design, Bangalore where as a student, I happened to come across the India Report. I had heard of the Eameses but whatever I knew of them was vague. As I read through the clear, well thought-out sentences, it appeared to me that these people were not just thinkers and doers — they ‘lived’ a life of authenticity, discovery and a simple, focussed devotion to making with intentions.

I was itching to put them in some kind of a box. But the more I discovered, the harder it became to fashion such a box.

I heard the gentle voice of Charles Eames defining Design in ‘Design Q & A’.

I saw their ideas become exhibitions like in Mathematica.

I saw their eye for detail in the Eames Lounge Chair.

The Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman.

“Who are these people?” I wondered every time. How do you categorize a team that has introduced 900 designs for furniture, toys, exhibitions, film, graphics and architecture?

As I pondered their way of living and doing, I found a few foundational threads run though their work and life:

Seeing things anew

Always striving for a new perspective, the Eameses catalogued a collection of 350,000 slides of photographs — their own ‘cabinet of curiosity’. They used Film and Photography extensively as tools to step back and look at the world around them in new ways. This elementary approach is why before building the Eames House, Charles Eames wrote on a piece of paper — “What is a house?”

Taking their pleasure seriously

Charles Eames famously said “It makes me feel guilty that anybody should have such a good time doing what they are supposed to do.” Much of the Eameses’ work was a result of enjoying and celebrating life through design. The Solar-Do-Nothing machine, gifts for their grandchildren and even letters written by Charles Eames to his daughter, all stand testimony to this playful approach.

Exceptional empathy

In their own words, the Eameses tell us why empathy plays the most important role in the crafting of a design solution:

“One of the things we hit upon was the quality of a host. That is, the role of the architect, or the designer, is that of a very good, thoughtful host, all of whose energy goes into trying to anticipate the needs of his guests — those who enter the building and use the objects in it. We decided that this was an essential ingredient in the design of a building or a useful object.”

Thus, any solution was a result of ‘caring deeply’ and getting truly involved with the problem.

Endless iteration

Work at the Eames Office mostly dealt with continuous refinement of solutions, as their deep engagement with a project allowed for new connections to emerge. The Eames chairs were known to be reworked on over years, as newer, more apt materials became available.

Charles was once asked, “Did you think of the Eames chair in a flash?” He replied, “Yes, sort of a 30-year flash.”

There is a lot to take in about these iconic makers. I am certainly inspired to put these lessons to use in my own life and work.