It was a vintage Eames thought experiment, part user-centered design, part wonder and delight. When midcentury design's most famous couple, Ray and Charles Eames, were commissioned to build a National Aquarium in Washington, D.C., they quickly arranged for first-person research. To deliver on the visceral thrill of seeing different species up close, the couple built aquariums in their L.A. offices so they could observe fish and underwater creatures in person. While the National Fisheries Center and Aquarium was sacked due to Nixon-era budget cuts, the research project did inspire Charles Eames to write that "there's a lot of gee-whiz factor built into an octopus." These kind of off-hand remarks and revealing correspondences, as well as a wealth of project details and unknown facts, make up Daniel Ostroff's insightful new volume, An Eames Anthology (Yale University Press). A noted film producer, design historian and scholar of the famous couple, Ostroff spent years studying their archives to deliver a comprehensive and personal look at their work that presents the Eames in their own words. We spoke to Ostroff about some of his more interesting finds, and compiled a list curiosities that showcase the range of this remarkable couple.
Their Solar Do-Nothing Machine Actually Did Quite a Bit
In 1957, the Aluminum Corporation of America (ALCOA) asked designers to create displays and projects that would showcase new uses for their namesake product. The Eames entry, christened the Solar Do-Nothing Machine by the mainstream press, may look like a fun, fantastical toy -- and magazines including LIFE covered it as such -- but it was actually one of the first examples of utilizing the sun's energy for power. "They wanted to show the virtues of solar energy at a time when nobody was thinking about it," says Ostroff.
They developed a prototype prefab house
In 1951, the Eames Office developed a low-cost, prefabricated house for the Kwikset Lock Company of Anaheim, California. Calling on their experience with their own Case Study House 8, which was built with an array of off-the shelf parts, as well as Charles' experience as a young architect working in St. Louis in the '30s, they created a full plan for a kit home that would be sold with parts and hardware included. However, the Kwikset company was sold and changed hands, and new ownership scraped plans for the prefab, which would have included a curved plywood roof with exposed beams.
The design of one of their most famous chairs was inspired by a tire wrench
In the early 1950s, the Eames were asked to appear on a San Francisco television show called Discovery, which was produced by the San Francisco Museum of Art (other episodes included a focus on cartooning and an interview with Frank Lloyd Wright). When they asked the producer about the topics they should cover, the producer wanted to know the inspiration behind their famous DCM chair, which had just been named a design of the century by Time magazine. During the show, the Eameses played a 16mm film that detailed the chair's concept and construction, explaining that it was inspired by the spot-weld on a tire wrench. It was "an excellent and impressive joining device," said Charles. Ostroff found other writing by Charles that explained his fascination with tools as design objects; created to do a task well and nothing, he said they weren't infected with "symptoms of creativity."
They designed storage units for the "extraordinary requirements of the dormitory"
Before the Eames designed their famous Contract Storage Units for Herman Miller, they created these prototypes for Sears in 1954, small-scale, inexpensive portable closets for schools and offices. Not only would these inform their later designs, but the ad shown above, written in-house, demonstrates the copywriting skills of the Eames office.
They had a great philosophy for hiring young designers
In 1957, a young designer was recommended to the Eames whom, for one reason or another, didn't work out and wasn't hired. Charles wrote about the experience, and laid out his philosophy for hiring young designers. "We like to have young people," he wrote, "but we don't pay them very much. But because we don't pay them very much, we give them the best possible learning opportunity; we don't mind that they make mistakes."
An Eames Anthology: Articles, Film Scripts, Interviews, Letters, Notes, and Speeches, edited by Daniel Ostroff, is available from Yale University Press.
· Previous Ray and Charles Eames coverage[Curbed]