Biography of Charles and Ray Eames

Creative American Designers, Mr. Eames (1907-1978) and Mrs. Eames (1912-1988)

Molded plastic chair with naked woman drawn onto the surface from the exhibit The World Of Charles And Ray Eames in London 2015-2016
Molded Plastic Eames-Designed Chair With Hand-Drawn Whimsy. Photo by Tristan Fewings / Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

The husband-and-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames became famous for their furniture, textiles, industrial designs, and practical, economical residential architecture. The couple met at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, coming to the world of design from two paths—he was a trained architect and she was a trained painter and sculptor. Art and architecture merged when they married in 1941, forming a partnership that became one of America's foremost mid-century modern design teams. They shared credit for all their design projects.

Charles Eames (born June 17, 1907 in St. Louis, Missouri) spent two years in the architecture program at Washington University in St. Louis, famously being asked to leave after challenging the course curriculum—he asked why Beaux-Arts architecture was being elevated in light of the modernist successes of the young upstart Frank Lloyd Wright?  After leaving architecture school, Eames and his first wife left for Europe in 1927, in search of more modernist architecture than St. Louis could offer. Europe in the 1920s was the time of Adolf Loos, Bauhaus, Le Corbusier,  the modern furniture designs of Mies van der Rohe, and experiments with what became known as the International Style of architecture. Returning to America in 1929, he joined with Charles M. Gray to form the firm of Gray and Eames, which designed stained glass, textiles, furniture and ceramics. By 1938 he had a fellowship to study at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where he collaborated with another young modernist, Eero Saarinen, and eventually became head of the industrial design department. While at Cranbook, Eames divorced his first wife to marry Ray Kaiser, who had become a colleague with Eames and Saarinen.

Known simply as "Ray," Bernice Alexandra Kaiser (born December 15, 1912 in Sacramento, California) studied painting with the abstract expressionist artist Hans Hofmann. "The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak," has long been Hofmann's inspirational quotation. Ray's art immersion in New York City and in Provincetown, Massachusetts from 1933-1939 meant living simply (eliminating the unnecessary) and being baptized by modernism. She retained her modern art circle of friends when she, too, went off to study at the Cranbrook Academy. The attraction, of course, was Eliel Saarinen, father of Eero and president / designer of this new art school that was to rival the Bauhaus in Germany. At Cranbook, the Finnish-born Saarinens presented the modernist works of another Finn, Alvar Aalto. The bending of wood, the elegance of simple design, the economy of art and architecture—all were absorbed by the eager Charles and Ray. 

After marrying in 1941, Charles and Ray Eames moved to Los Angeles to mass produce their simple ideas. They experimented with molded, flexible, adaptable furniture and storage units for homes and public spaces. They also designed the machinery and production methods needed to manufacture their furnishings. The Eameses believed that a house should be flexible enough to accommodate work and play.

Charles and Ray Eames helped supply affordable housing for veterans returning to the United States after World War II. Houses designed by the Eameses featured high-quality prefabricated materials that were mass produced for efficiency and affordability.

Charles Eames died of a heart attack  August 21, 1978 in St. Louis, Missouri. Ray Eames died August 21, 1988 in Los Angeles—exactly a decade after her husband.

The Eameses were among America's most important designers, celebrated for their contributions to architecture, industrial design, and furniture design.  Who has not sat in an Eames chair around the office conference table or in a classroom at the public school? The role the Eames duo played in modernizing North America is often explored in exhibitions throughout the world. Charles had a daughter, Lucia Jenkins Eames, with his first wife. Lucia and her son, Eames Demetrios, grandson of Charles, set up the foundations that have preserved the legacy of the Eames' ideas. Eames Demetrios' TED talk, The design genius of Charles + Ray Eames, was filmed in 2007.

Learn More:

  • EAMES: The Architect and the Painter, documentary by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey, 2011 DVD
  • Eames: Beautiful Details by Eames Demetrios, 2012
  • Powers of Ten: A Flipbook, based on the film by Charles and Ray Eames, 1998
  • The Films of Charles & Ray Eames, DVD