If you’ve been following the blog on Reseat, we’ve highlighted just a few of the furniture industry’s most notable designers and architects; of which, however, are predominantly male.
In the 20th century, and arguably the centuries beforehand, women were often discouraged and even barred from pursuing many artistic and design pathways. In fact, women were not considered to have had the mental capacity to follow artistic pathways, nor the same interest level as their male counterparts. If women did find success in the design and art world, it normally was attributed to the success of a man, or even denied to have been created by the woman in the first place.
Ray Eames is an example of a designer whose success went hand in hand with her husband, Charles. The postwar modernist artist very much lingered in her husband’s shadow, despite their designs being joint-operative.
Born as Bernice Kaiser in Sacramento, California, higher education was in pursuit at Sacramento Junior College, followed by attending May Friend Bennett School in New York. She went on to study painting with notable names such as Hans Hofmann, leading her into her career as an artist and soon a designer.
When she moved to New York City in the 1930s, she and Hofmann were an active part of the American Abstract Artists, who advocated for representation in art, protesting and speaking out against galleries that refused to offer any variety in representation.
When Charles came into the picture, Ray was studying at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, just along the outskirts of Detroit. Charles, then, was involved in the department of industrial design as the head.
At the time of their meeting, Charles was married, but soon divorced his wife and moved to California with Ray. When the two began their careers together, press followed very quickly. NBC welcomed the two as guests on their show “Home,” where the notorious Eames chair made its debut. The couple was asked about the design process, which involved Ray being asked if she “needed help” describing it.
Many interviews to sequence followed this same format, where the couple was questioned together, but Ray was still left more so on the sidelines as “Mrs. Eames.”
Since their deaths (Charles in 1978 and Ray in 1988), the design world appears to be increasing their infatuation with Ray, who is now recognized as being much more involved in the design process than previously thought.
Charles was the innovator, the primary source by which monumental modernist concepts flowed. Ray, on the other hand, was the wife, portrayed as the main involvement within the aesthetic and decor aspects.
It’s worth noting, however, that Charles did not drive or openly condone the media’s representation of Ray. His vernacular utilized in interviews was consistently occupied with words such as “we,” and “us.” The mid-century media, alongside westernized standards of womanhood and femininity, however, was the sole proprietor in keeping Ray in her secondary position.
As mentioned in the New York Times article by Jennifer Schuesseler, many exhibitions with their work typically left her name out. Additionally, Schuesseler mentions Charles’s description of their partnership as, “an equal and total alliance,” whereas the article continues to describe Ray’s involvement as Charles’s “wife and assistant.”
In fact, the two of them repeatedly stressed that their projects were a dual-contribution, something they always pursued as an equal give and take.
As we commemorate the works of Ray and Charles Eames, as well as strive for gender inclusivity in the art world, it is best that we address their works as what they always wanted them to be: not only innovative modernist in its design, but mutually collaborative.