Meet the Eames – Function is the Key to Design

| 7 min read

Charles Ormond Eames Jr. (1907-1978) and his wife Bernice Alexandra “Ray” Eames (1912-1988) were multi-disciplinary American designers who contributed to modern architecture, furniture design, graphic design, fine art and film.

About Charles Eames

Charles was a rebellious designer and initially he attended Washington University (St. Louis) to study architecture, however, he would drop out of the course 2 years later. The precise details aren’t known but this may have been because of his staunch support for modern architectural design (and in particular Frank Lloyd Wright) but it also may have been due to the more prosaic reason that Charles had already found a job as an architect and was no longer engaged with his studies.

What is certain is that in 1930 he formed his own architecture practice with two partners; Walter Pauley and Charles Gray.

His design process is said to have been heavily influenced by the Finnish Architect Eilel Saarinen. In 1938, Saarinen convinced Charles to study architecture again – this time at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Later Charles would become the head of the industrial design department at the academy.

To gain acceptance to the academy’s program Eames worked with Saarinen to create a concept for the St. Louis waterfront which would win the New York Museum of Modern Art’s “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition.

It was during this period that Charles would meet and marry his second wife; Ray Kaiser. In 1941 they moved to L.A. Their first major project together was the Eames House which is considered to be one of the major achievements in modern architecture. It was built in a few days using entirely pre-fabricated parts that would normally be used in industrial construction.

Following his death – Charles would be inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

About Ray Eames

Ray may be the second Eames alphabetically but she was anything but the second Eames as a designer. Charles once remarked; “Anything I can do, Ray can do better.”

In 1933 she moved to New York to study abstract impressionism with Hans Hoffman. She found the American Abstract Artists group in 1936 and was invited to display her work at the Riverside Museum in Manhattan a year later.

She contributed to the award winning “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” project after moving to study at Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1940.

Working with Charles she developed the graphic and commercial art used to promote their design practice. She had more than 20 cover pieces published in the Arts and Architecture journal in the 1940s.

She would go on to develop textile designs in the late 1940’s which would be produced by Schiffer Prints (a company that also produced materials by Frank Lloyd Wright and Salvador Dalí). Her pieces picked up the MoMa awards and are now displayed in many museums around the world.

After Charles passed away, she would consult for IBM, develop several more design projects and administer the Eames estate.

The Banana Leaf Parable

Charles Eames would lecture at Harvard in the 1970s and it is from one of his lectures there (the series of lectures was called the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures) that the banana leaf parable was first given to the world:

“There’s sort of a parable I’d like to . . . In India . . . I guess it’s a parable: In India, sort of the lowest, the poorest, the, those, those without and the lowest in caste, eat very often–particularly in southern India–they eat off of a banana leaf. And those a little bit up the scale, eat off of a sort of a un . . . a low-fired ceramic dish.

And a little bit higher, why, they have a glaze on–a thing they call a “tali”–they use a banana leaf and then the ceramic as atali upon which they put all the food. And there get to be some fairly elegant glazed talis, but it graduates to–if you’re up the scale a little bit more–why, a brass tali, and a bell-bronze tali is absolutely marvelous, it has a sort of a ring to it.

And then things get to be a little questionable. There are things like silver-plated talis and there are solid silver talis and I suppose some nut has had a goldtali that he’s eaten off of, but I’ve never seen one.

But you can go beyond that and the guys that have not only means, but a certain amount of knowledge and understanding, go the next step and they eat off of a banana leaf.

And I think that in these times when we fall back and regroup, that somehow or other, the banana leaf parable sort of got to get working there, because I’m not prepared to say that the banana leaf that one eats off of is the same as the other eats off of, but it’s that process that has happened within the man that changes the banana leaf.”

The parable tries to explain that function is the most important element of design. That aesthetic improvements can be made and almost certainly will be made to a design to reflect people’s tastes and wealth. However, in the long run it is the function that we return to rather the aesthetics. A wise man with wealth knows that food is perfectly capable of being served on a banana leaf without losing any of its taste or enjoyment.

This understanding of how design works enabled the Eames to take a very holistic view of design. They began with a vision of the function and then created ways to improve the delivery of that form. Whether it was in furniture, cinema or graphic design; they were able to take a step back and examine the function of a design before moving that design forward.

The Take Away

Function is the key to design. The banana leaf is the simplest thing to eat from, you can make it more complex and more ornate but you cannot change the function without taking something away. Wise people will, almost always, return to the simplest design in the long run. Focusing on the function of your designs enables you to deliver products that are meaningfully different and which delight your users.


Hero Image: Author/Copyright holder: ercwttmn Copyright terms and licence: CC BY 2.0

Take a look at some of the classic Eames designs.

Learn a little bit more about the Eames’ lives.

If you’d like to find out about the way the Eames’ design philosophy worked you can enjoy this great TedTalk.

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