We all have certain names that come to mind when we hear the phrase “power couple.” In music? Beyonce and Jay-Z. In politics? Barack and Michelle. But in the world of 20th-century design, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more noteworthy duo than Ray and Charles Eames.
The Eameses were both prodigious, highly skilled artists in their own right — Bernice “Ray” was a painter and illustrator and Charles an architect. Combining their creative genius into one household via marriage in 1941, they launched a design office in Southern California and collaboratively introduced to the world much of what we now take for granted as “mid-century” style.
Charles and Ray Eames, The Early Years:
The Eames name today is nearly synonymous with furniture, but Charles and Ray also designed houses, monuments, toys, exhibits, and directed over 80 experimental films. While they refused to limit themselves to a single medium, their meticulous passion for detail and distinctive style is easily recognizable across all platforms. The pair focused on using new materials and technology to create high-quality everyday objects at a reasonable cost. They succinctly stated their credo as “we wanted to make the best for the most for the least.” Indeed, hardly anyone today has not come into contact with Eames design. Instead of growing dated, their pieces have become enduring classics, highly sought after at auctions.
Much of the abiding allure can be credited to Charles and Ray’s zeal for the consumer experience. Charles is quoted as saying, “The role of the designer is that of a very good, thoughtful host anticipating the needs of his guests.” Perhaps this is the reason that after so many years, the desirability of Eames furniture has not waned. We see an Eames chair and we feel welcomed.
During WWII, Ray and Charles developed several new production processes and designed functional molded plywood leg splints and stretchers for the American Navy. The metal splints used for soldiers at the time did not conform to the leg properly, and many injured servicemen were being further harmed by the equipment intended to help. It was on this project that Ray and Charles perfected the molded plywood technique they subsequently used to fashion furniture and elegant household objects. Despite being a utilitarian item created for soldiers, an antique Eames leg splint now typically sells around $400-$600. The splints are desirable to design-savvy collectors and are widely acknowledged as a catalyst for the Eames designs that followed.
Herman Miller + Charles and Ray Eames:
In 1946, the Eames molded plywood chair, molded plywood lounge chair, molded plywood folding screen, and molded plywood coffee table hit the stage and New York’s Museum of Modern Art installed a small exhibition titled “New Furniture Designed by Charles Eames”. Despite the title of the exhibition, Charles and Ray were equal partners in the design process; a fact Charles frequently stated when others assumed he was the sole engineer. These groundbreaking pieces garnered the attention of the Herman Miller team, who were eager to work with the up-and-coming designers. In 1947, the couple entered into a profitable partnership with the Herman Miller company, which retains exclusive market and distribution rights to many of their furniture designs today.
One such design is the DCW (Dining Chair Wood) chair. A featured piece in the Eames MoMA exhibit of 1946, the DCW chair is both comfortable and elegant — intended to mold to the human shape. Time magazine called it “The Best Design of the 20th Century.” The movement of the chair back, fastened to the seat with a rubber mount and moveable connection, provided a much more relaxing experience than was commonly expected from a rigid wooden chair. Still being distributed by Herman Miller, a new DCW chair retails for $895. An antique DCW chair from the 1940s in excellent condition may come close to achieving that price on the secondary market today. However, the majority of DCW chairs in good vintage condition resale closer to the $200-$400 mark. A matched pair or set of vintage DCW chairs often achieves a higher outcome than an individual chair.
EAMES FOR HERMAN MILLER DCW CHAIR – OPEN FOR BIDDING IN OUR JULY 2019 AUCTION
Eames Lounge Chair & Walnut Stool:
One of the most iconic Eames designs is the Lounge Chair and Ottoman, frequently referred to as 670/671 after the Herman Miller part numbers used to make the seating. This curved and comfortable pairing of molded plywood and leather becomes the focal point in any room in spite of its casual purpose. Charles and Ray stated that they wanted the lounge chair to have the “warm receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt.” The baseline price for a 670/671 in good vintage condition is around $2,500, while sets in pristine condition are likely to sell in the $3000-$5000 range.
In 1960, Charles and Ray created carved Walnut Stools for the lobby of Time-Life Building at Rockefeller Center. Ray, with years of sculptural training, took the lead on design and applied a lathe to blocks of solid walnut to form three stools with distinctive profiles. Both the tops and bottoms of the stools are slightly concave to support seating, but flat enough to support your coffee mug without incident — an immensely practical work of art. Today, Vitra and Herman Miller still distribute the Eames Walnut Stool. A vintage “Time-Life” stool today often sells for over $1,000 at auction, depending on the wear and condition.
Wood was just one of the means by which the couple composed their groundbreaking designs. Other frequently utilized materials included fiberglass–reinforced plastic, bent and welded wire mesh, and cast aluminum. Eames plastic molded side and armchairs (or their replicas) are found in offices, classrooms, and homes all over the world today.
In addition to chairs, collectors and designers keep their eyes peeled for vintage Eames cabinets. Produced in a variety of sizes, with open and closed shelving and often featuring colorful panels, the rectangular storage cabinets were referred to as “working art” when they debuted in 1949. Eames vintage cabinets in excellent condition often sell for several thousand dollars.
PAIR OF EAMES LOUNGE CHAIRS FOR HERMAN MILLER
The Eameses highly valued the concept of “play,” and designed many children’s toys. One of their most simple, but lasting ideas was aimed at bringing out the architect in everyone. The “House of Cards” is a set of interlocking building cards. Reproduced with a variety of designs since the 1950s, the originals featured close-up photos of familiar items. Charles and Ray designed a special set for IBM, called “The Computer House of Cards” to be used as souvenirs during the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka Japan. The photos on these cards show the inner workings of the pre-chip computer. Printed only once, the “Computer House of Cards” set is now a rare collector’s item.
CHARLES EAMES SETTING UP A HOUSE OF CARDS
Charles and Ray’s lasting impact stemmed from their artistic partnership and unflinching dedication to excellence for everyday objects. Do you have an Eames item you’re interested in selling or having evaluated? Our appraisal and auction team would love to hear from you.
A wealth of information about Charles, Ray, their process and their iconic designs can be found at eamesoffice.com
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