Today, two architects see with a child's eye. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
A friend stopped by my
office and left off a three-inch stack of tough 7 x
11" cards with slitted sides. Each card had a
different design -- spirals, gems, dodecahedrons,
They were her childhood toys. "See," she said, "you
fit them together and make things." Last night my
wife and I built a castle from them. Our cats
stalked the work -- curious, worried.
Those cards were just one of hundreds of designs by
Charles and Ray Eames. In 1941 architect Charles
Eames and artist Ray Kaiser married. Six months
later, America joined WW-II.
They'd already begun working with molded plywood.
They'd invented their Kazam machine to press heated
plywood against a plaster mold. First they made
molded plywood litters and splints for wounded
soldiers. Next they made plywood airplane parts.
As the War ground down, they turned to chairs.
First children's chairs, then all-plywood dining
chairs. Next they added chrome-plated steel legs.
After that, the catalog of their work is a catalog
of furniture you grew up with.
You've seen those chairs so often, you don't see
them any more. Seats of molded plywood fitted with
clean chrome-plated legs. Sometimes the plywood's
filled with black leather padding.
From chairs, the Eameses went to a whole range of
office furniture. Then they molded fiberglas. They
made those black plastic and chrome assembly-hall
chairs -- the ones that nest together so you can
stack them twelve high. In one form, their chairs
defined the modern air terminal.
The hallmark of their stuff is its clean childlike
simplicity. The theme of play runs in all their
work. In 1951 they made something they simply
called The Toy. It was a set of large triangles
that children could use to build play houses.
They cooked up those mind-stretching building cards
in 1952. They invented a coloring toy and a line of
tops. They made movies, and they designed exhibit
halls. That great whirl of forms had one clear
center. It was the optimism of a child's eye.
For 40 years Charles and Ray formed the perfect
symbiosis. "He was the energy, she the taste," a
one-time associate told me. For 40 years their
furniture carved its place in our lives.
I hate to dismantle that castle of cards we built
last night. This morning the cat'd been in it.
She'd bent it into a new form -- one that never
occurred to us last night. Like all the Eameses'
work, the simplicity of those cards hides
possibility that bends and turns. Like the Eameses
themselves, those crazy cards harbor the twin
design virtues -- of simplicity and surprise.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Neuhart, J., Neuhart, M., Eames, R., Eames
Design New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.,
1989. (published after the death of both Charles
and Ray Eames.)
Neuhart, M., and Neuhart, J., The Saarinen Legacy:
The Eames Connection, from the Rice Design
Alliance Lecture Series. Oct. 25, 1989.
(Tape available at the University of Houston
College of Architecture Visual Resource Unit.)
I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and
Architecture Librarian, for suggesting the topic
and for providing both the bibliographic material
and the building cards; to Jean Krchnak, UH Art and
Architecture Slide Library, for the Neuhart tape;
and to Bill Howze, video producer and former Eames
associate, for his counsel.
For a set of Eames chairs, see