How a love story that created history in the world of modern architecture changed my relationship ideals
By: Audra Roslani
Smart. Good looking. Rich. These traits are often on the list of most girls when it comes to that proverbial checklist of desirable qualities one should look for in a life partner and I was no exception. However, as unlikely as it sounds, it took a trip to the Essential Eames exhibit in Singapore’s ArtScience Museum sometime last year to have me rethink what I wanted in a relationship. Strange? Certainly, but while I was expecting to see a lot of groundbreaking architectural and design creations eponymous with the Herman Miller brand (which I did), little did I know I would be leaving with a clearer expectation of what it meant to be in a relationship that could move mountains and change the world as we know it.
For the uninitiated, the Eames brand actually consist of husband and wife duo, Charles and Ray Eames, but it was not always so. Their story began when architect Charles Eames received a fellowship to Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan at the age of 23 and eventually became the head of the design department. It is here that he met Ray Kaiser in 1940, a student who assisted him and his work partner Eero Saarinen in preparing designs and the rest is history. Love bloomed quietly and quickly, and they wed in 1941 at a friend’s apartment in Chicago and moved to Los Angeles a month later to begin their life and career together.
And what a career it was! From designing pioneering lightweight leg splints for the U.S. Navy to the Case Study House that’s been touted as one of the most important post-war residences built anywhere in the world and of course, the iconic modern American aesthetic consisting of chairs, tables, case goods and so on using their preferred choice of moulded plywood. It was here that they then began their association with esteemed furniture producers, Herman Miller, in 1946 that still continues to produce their highly desirable furniture amongst design enthusiasts the world over to this very day.
While I was undoubtedly blown away by the creativity of these two illustrious designers as individuals, the one thing that stuck with me was that without the other, neither would have been able to reach the level of greatness that they did as a collective. Romantically, their recently released handwritten private letters with lots of playful banterand inside jokes, joined the ranks of great love letters between other infamous artistic lovers such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Henry Miller and Anais Nin, and Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz.
They dabbled in all sorts of creative projects, never once restricting themselves to their known job descriptions which often resulted in magic; their experimental groundbreaking film, the Power of Ten film in 1977 forever changed the way we looked at the universe from up above, decades before we even knew what the Internet was and definitely before the creation of Google Earth, if you will. They made math exciting after being commissioned by IBM Corporation to design an interactive exhibition called Mathematica: A World of Numbers…and Beyond which presented mathematical concepts in a fun and accessible manner that could “be of interest to a bright student and not embarrass the most knowledgeable.”
While Charles was often given sole credit for their creations at the beginning of their success, it wasn’t long until he started crediting his wife and revealed that many of their successful designs were a result of a joint collaboration between the two. In 1952, he said of their partnership: “We’ve been working together for, oh, 12 years now, I guess. At first I used to help and criticize things she was doing, and then she would help and criticize things I was doing, and we would. . . pitch in and do all the jiggering for each other and get it as people do.”
“And then, gradually, things began to get shuffled, and pretty soon you didn’t know, sort of, where one started and the other ended, and anything that we’ve looked at or talked about here, you know, I say that I’m doing it, but actually, she’s doing it just as much as I am.”
Together both in life and death, the relationship that Charles and Ray endured was definitely one of an all encompassing partnership; whether creatively, professionally or romantically, it was one that was nurturing as both worked as a team and their equally childlike inquisitive way of learning and discovering the way the world worked often resulted in phenomenal creations, undoubtedly proof that two brains – when in tandem, are better than one. In 1978, he passed away due to a heart attack while on a consulting trip, and Ray died in 1988 – exactly 10 years to the day after Charles, and was buried next to him.
I left the exhibit with a bittersweet yet strange sense of validation that the current relationship I was in with a photographer, shared similarities to the Eameses. A healthy relationship is one that selflessly pushes you to be the best version of yourself, which lends you an extra hand to get you to where you want to be without impeding on your happiness.
Encouragement. Companionship. A sense of humour. These are the qualities that I desire in my significant other.
To learn more about the Eames and to do your bit to help preserve their home for the next 250 years, visit www.eameshouse250.org and purchase some exclusive prints for yourself!
Photo credit: The Eames Foundation