THE EAMES TEAM REMEMBERS
JOHN NEUHART, with wife, Marilyn, exhibition and graphic designers and authors, with Ray Eames, of “Eames design” (Abrams)
I was hired as a graphic designer in the summer of 1957 and was immediately put to work building the mechanical motion displays for the Alcoa solar energy toy, christened the “Do-Nothing Machine.” (Part of a national ad campaign forecasting future uses of aluminum, the Eames Office contribution was one of many solicited from designers nationwide.) Past experience building model airplanes, bookshelves and learning to cut metal in my jewelry class at UCLA had hardly prepared me for what I faced. And the pressure was on; several starts and attempts had been made before I arrived, and the office was facing a looming deadline. We were experimenting with new technologies for which there was little existing experience to fall back upon, adding pressure to the project.
I battled my way through four months of ad hoc, trial-and-error attempts fraught with anxiety. Would I still have a job if this fails? Would my 7-month-old marriage survive the all-night sessions and constant stress? Would I ever get back to graphic design? Was Parke Meek’s ulcer contagious? Finally, I seemed to be on the brink of success. I managed, with advice from co-workers Don Albinson, Parke and Charles, to arrive at a workable system that harnessed solar energy through photovoltaic cells to drive six small electric motors that set in motion a series of decorative pinwheel shapes mounted on an elliptical aluminum platform. We had enough to produce the desired end result--the photograph that would appear in national magazines. My next lesson about the Office was that no one was allowed to even contemplate basking in the glow of success (or to expect praise). It was always on to the next project--in this case, shooting the photograph, wherein I was destined to learn the answer to the age-old question: What did Ray Eames actually do?
At noon one day we started to set up the solar machine and the lights, and by 3 a.m. the next morning we had it placed on a mound of dirt and rocks in front of a sky backdrop that suggested a desert scene. We were all exhausted and irritable by the time Charles started shooting the 8-by-10 images. After a couple of hours, he was on the last sheet of film. Suddenly Ray screamed, “It isn’t shining!”
Charles emerged from under the camera’s black hood, his hair standing up like a cock’s comb. We all groaned. “What isn’t shining?” he yelled at Ray. “The diamond isn’t shining,” she moaned. “Does anyone know what she is talking about?” growled Charles. “I do,” I said. “She means the diamond-shaped intermittent wheel at the upper part of the machine.” There was stunned silence. Getting it lighted meant more scrambling onto ladders and readjusting the lights. “OK,” said Charles, “If you can get a light on it within 10 minutes, we’ll do another shot.” I ignored the exasperated looks from my fellow staff members and climbed to the top of the ladder to maneuver the light around until Ray shrieked, “It’s shining! It’s shining!”
Charles made the last exposure and we all went home. The next day, when we looked at the six sheets of developed film, you can guess which one was chosen--the one with the shining diamond. I had just passed another rite of passage and now understood Ray’s position in the Eames equation: shining. And, yes, I had a job, my marriage survived and, after more tangential trials by fire, I finally did get back to graphic design. Parke had surgery for his ulcer and made Charles pay for it.
DON ALBINSON, retired furniture designer
I started work at the Eames Office in January 1946 and worked there for 14 years. I spent time mostly on furniture design, but I was also involved in many other activities. I did architecture, films, graphic art, toys and furniture design. As most of the people who worked in the Eames Office will attest, Charlie was a taskmaster, expecting a lot of work--not only during the day, but also into the evenings and on weekends when it was important to get a project finished. Yet the best part about working during those years is that when we were on a project that required a lot of hands, everybody would fall to. You ended up with experience in a lot of different areas.
SAM PASSALACQUA, semi-retired graphic designer
Shortly after starting at the Eames Office in 1967, I was told by my boss, Bob Staples, to see Ray Eames, who needed some paint mixed and sprayed on white paper. I found Ray in the graphics room and she gave me a small piece of gray-green painted paper to match, insisting that I show her a sample of the mixed color before spraying the large sheet of white paper. She said she wanted to be sure it was right--the painted-paper drawer that she kept was full of wrong colors painted by people who thought they were right.
As anyone who knows colors can tell you, gray-green can be a very difficult color to match. Environmental lighting and reflection, the substrate and type of paint can throw it off. But I tackled the job with gusto and soon had what I thought was a very close match. I proudly marched to the graphics room to show Ray, who, with a quick glance rejected it, saying, “More green.”
Following a half-dozen failed attempts, Bob Staples asked if I was “making a career of the project.” When he saw my painted samples that Ray had rejected, he shook his head and said that they were real close. He then placed Ray’s original sample next to mine and sprayed lightly over both with my latest mix, which was still in the spray gun. With a wink, he said to make sure the paint dried well or Ray would smell the fresh paint on her sample.
When I recovered from the shock of what Bob had done, I realized that I could get into a lot of trouble if Ray discovered the ploy. I couldn’t blame Bob--he was my boss and I had to work with him.
After what seemed an eternity, the paint dried and I slowly started walking to the graphics room, then lost my nerve andwaited for another 20 minutes to be sure the paint was truly dry.
When I finally made it to the graphics room, Ray asked me what took so long. I replied honestly that I had to wait for the paint to dry. She then took both samples--hers and mine--to the window to view under natural light, squinted her eyes as designers often do and said, “More green!”
PARKE MEEK, owner of Jadis scientific and industrial prop rentals
Ray Eames took a childlike delight in receiving gifts and often could not bear to unwrap them. Her little office was filled with ribbon-festooned packages from friends. One year, Deborah Sussman gave Ray a carton of her favorite cigarettes, Benson & Hedges. The carton was reverently placed on a shelf alongside myriad other unopened gifts--that is, until several months later, when designer Alexander Girard was visiting the office and wanted to smoke. He spied the untouched carton of Benson & Hedges and promptly opened it. Upon unwrapping a pack, he was shocked to find that each cigarette had been ornately hand-painted by Deborah and resealed as if they’d never been touched.
PETER PEARCE, industrial and product designer
I arrived at the Eames Office early one morning in June 1958 for a job interview. Having just graduated from the Institute of Design in Chicago, it was to be my first potential job as a professional designer.
I had discovered Eames furniture design in my junior year of college and was profoundly moved by the extraordinary success with which form, function, structure, materials and process had been integrated. There was clarity of intent that was manifest not only in the shape of the products but in how they were held together. Nothing in the construction was concealed from view.
With the Eames design ethos, form became an agent of performance. Charles Eames had set very high standards for design in his office, for work that was guided by durable underlying principles. However, as an inexperienced designer, I had no idea what it would be like to actually work there.
Following my interview, I began work at the Eames Office that very morning. I was given assignments immediately, but I worked at least three weeks before being convinced that I had actually been hired. I did begin to receive a modest weekly paycheck. Even so, my employment was only implied, and it was never explicitly stated that I had been offered a job. But the ambiguity of my status was of little concern. I stayed three years.
As it turned out, implicitness was the modus operandi of the Eames Office. There was an implicit sense of urgency about everything we did and, above all, there was an implicit standard of excellence to which we must aspire. Just observing Charles’ behavior, from his work ethic and his reactions to ideas, ensured that everyone who worked there rose to his or her highest levels of performance. Charles Eames’ urgency about quality may be his greatest contribution. The standards of quality he exemplified must become the standards to which we all aspire.
DEBORAH SUSSMAN, president and owner, Sussman/Prejza & Company
In 1953, as a student intern, I flew from New York to Los Angeles to meet Charles and Ray Eames. Upon my arrival, Charles asked incredulously, “You flew when you could have taken the train?” Surprisingly, but characteristically, Charles Eames liked to refer to himself as “a 19th century person.” He loved the technology and culture he grew up with. My internship turned into a four-year tenure as a member of the “Eames design family.” After a three-year absence, while I worked in Europe, Charles invited me to return to the Eames Office.
The year was 1963. I was working on the design and installation of the Tandem Seating in Herman Miller’s New York showroom. The system was developed for waiting areas in airports and is still in use--and widely copied--today. Ironically, Charles decided to introduce this concept in a setting of an old railroad station--the very existence of which was threatened by air travel. With the help of Bob Blaich of Herman Miller, I enhanced the railroad station sets for the showroom by adding an old, intricately painted street organ that we felt evoked a playful relationship with the turn of the century’s golden years of rail travel.
Surely Charles, too, would love this discovery and would be delighted to play the organ grinder. Our crowning touch was the last-minute addition of a live monkey. The opening event was scheduled for 5:30. Charles arrived early to look things over. To our horror, he went ballistic about the presence of the organ, but even more so about the monkey. We were deflated. People began to arrive. There was no time to rewrite the script or revise our staging. Although the monkey was quickly retired to the “back of the house,” Charles was stuck next to the street organ in the abhorrent role of organ grinder, having to pretend he enjoyed the entire scenario. The part was most definitely not for Charles--too corny, too silly, too demeaning and totally out of character. And, worst of all, he was photographed playing the street organ, smiling cheerfully and “Eamesily” through clenched teeth.
[postscript from Sussman’s husband and partner, architect Paul Prejza]
Evidently, Charles didn’t really hate the street organ. It was present and visible in the Eames Office until the very end. When Ray died in 1988, an impromptu gathering at the Eames Office was called. Deborah was in London, and when I called her with the news, she insisted that I “say goodbye to Ray” for her. It was a triste but lively event, with many longtime Eames staff and friends from over the years. As the evening drew to a close, a mournful but sonorous wail--somewhere between carousel music and a bagpiper’s strains--sounded throughout the office. The finality of the sounds brought tears to my eyes. It was the street organ being played to signal the end of the event. But for most of us in that space, it really symbolized not just the end of the evening, but the end of Ray and the end of the Eames Office as we knew it.
JEANNINE OPPEWALL, motion picture production designer whose films include “L.A. Confidential,” “Pleasantville” and “Snow Falling on Cedars”
I came to the office with little design training. Charles told me that he could teach someone how to draw, but he could not teach anyone how to think or how to see. Could I think? Could I see? At the time I didn’t know enough to know that I didn’t. Today I do: I learned it all from him.
He had little truck with fiction and was genuinely uncomfortable in, if not scornful of, the worlds of psychiatry and self-expression--”navel-gazing,” he would say. His feeling was more for the parable. The obsession of many artists with personal originality made no sense to him, even though his work was among the most original of the century. He thought like a scientist: you just built on the work of the guy ahead of you. Your job was to rework the old tales in the light of the new language. And that’s just what he did with his chairs.
I watched him operate smoothly and successfully the wide world of business and government and saw that political skill, charm and articulateness count for as much in this life as knowledge. I also learned something from Ray Eames: As a woman, if you wanted a serious career, it would be best to get one all on your own, free and clear of a husband more famous, more powerful, more verbally skillful than you, because your contributions, however significant, could be easily overlooked, and you would end up spending enormous energy in quiet rage over the injustice of all this.
When I finally decided to leave the office, Charles admonished me not to let down my standards. I can only hope I haven’t. I do know that what I learned from him I try every day to pass on to others: that you always have to look really, really hard in order to be able to see even a little.
PAMELA E. HEDLEY, retired VP, Manhattan Project film company
Charles used to drop off his car for servicing across the street from the office at Paul’s gas station. One evening he ran out of gas. The police encountered him desperately trying to find where to pump gas into his car. They presumed his lack of knowledge could only mean that Charles had stolen the car. They frisked and handcuffed him. He later learned that the gas cap was behind the license plate.
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