Overlooked designer Ray Eames is finally receiving the recognition she deserves with a fantastic new exhibition, titled ‘Ray’s Hand’, at the Eames Institute of Infinite Curiosities.
Anything I can do, she [Ray] can do better”, said Charles Eames of his wife and creative partner. But like many great women artists, she has been overshadowed by her husband. It’s the curse of the art world’s wife. However, to celebrate Ray Eames’s 110th birthday (on 15th December), the Eames Institute of Infinite Curiosity has launched a superb new online exhibition highlighting Ray’s influence within the office she co-founded and led with her partner Charles. ‘Ray’s Hand’ celebrates her immense contributions to modern design and the iconic Eames Partnership, which have shaped the way we live (and sit).
The exhibition shares the stories, merged across personal and professional lines, of the inspiring pair. For almost four decades after Ray and Charles Eames were married in 1941, they were inseparable in work and in life. Despite the fact that Charles was always deferential to, and complementary of, Ray’s talents in interviews and public appearances, she still was nevertheless viewed as the wife rather than the partner. His greater profile was compounded by contemporary conventions in architectural and design offices whereby designs went out in the name of male head of an office, and by assumptions that in any husband/wife partnerships the woman was the less significant partner.
Yet, unlike many women designers and architects who collaborated with their husbands, Ray worked full-time and, in order to devote themselves to their work, the Eameses even kept a cook at the office. This exhibit from the Eames Institute aims to help shift the way this relationship has traditionally been viewed, and illuminate the many ways in which Ray shaped what we understand as Eames designs, from furniture to films, toys and architecture.
After the war, people wanted a new kind of design and décor, and Ray and Charles provided it. “We want to make the best for the most for the least”, was the simple and effective mission statement. “What works good is better than what looks good because what works good lasts,” said Ray. In fact, the two things went hand in hand for the duo. The Bauhaus had pioneered this functional approach but this pair now made it mainstream. While it was Charles who introduced modernist design to America, it was Ray who softened its hard edges, creating bold but pleasing designs that were attractive to mass audiences.
In fact, it was Ray’s art background that accounts for the bold colour choices, layering of objects and clever juxtapositions across their creations. As a student, she specialised in illustration, poster art, art anatomy, art history and fine art. Committed to abstract art, she was also a founding member of the American Abstract Artists (AAA), a group established in 1936 to promote abstraction at a time when the major museums and galleries refused to show it. Ray was at the heart of the New York art scene, and her good friends, Lee Krasner and Mercedes Matter, went on to play important roles in abstract expressionism.
Ray once quipped in 1982 that “I never gave up painting, I just changed my palette.”
With this in mind, her palette can be interpreted as the whole of the Eameses’ world — from furniture, graphics, and film, to showrooms, exhibitions, and architecture, to the workings of a world-renowned design office and a life well-lived.
The many roles Ray played behind the scenes, such as set decorator, stylist, colourist, material consultant, and host, were not highly appreciated or understood at the time—but have subsequently evolved into established disciplines and entire fields of practice. She was, always in her own way, very much a trailblazer.
This exhibit delves deep into Ray’s work as it uncovers her countless contributions that have been obscured for decades. Culled from the Eames Institute’s collection—much of which has never seen the light of day since the closing of the original Eames Office at 901 Washington in 1988—the online exhibit offers a new window into the Eameses’ partnership by highlighting a variety of different artifacts that illustrate Ray’s multi-faceted and multitudinous contribution to their iconic work including the House of Cards collection, Time Life Stool and the Sea Things Tray, for which she created intricate geometric patterns that resulted in commercial success.
The artifacts, which you can easily explore item by item, include intimate sketches, scraps, and tools that provide insight into her unique creative process. The goal of the exhibition, which it certainly achieves, is to demonstrate Ray’s active and continuous contributions to the partnership and in doing so have a greater understanding of the Eameses’ process and how it can inspire and inform a more participatory practice of design today. Moreover, it becomes apparent that it was Ray’s female centred approach to design and problem-solving that has created the lasting legacy of Eames.
“My grandmother, Ray Eames, helped shape my outlook on design. I saw from her how design was a powerful tool to assess and solve problems,” shared Llisa Demetrios, Chief Curator at the Eames Institute. “I loved how she did not look at an object in isolation but how an object related to everything around it. I liked hearing her talk at the office about always honing and improving on an idea whether film, photograph, exhibit or graphic. I also liked watching the mutual respect of my grandparents working together where I felt each one had 51% of the vote.”
A fascinating exhibition, it celebrates the hand of Ray Eames, an artist, designer, filmmaker, visual communicator, and much more. Not only does it shed light on the roadblocks and stereotypes that Ray faced over half a century ago, but those which women in design still feel today. Congratulations to the The Eames Institute of Infinite Curiosity for bringing Ray out of Charles’ shadow to credit a great woman creator behind the Eamesian “look” that so many of us know and love, as it has shaped the way we live.
To delve into Ray’s work through the exhibit, you can visit eamesinstitute.org