Architects and Housewives

Architects and Housewives

An Eames Anthology
Edited by Daniel Ostroff
Yale University Press, $50

The way I read, every book is a self-help book. I am a mercenary, hunting ruthlessly for the stuff I can use. I recently found An Eames Anthology, a collection of Charles and Ray Eames’ texts—articles, film scripts, interviews, letters, notes, and speeches—edited by Daniel Ostroff. The first thing I did with was turn to the index to look for writings credited to Ray alone. I wanted to read those first.

There are about ten in a book with more than 120 entries. It’s not a contest, of course, but Ray-ray (her childhood nickname—and mine) remains a bit of a mystery. She and Charles were business and domestic partners and this relationship is complicated beyond measure. But while their friend, director Billy Wilder, may have said “They are one,” my gut says not exactly. I persist in the search for more information about her as an individual, and a more nuanced understanding of their collaboration.

Charles described their working process in an AIA seminar transcript found in the anthology. In 1952 he writes, “Things began to get shuffled, and pretty soon you didn’t know where one started and the other ended, and anything that we’ve looked at or talked about here, I say that I’m doing it, but actually, she’s doing it just as much as I am, only she sort of goes under the same corporate type name.”

Charles exhibits both self and brand awareness in identifying his own as the “corporate type name.” Preternaturally savvy about images of themselves, perhaps they both knew that his name was their shared clown makeup. But even after claiming his name was an umbrella, in speech after speech, and in nearly every interview, Charles shares credit with Ray unbidden, beginning in the early 1940s. The anthology is arranged strictly chronologically and as one pushes through the years, there are scattered clues about their creative partnership; it’s like following breadcrumbs.

The first drafts of two letters—a 1949 letter to Richard Neutra and a 1954 letter to Henry Ford, II—are presented in facsimile in Ray’s handwriting, with the final, delivered versions signed by Charles alone. Who knows if she initiated these or if he dictated to her? We have to be very careful not to make assumptions about husband-and-wife relations: him hogging the mic and her long-suffering. Charles was already aware of how they might be perceived, as he reveals in a PBS television interview from 1969: “The result of being asked questions… is a kind of metamorphosis which turns me from a sort of simple, unassuming guy into a monster full of great bits of wisdom, Mr. Know-it-all of the century,” said Charles. “With Ray it’s no less violent, but it’s simpler. It’s pure paralysis.”

With so few of Ray’s words available, we must turn to biographical details for clues. An Eames Anthology is dedicated to Lucia (1930-2014), who was born in St. Louis to Charles Eames and his first wife, Catherine Woermann. Fellow LA-based practitioner Linda Taalman and I were once talking about being women architects with children and I remember reminding her that Ray was Lucia’s step, not biological mom. This detail seemed crucial to me; I had a collection of Case Study Mothers.

The material in An Eames Anthology ranges from their most ambitious intellectual efforts to such prosaic details as these, and every page is compelling. The collection was supported by the Eames Foundation, established by Lucia in 2004, which in the intervening years has come to function in Los Angeles as an ever-present force of modernist art historical legitimization, imaginatively underpinning the Los Angeles design community’s ongoing efforts.

Lucia was eleven when Charles and Ray left Saint Louis for Los Angeles, and she was a sophomore at Vassar by the time the Eames House was completed. Also known as Case Study House 8, the residence was never intended to accommodate daily life with a baby or young child. Charles stressed that point in Arts and Architecture 66, no. 12 from December 1949, noting “the actual plan within the system is personal, and whether or not it solves the particular requirements of many families is not important as a case study.” A March 1948 description from the same magazine is even more specific: “Two people with close working interests.” Later, Lucia expanded on the point in 2005 shortly after the establishment of the Eames Foundation, “It was designed for a professional couple with a kid at school,” she clarified in an interview with Metropolis magazine.

With the work of child-rearing deferred, delegated, declined, or displaced, the couple was free to work a 7-day week together— until after 10 p.m. most days. At the office they were known for having employed local people, war veterans, and housewives. Charles and Ray seemed to have a thing about housewives. The last line of the first entry in the anthology, Charles’ 1941 essay “Design Today,” reads, “Certainly the future cannot be considered hopeless as long as designers continue to honor the accomplishment of producing a very inexpensive article that can serve well and bring pleasure to a million housewives.”

And Ray’s list of “all creators” from “Line and Color” (1943), concludes with the unpunctuated line: “the man on the job the woman in the home and painters.” Maybe they were fascinated by housewives because, between the two of them, neither of them had it in them to take on the job. In 1973, Charles revealed as much in an interview. “My wife and I work together all the time and so we have a housekeeper, Maria,” he said. “And she darns my socks, turns my collars, turns my shirtsleeves.”

An Eames Anthology is a snapshot of the couple that simultaneously exemplifies and defies the gender normativity of the Mad Men era. Readers must resist attempts to reduce these creative ancestors into stereotypes, villains, or heroines. If we extend the valiant naïveté of the Eames into the future we may feel like their imaginary children with unresolved Oedipal issues—as if we have to kill them. Visiting Los Angeles art galleries in the late 1990s, it was easy to lose count of the exhibitions of sliced-and-diced Eames chairs reconfigured into sculptural installations, but perhaps in retrospect they make sense. One of Ray’s other nicknames was Buddha and you’ve probably heard: When you meet the Buddha in the road, kill her.