The Mrs. Files looks at history through a contemporary lens to see what the honorific “Mrs.” means to women and their identity.
America had its first introduction to the artist and designer Ray Eames in 1956, and it was brief. NBC’s “Home” show was featuring the debut of the now-famous Eames lounge chair, and the host, Arlene Francis, opened with Charles Eames — who was “almost a household word,” she told the audience, thanks to a series of earlier chairs made from molded plastic and plywood.
But the name, like the chair, wasn’t his alone. “Almost always when there’s a successful man, there’s a very interesting and able woman behind him,” Francis said, before calling “Mrs. Eames” to the stage to say a few halting words.
Francis asked the couple to explain how the Eames design process worked. “Ray, shall we let Charles do it, or do you want to help?” she asked, barely pausing. “No? See, as I told you, she’s behind the man, but terribly important.” In a clip available on YouTube, as Charles starts talking and the broadcast cuts to a close-up of an undulating plywood seat, you can see Ray’s feet in a corner of the screen, backing away and then disappearing.
It’s not exactly right to say that Ray was sidelined, let alone invisible, in the intensely masculine world of midcentury design. The steady stream of imagery of the couple — sometimes riding on a motorcycle, sometimes frolicking in homemade animal masks, sometimes posing in matched clothing — was as much a part of their work as their chairs, their dozens of experimental movies, or their famous house on the Pacific Ocean, whose light-filled space filled with exquisitely curated assemblages of colorful objects has become a beau ideal of humanized modernism.
But since her death in 1988, Ray Eames has been moving back to the center of the picture. Or rather, the world has been discovering that she was there all along — not just as the beaming helpmeet with sparkling eyes and a Dorothy-from-Oz dress sense, but as an artistic force in and of herself.
She was born Bernice Kaiser in 1911 in Sacramento, where her father for a time ran a vaudeville theater. “Ray” was a childhood nickname, and it stuck (though it would sometimes cause its own confusions: as recently as 2006, an article in The New York Times Magazine credited the classic film “Powers of Ten” to “the Eames brothers”).
She moved to New York City in the 1930s, where she studied with the painter Hans Hofmann and was active with American Abstract Artists, an activist group that picketed galleries that refused to show nonrepresentational art. In 1940, she enrolled at the Cranbrook Academy of Art outside Detroit, where she met Charles, at the time the head of the department of industrial design.
He was tall and angular, a charismatic former track star and football captain whose looks would later draw comparison to Henry Fonda. He was also married, with a young child. After a semester, Ray left, but they exchanged smitten letters.
“We must see each other soon,” he wrote to her in March 1941. “This business of becoming dream people in each other’s minds is no good.” Soon after, Charles divorced his wife, and he and Ray married and moved to California.
Articles and documentaries about the Eameses lean on Charles’s gnomic statements of design philosophy: “The best for the most for the least.” “Never delegate understanding.” “Never let the blood show.” And then there was this one: “Whatever I can do, Ray can do better.”
It’s the kind of tribute that can come off as lip service. But in the decades since their deaths, design critics have increasingly challenged the gendered division of labor — architecture and form-giving for him; color, whimsy and “décor” for her — presumed in many accounts of their work, and of modernism itself.
The birth of the famous molded Eames chairs might be traced to the winning design Charles and Eero Saarinen submitted to a Museum of Modern Art competition in 1940. But it wasn’t until later that Charles and Ray, working in their first Los Angeles apartment on a cobbled-together machine nicknamed the Kazam!, began figuring out how to make the compound curves of their now classic LCW chair work for mass production, with Ray mostly working the machine while Charles earned a paycheck as a set designer at MGM Studios.
And Ray wasn’t merely working out the kinks. The sculptural curves themselves — and the rest of the sprawling Eames output that followed — were influenced by Ray’s early immersion in abstract art, the design historian Pat Kirkham wrote in her 1995 book “Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century.”
“To the extent that the Eames style of the 1940s and 1950s was ‘progressive’ and ‘avant-garde,’” Kirkham wrote, “Ray was certainly as responsible as Charles.”
This was a point frequently underlined by Charles, who spoke about the design process in terms of “we,” “us” and “ours” — not that the world seemed to really hear it. Until the 1970s, the titles of museum exhibitions about their work tended to omit her name. In a 1973 profile in The New York Times titled “Casual Giant of Design,” Charles Eames describes their relationship as “an equal and total alliance.” But the article is described in the paper’s index as being about Charles and his “wife and assistant.”
One 1969 television program described Ray as “sitting like a delicious dumpling in a doll’s dress.” And Ray, at least in front of the cameras, seemed willing to play the part of supportive, mostly silent wife.
“It isn’t the same when I talk,” she told an interviewer in 1977. “Charles has a way of putting things which people pay attention to.”
A creative woman seemingly content to let her husband speak for her and their work together may feel uneasy amid recent feminist reclamation projects aimed at bringing other midcentury artistic women — like Ray’s friend Lee Krasner, who was married to Jackson Pollock — out of their husbands’ shadows (while sometimes also trying to topple the men from the pedestal of male genius).
And Ray, who died 10 years to the day after her husband, left behind few public statements about how she felt, say, in 1985 when she appeared at the World Design Conference to accept his posthumous award as the world’s most influential designer, for work they did together. If she ever seethed at her husband’s higher profile or felt marginalized (as some colleagues in the Eames studio have suggested), she did not show it.
Kirkham, who interviewed her in the years before her death, says that Ray wasn’t concerned with teasing out what part of the creativity symbolized by the name “Eames” was hers.
“She got annoyed when people would say, ‘Ray designed those stools,’ because it meant she wasn’t involved in other stuff, when it was all joint work,” she said in an interview. “She just kept coming back to that. It was all joint work.”