The Role of the Designer

I continue to find the life and work of Charles and Ray Eames a well of inspiration. In the book, Bright Minds, Beautiful Ideas, Timo de Rijk writes on the couple’s early beginnings, their views on American consumerism and the role Charles, Ray and their contemporaries played in shifting the way we view the designer and her position/commitment to society.

On the role of the designer, Rijk writes the following:

Eames was a talented architect for whom during the 1930s nothing stood in the way of further building on a career as a successful designer of comfortable, modern Georgian villas for well-paying clients in the midwest. A meeting with the pre-eminent immigrant architect Eliel Saarinen and his son Eero was the first to change all that. The Cranbrook Academy, where Saarinen taught and Eames studied, was one of the few places in America where a similar European avant-garde belief had been able to gain a foothold. (…) After his meeting with Saarinen, Eames questioned - probably for the first time - his role as a designer. Did he want more than unique designs for houses and churches? Was he happy with the conventional relationship between architect and client, and if not, what should it then be like? At first he was at utter loss with such questions and uncertainty.

The breakthrough came shortly afterwards in 1940 when he met the artist Ray Kaiser. (…) It was she, with her defiant views on modern European painting that inspired Eames to find and take up an independent position within his field. Raising the issue of the everyday job of the designer, which until then Eames had practiced with satisfaction and without any doubt whatsoever, was at the time an unexpected and by no means obvious step. While modern art may have been continually preoccupied with its right to exist, a similar standpoint for architecture and design, especially in America, was far less self-evident.

Charles and Ray Eames successfully carved a new space for themselves within their own profession. Their intention when designing products was quite simple - they ought to improve the world. Can designers today resist the zeitgeist and reinvent their roles again? Moreover, can they expect to establish a successful practice and career amongst the resistance? History suggests it’s possible.

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    So what will it take for us to get back to what eames and others have stated is so important? ‘First things first’...
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