This is a collection of little tidbits that my father, Robert Frei, told us about his early years with one of the most iconic designers of the Mid Century Modern artistic movement, Charles Eames and his wife, Ray Eames. He did not speak of it often, even though we had a house full of assorted Eames furniture of the most eclectic nature. During the late nineteen sixties and early 1970’s, the world seemed new and exciting. Not only did the changes seem to be coming at an amazing pace, but they also felt exciting and good. People were going to the moon. It was being promised that our lives were about to get better, because of new, smartly designed products. It felt like humanity was learning about how the universe was much larger, and smaller, than we had ever thought. Were my feelings of excitement just because of my young age? Possibly, but what did a little kid like me know or care about good design? Much of it, I absorbed from my father, though one rarely knows it at the time.
Never had I written much down about life, though it had crossed my mind a number of times that I wished that I had, ‘but it’s too late now, memories lost, oh well’ I had thought… at twenty… at thirty… at… ALS finely made me think that now might be a good time to shake up the bats in the attic, so I am piecing it together now by quizzing the strength of the friendships that had been made between the little neurons in my head over the years. That mechanism still amazes me, as you might have noticed.
Charles Eames grew up in St. Louis. He was just starting to develop new ideas and do some experimenting before he left for California. From my father’s stories, it sounded like Eames had become friends with my grandparents, and my young teenage father. He may even have used some of the space in our family stained glass studio to do some of his early experimenting. If my father was anything like me, and I’m sure that he was, young Bob Frei would have had his fingers in everything Eames was trying to do, and I don’t mean metaphorically. Eames and his talented wife, Ray, moved to Los Angeles just before hitting the big time.
There is an overwhelming number of stories, histories and biographies on the subject of the Eames’s. This short story is not meant to be about them and is only lightly researched in that area…These are the recollections, put in writing, of the stories told by Robert Frei, a little here, a little there, about an interesting time of development in his life – as remembered by his youngest son.
My father got his degree in fine art from Washington University in St. Louis. He also had skills in photography and all of the machinery that went along with such. High end photography, at that time, required an amazing amount of cool machinery; there were dark rooms, smelling of odd chemicals, which were either pitch black (when working with negatives), or bathed in an eerie deep red light (when enlarging onto photo paper). How my father developed these skills in his younger years is unknown to me. Was it at Washington University? On his own? Or perhaps even from Charles Eames, as photographic arts is one of the many irons Eames had in the fire. My father did not speak of how he had gathered his knowledge, but only of some of his professional work. I find it puzzling that a man who liked to talk and tell funny stories (I owe so much of this to him), spoke so little of the things that really mattered in life… or, hold on… maybe he did talk about the things that really mattered in life. I wish that I could interview him now. How silly we are, always missing the opportunity to see an opportunity.
Out in California, Charles and Ray Eames become hugely successful with innovative furniture designs, using thin sheets of wood, glue, a mold and a powerful press. Interesting yet seemingly organic shapes could be made in this way. They even made some three-dimensional shapes by this method but that involved stretching the sheets, not only bending them. Wood does not like that, and thus was only marginally successful. Eventually turning to molded fiberglass, they got their three-dimensional shapes.
As Charles and Ray were hitting the big time, they signed a contract with the Herman Miller furniture company, allowing their designs to really come to market. An important part of that contract called for Ray and Charles to keep designing for the company.
Charles Eames was interested in, well, everything. According to Wikipedia, he had been pushed out of Washington University in St. Louis, the same place that my father had later gotten his degree, for such a variety of reasons given that it’s difficult to tell what the real reason was. Perhaps it was for all of the reasons. The list included, ‘sleep deprivation’, caused by all of Charles’s other projects being pursued in parallel to school, to the assertion that, ‘his designs were pushing too far, too modern.’
The furniture company was anxiously and eagerly awaiting new designs that would continue the ball rolling on the huge success that this was becoming but new designs might not have been arriving as quickly as had been hoped, however. It seemed that the wildly ranging mind that didn’t fit neatly into the University setting was still on the prowl. Eames, perhaps, might have had been a little short on time, for along with designing furniture, he was also a successful architect, a filmmaker, a lover of science and the photographic arts.
My father went to California to photograph Charles and Ray’s recent progress. I have no idea how this came about. It was my impression that he had been hired by Herman Miller. What I do remember, is my dad saying that he was quite excited about it at the time. He was in his early twenties and thought very highly of the Eameses.
Perhaps all of their other interests, filmmaking being one, might have distracted the Eameses from making new furniture designs. This could have easily made them feel a little defensive. My father’s photography project in California did not go as well as he had expected. Emersed in the joy of art, a little taste of the realities of business smacked Dad in the face; he felt as if he was being treated as a spy for Herman Miller. My father spoke sadly of his gig in California. The thing that he was looking forward to, the couple that he so looked up to, had turned a bit sour. Although sad, I did not detect anger, however. At least by the time I came around, my father still admired the man, the couple, their achievements and his small part in those goings on.
Circling back to our eclectic assortment of furniture, I believe that we might have been the recipients of a few trials and experiments. While most of it was good, a drill had to be taken out and bolts added on occasion, especially when someone plunked down, and kept plunking, until they had found themselves plunked flat on their back, behind where they had been expecting to be plunked. We laughed until our faces hurt.
This is a film that played in the Smithsonian Space Museum in Washington DC. Made by Charles Eames in 1977, it fascinated the young me. This, being his most famous film, is a wonderful expose’ on the size of the universe, both big and small. Though we’ve pushed further since then, it is amazing how much was known by then – and you gotta’ love the 70’s Sci fi music!
Powers of Ten; A Film by Charles Eames
It’s worth a watch.
As it turns out, rather by coincidence, my wife, Mary and I are now living in one of the most Mid-Century Modern neighborhoods in St. Louis. This historic neighborhood has a very informative website: