At the New Permanent Eames Archive in California, You Can Deep-Dive Into the Design Process of Charles and Ray Through 40,000 Artifacts
From the moment that Charles Eames, formerly an architect and teacher, and Ray Eames, formerly a fine artist, began a shared design practice in 1941, they cultivated an unusually meticulous creative process: In lieu of drawings and schematics, the couple worked out ideas and solved problems in real-time by creating endless physical models and prototypes, searching for weaknesses they could address in the next round. They would make the first few tests in their Los Angeles apartment, then cycle through hundreds or even thousands more at their studio in Venice before they declared a design ready to manufacture; for their first joint product venture, a molded-plywood chair, they famously built a plywood-bending machine called the Kazam! — at home, while Charles was moonlighting as a set designer for MGM — which they noodled on for years before finally shipping it to the Evans Products Company’s engineering team to recreate. It’s no wonder, then, that until the Eames Office closed after Ray’s death in 1988, they were able to rack up more than 40,000 artifacts of their design process — and also no wonder that it took the family nearly 25 years to catalog them and finally make them available for public viewing all in one place, at the newly opened Eames Archive in Richmond, California.
The Archive is a 15,000 square-foot space just over 30 minutes south of the Eames Ranch, which until now had served as the headquarters for the Eames Institute, the non-profit running the Archive that serves to educate people about, and build upon, the ideas and legacy of the beloved design duo. Founded in 2022 under the patronage of billionaire Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia, the Institute also runs a land stewardship program at the Ranch, and recently took over San Francisco bookseller William Stout’s landmark bookshop, as well as his extensive personal library. By opening the Archive, which officially started booking ticketed tours on February 1, they’ve created a permanent pilgrimage space for Eames fans to come and obsess over every leg shape, hardware change, finish option, and form shift the designers made over the years both to their new designs and to their classics, which were not exempt from the pair’s never-ending troubleshooting process.
Get a sneak peek of the Archive below, then head to the Eames Institute website to book a tour with lead curator (and Charles’s granddaughter) Llisa Demetrios. And in case you can’t get to Richmond anytime soon, be sure to check out the Institute’s online collection page, which offers mini digital exhibitions of Archive objects through which you can get to know the Eameses ideas from anywhere on earth.
PHOTOS BY NICHOLAS CALCOTT The new building in Richmond that houses the Institute was previously the office and archive of SF bookseller William StoutInside the entrance is a store selling new and vintage items, plus an Instagram-friendly selfie moment with Charles and Ray The Institute’s main exhibition features prototypes, material experiments, and ephemera from the now-shuttered Eames Office in LAIt also includes paintings made by Ray Eames, who was a fine artist before she co-founded the OfficeThe ephemera includes work created for clients like IBM and the ill-fated National Fisheries Center and AquariumOn the lower right, a business card for Charles that reads “PLYFORMED WOOD COMPANY” Behind the exhibition is a towering archive room displaying the Institute’s collection of hundreds of prototypes and production variations on pieces like the Molded Plywood chair and LCW LoungeBooks, toys, and Eames miniatures in the Institute’s shop