ReAppreciating The Eames Office
Updated: May 1, 2019
What are the Boundaries of Design?
What is the Purpose of Design?
We could not help but notice that these questions can be seen often arising and re-arising today in various online discussion groups. We also noticed that many of the thousands of folks now participating in the various “Design Thinking’ discussion groups on LinkedIn and elsewhere often have no experience of design school education settings and thus often have little or no understanding of design history, in all of its useful imperfections... :-)
On such lists not everyone seems to be aware that typically students studying in undergraduate design programs are, in addition to contemporary studies, schooled in the various streams of design history, architecture history, art history, other histories etc. That knowledge serves as part of a foundation that stays with many students for the rest of their lives. For some of us it is difficult to imagine operating in the field without such knowledge let alone being in a position to help reinvent the industry in meaningful ways.
It is true that the history of design is dominated by Design 1 and Design 2 consciousness among its various early heroes but there were numerous pioneering figures who had larger (Design 3 & Design 4) notions of possibilities for design, now being reframed by some as design thinking. Charles Eames (1907-1978) was one of those pioneering big design thinkers.
In undergraduate school most design students encounter the Eames philosophy and the enormous body of work executed by the Eames Office in Venice California run by Charles and his wife Ray Eames (1912-1988).
Still today the Eames office serves as inspiration to many strategic design practices including Humantific. We do different things today then they did then, but we have enormous respect for what they were able to accomplish at a time when computers did not yet exist.
Among other things the Eames office was incorporating early versions of experience design, learning by doing and sensemaking for the purpose of changemaking. Primarily they were focused outwardly into the marketplace and did not have the sensemaking or changemaking knowledge or tools that exist today. Never-the-less it remains useful, dare I say important, for those interested in entering the subject of design / design thinking to understand the Eames vision. Charles himself talked about standing on the shoulders of others.
Its worth looking back at their work, taking time to listen to Charles in particular. You can do that by watching a few key films posted on YouTube and or by reading the various excellent books on the subject of the Eames Office.
Posted below is the text from the “Design Q&A Overview” film interview conducted in 1972. Charles passed away in 1978.
Mme. L. Amic of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Palais de Louvre was asking the questions:
Perhaps the most famous question & answer from that film is: “What are the boundaries of design?”
Here is the full text:
What is your definition of “Design”, Monsieur Eames? Eames: One could describe design as a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose.
Is Design an expression of art? Eames: I would rather say it’s an expression of purpose. It may, if it’s good enough, later be judged as art.
Is Design a craft for industrial purposes? Eames: No, but design may be a solution to some industrial problems.
What is the boundaries of Design? Eames: What are the boundaries of problems?
Is Design a discipline that concerns itself with only one part of the environment? Eames: No.
Is it a method of general expression? No, it is a method of action.
Is Design a creation of an individual? Eames: No, because to be realistic one must always recognize the influence of those that have gone before.
Is Design a creation of a group? Eames: Very often.
Is there a Design ethic? Eames: There are always design constraints and these often imply an ethic.
Does Design imply the idea of products that are necessarily useful? Eames: Yes, even though the use might be very suttle.
Is it able to cooperate in the creation of works reserved solely for pleasure? Eames: Who would say that pleasure is not useful?
Ought form to derive from the analysis of function? Eames: The great risk here is that the analysis may be incomplete.
Can the computer substitute for the Designer? Eames: Probably, in some special cases but usually the computer is an aid to the designer.
Does Design imply industrial manufacture? Eames: Not neccessarily.
Is Design used to modify an old object through new techniques? Eames: This is one kind of design problem.
Is Design used to fit up an existing model so that it is more attractive? Eames: One doesn’t usually think of design in this way.
Is Design an element of industrial policy? ** If design constraints imply an ethic and if industrial policy includes ethical principles then yes, design is an element in industrial policy.**
Does the creation of Design admit constraint? Eames: Design depends largely on constraints.
What constraints? Eames: The sum of all constraints. Here is one of the few effective keys to the design problem: the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible, his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints. The constraints of price, size, strength, balance, time and so forth. Each problem has its own peculiar list.
Does Design obey laws? Eames: Aren’t constraints enough?
Are there tendencies and schools in Design? Eames: Yes, but these are more a measure of human limitation than of ideals.
Is Design ephemeral? Eames: Some needs are ephemeral, most designs are ephemeral.
Ought Design to tend towards the ephemeral or towards permanence? Eames: Those needs and designs that have a more universal quality tend toward relative permanence.
How would you define yourself with respect to a decorator? An interior architect? A stylist? Eames: I wouldn’t.
To whom does Design address itself: to the greatest numbers? To the specialsts or the enlightened amateur? To a priviledged social class? Eames: Design addresses itself to the need.
After having answered all these questions, do you feel you have been able to practice the profession of “Design” under satisfactory conditions, or even optimum conditions? Eames: Yes.
Have you been forced to accept compromises? Eames: I don’t remember ever being forced to accept compromises but I have willingly accepted constraints.
What do you feel is the primary condition for the practice of Design and for its propagation? Eames: A recognition of need.
What is the future of Design?
Typically in undergradute design school students would have heated discussions regarding what all of that means…:-)
The point is understanding some history can serve in many ways including accelerating discussions past previously covered ground…:-)
Good luck to all.
Also Highly Recommended: the classic Eames film: The Powers of Ten
Header Image: IBM Exhibit. Eames Office Archive Image Oct 1963. Humantific Collection.