Over recent years, there seems to be more of an interest in how the practice of design has worked. The how is less about structure and techniques and more about the stories and the relationships that followed the journeys of iconic creations. What has emerged from this is a celebration of collaborations, without which, the design world as we know it would appear quite different.
How it All Began
Lilly Reich met Mies van der Rohe in 1926 and launched into a period of her career that would cement her as one of the driving forces of modern design. She was van der Rohe’s personal and professional partner for 13 years and they are remembered as constant companions. As a pair, Reich and van der Rohe would go on to produce some of the most important design works of the past century. Their interdependence was confirmed by designer Herbert Hirsche who worked in Mies van der Rohe’s studio after graduating:
Mies did nothing without first speaking to Lilly Reich.Herbert Hirsche
The collaboration between Charlotte Perriand, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret nearly did not take place. Le Corbusier was born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris and Pierre Jeanneret was his cousin, close friend and design partner. In 1927, Charlotte Perriand applied to work in their hallowed studio and the response she received is now infamous, “We don’t embroider cushions here”. It was only after Le Corbusier attended the annual Salon d’Automne, that he found himself at Perriand’s ‘Bar Sous le Toit’, or ‘Bar Under the Roof’, which re-created a section of her own apartment. Le Corbusier was spellbound by Perriand’s work, which was causing a sensation in Paris.
Le Corbusier hired her on the spot, and she joined the cousins’ high-minded plan to revolutionise the modern world through design. She wrote in 1991 for her autobiography:
Le Corbusier waited impatiently for me to bring the furniture to life.Charlotte Perriand
Ray Eames was one half of a prolific partnership, a marriage that resulted in ground-breaking contributions in the field of architecture, furniture design, industrial design, manufacturing, and the photographic arts. Charles Eames introduced modernist design to middle America, but it was Ray who softened its hard edges, and gave it mass appeal.
There was never any doubt in Charles’ mind about equality in their relationship and he once described Ray’s integral role by saying:
Anything I can do; Ray can do better.Charles Eames
What They Created.
Lilly Reich and Mies van der Rohe’s partnership saw success almost immediately, starting with a project for the Deutscher Werkbund exhibition held in Stuttgart in 1927. Reich and van der Rohe were then appointed as artistic directors of the German section of the 1929 World Exhibition in Barcelona.
It was for this exhibition that the Barcelona Chair was launched- one of the most celebrated furniture pieces of the last century. It was designed to serve as a seat for the king and queen of Spain, Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenia, at the opening ceremony of the exhibition. In 1950, adjustments were made to the design so that it could be mass produced. Stainless steel and seamless welding became the new materials of the chair, and the original pigskin was replaced with a more affordable bovine leather. Long-time architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable rapturously declared it:
The Rolls Royce of furniture.Ada Louise Huxtable
Reich and van der Rohe were also commissioned to work on the Tugendhat House in Brno, Czech Republic. They were given total architectural and interior freedom and it was here that Reich designed the Tugendhat chair and the Brno chair. They were upholstered in a variety of shades ranging from silver-grey to emerald green leather to ruby red velvet. Today they are still considered as symbols of elegance and luxury and are made by hand in small quantities.
Reich was asked by van der Rohe to teach at the Bauhaus School of design and architecture and direct the interior design workshop in 1932. She was one of the few female teachers on the staff.
In 1938, Mies van der Rohe moved to Chicago while Lilly Reich remained in Germany and was conscripted to the military engineering group Organisation Todt. To the relief of architectural historians today, Reich boxed up 3000 of van der Rohe’s drawings and 900 of her own and had them stored in a friend’s parents’ home in East Germany during the war. These would have almost certainly been lost had they remained in Berlin as it was so extensively bombed by the allies. All of these drawings are now part of the MoMA archive, preserving both of their legacies.
Charlotte Perriand described her working relationship with Le Corbusier and Jeanneret as “three fingers on one hand”. Together, they tackled the innovative project for ‘l’équipement d’intérieur de l’habitation’ and the resulting designs were of great intellectual value and considerable commercial success. This project introduced a new idea of living as something free and relaxing, Perriand explained:
I’m very interested in the life of houses. Everything is created from within, if you will—needs, gestures, a harmony, a euphoric arrangement, if possible, in relation to an environment.Charlotte Perriand
In 1929 at the Paris Salon d’Automne, they unveiled a set of modern furniture. Included were tubular steel chairs, stools, and a set of modular steel storage units. The distinct chrome plated tubular steel frames of the original LC series would go on to become iconic and the LC4 has become one of the most recognizable chairs in the world. The LC2 and LC3 ‘great comfort sofas’ have become synonymous with modern design and their creations are still considered timeless- at home in any decade. Despite being designed over 90 years ago, their furniture continues to transcend modern trends.
By 1930, Perriand was designing furnishings for Le Corbusier, including those for his Villa Savoye, west of Paris, and overseeing construction of her first complete work of architecture, an airline building at Le Bourget that would become the earliest Air France terminal.
Working in Le Corbusier’s studio, Perriand, in effect, became an architect. For a 1934 competition, she designed a prefabricated seaside cabin. In 1938 she collaborated with Pierre Jeanneret on a futuristic metal-clad mountain pod called ‘The Refuge Barrel’ and as World War Two approached, she worked with Prouvé and Jeanneret to develop a wide range of low-cost furniture that could be produced during the war.
With collaborations in furniture and architecture, her son-in-law explained her approach by simply saying:
She believed that art should be everywhere, that it needs to be part of daily life.Jacques Barsac
Ray and Charles Eames’ impact has been described by British architectural historian, Reyner Banham, in his 1981 book Design by Choice:
The Eames chair constituted the first major development in chair design since the Breuer chairs of 1928. There followed toys, films, scientific research, lecture tours, special exhibits, three further generations of chairs and a great number of awards and citations.Reyner Banham
The couple’s home was decorated with objects collected from their travels, films and exhibitions that seemed to create an ever-changing spatial collage. This creativity and sense of fun was also beautifully present in the Eames’ lifelong affiliation with toys. Strikingly innovative designs were present in all their work, in their home and in their many films and exhibitions.
Ray designed covers for Art & Architecture magazine and contributed articles to it as well. The Eames’ relationship with the Art & Architecture publication would deepen, with The Case Study House Program officially launched in the January 1945 issue. This project combined the principles of modernism with wartime technology for the “prefabrication, mass production and industrialization of residential construction”. Case Study #8 for this project was the Eames House.
Prominently displayed in the Eames House is the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman– a celebrated design. This was just the start – they would go on to create furniture unlike anything seen before, experimenting with plywood, fibreglass, plastic, wire mesh and aluminium. Together they invented mass seating for airports, stadiums, schools, and institutions and made case studies, tables, storage units and stacking chairs. About their legacy, architect Konrad Wachsmann remarked::
The Eames chairs have never been out of fashion.Konrad Wachsmann
Their 1961 exhibition ‘Mathematica’ was an extravaganza of scientific information transformed into intellectual entertainment and their 1968 exhibition ‘Photography & the City’ examined the role that photography plays in determining the progressive development of a city and featured legendary photographers. Their passion for film was extensive and they produced over a hundred short films in their lifetime, including the 1972 ‘Banana Leaf’ based on Indian culture and the 1977 ‘Powers of Ten’ which is the most celebrated and profound of their films.
Across all disciplines, there has been an increased curiosity and enthusiasm to explore and highlight the role that women have played in the past. The recent focus on the contributions made by women like Lilly Reich, Charlotte Perriand and Ray Eames has emphasized the power of effective collaboration in design.
There is no doubt that Lilly Reich’s talent and the depth of her contributions to Mies van der Rohe’s much-celebrated designs have often been unduly relegated. In recognition of this, the Fundació Mies van der Rohe established the Lilly Reich Grant for Equality in Architecture in 2018. The grant promotes the study, dissemination, and visibility of the contributions in architecture which have been forgotten or underplayed, made by professionals who have suffered discrimination due to their personal conditions. A fitting tribute to a woman who was not just the collaborator in Mies van der Rohe’s genius, but a genius in her own right.
Although Charlotte Perriand’s work is certainly known in the design world, the scale of her contributions is now becoming clearer to the wider public. Laura Adler, author of the book Charlotte Perriand (Livres d’Art) described her by saying:
Everything Perriand created was the result of an artistic impulse backed by technical research of high precision. It is this alliance of the material and the spiritual that we call grace.Laura Adler
Perhaps her most powerful legacy is the timelessness of her talent and the contemporary nature of her designs. In her work and her life, she explored the role of women and feminism, the connections with international cultures, and our relationship to nature and the environment. The issues she addressed are the same issues that artists are grappling with and expressing through art today.
Many design critics have challenged the perceived gendered division of labour when it came to Ray and Charles’ designs. Ray Charles has been credited with the décor and the colour, he with the architecture and form-giving. But Ray’s role was certainly not just cosmetic. Her early immersion in abstract art heavily influenced the sculptural curves themselves and she was just as responsible as Charles.
To a degree, Ray may have affirmed the gendered stereotypes and seemed willing to play the part of supportive, mostly silent wife. In 1977 she told an interviewer, “It isn’t the same when I talk, Charles has a way of putting things which people pay attention to”.
However silent she may have stayed, Charles always described their design process in terms of “we,” “us” and “ours”. He spoke of their relationship as:
An equal and total allianceCharles Eames
A creative woman seemingly content to let her husband speak for her and their work together may feel uneasy amid recent feminist rhetoric, but Ray seemed unconcerned with establishing what part of the creativity was hers and what part was her husbands. She always came back to the fact that all their work was “joint work”.
A retrospective of design will reveal a wealth of collaborations that have resulted in architectural, industrial and furniture design icons. The history books may have been slow in recognizing the females’ roles in these partnerships, but recent years have seen designers like Lilly Reich, Charlotte Perriand and Ray Eames sharing the spotlight with their male counterparts and these collaborations are to be celebrated.
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