Eames Institute's exhibition of postcards spotlights the life of Charles and Ray Eames

An online exhibition titled Return to Sender peeks into the iconic 20th century designers Charles and Ray Eames' love for images and postcards.

by Zohra KhanPublished on : Oct 20, 2022

The legacy of American designers Charles and Ray Eames garners a perennial fandom. The trailblazing pair who started off with designing plywood leg splints eventually moved to designing domestic furniture and residential architecture. The Eameses, besides their stellar footing in the spatial design domain, were also excellent image-makers. While their approach to every piece of work was an effort in problem-solving, the two were equally invested in communicating their ideas about modern life through photography. Postcards were an imperative medium of correspondence for them. The two profusely used the four-by-six-inch space in communicating with each other as well as with friends and family. They harnessed it as a marketing tool for their studio’s sole furniture distributor in 1947 – the Herman Miller Furniture Company. The Eames Institute of Infinite Curiosity, a web-based platform responsible for stewarding the pair’s remarkable body of work, is presenting an online exhibition showcasing many such postcards. Dubbed Return to Sender, the exhibition brings an elaborate visual ephemera from the Eames collection that is intimate and insightful at the same time.

Postcard was interesting tool of storytelling for the Eameses; featured here is a Herman Miller promotional postcard| Return to Sender | Eames Institute | STIRworld
Postcard was interesting tool of storytelling for the Eameses; featured here is a Herman Miller promotional postcard Image: Courtesy of Eames Institute
The two tended to the four-by-six inch space to connect with friends, family, and associates| Return to Sender | Eames Institute | STIRworld
The two tended to the four-by-six inch space to connect with friends, family, and associates Image: Courtesy of Eames Institute

Documentation of everyday life, work and the environment was an obsession for Charles Eames (1907-1978) and Bernice Alexandra “Ray” Kaiser Eames (1912-1988). As spectacularly as they paid attention to creating furniture and spaces, the two also possessed hawk eyes when it came to creating meticulously orchestrated images where every little detail was considered: be it lighting, styling or the camera angle. This passion for image-making was what led the two to produce over 125 short films in 40 years of their practice. Speaking of the visual world, postcards could be viewed as a window to the duo's language and vision. They often collected these as souvenirs from their international work trips – the ephemera capturing imagery they were drawn to at a specific moment - and mailed these to friends or simply kept them for themselves. One such postcard presented as part of the exhibition carries the painted image of a slice of watermelon. It was used by Charles in 1955 to reach out to Ray from his trip to France where he was working as a photographer for the 1957 aviation biography film, The Spirit of St. Louis. The flip side of the luscious snapshot carried a note where he succinctly described to his wife the experience of tasting some extraordinary meals that the film crew was served every night.

 A painting of a watermelon slice was printed on a postcard that Charles sent to Ray from his trip to France where he was documenting the film, The Spirit of St. Louis| Return to Sender | Eames Institute | STIRworld
A painting of a watermelon slice was printed on a postcard that Charles sent to Ray from his trip to France where he was documenting the film, The Spirit of St. Louis Image: Courtesy of Eames Institute

Another postcard reveals his correspondence with his sister, Adele, and brother-in-law, Vincent, who stayed in Mississippi. It was a warm vignette from his trip to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg which the doting brother complemented with a rather condensed expression. “Love, Charles”, the postcard read in Russian characters.

In another instance, Ray wrote to Adele and Vincent on a bright pink postcard of the City Palace Jaipur while she was on a work trip to India with her husband in 1970. In her message she described her journey and the whimsical chaos of experiencing India in four words, “rushed, fascinating, frustrating, and memorable.”

A promotional postcard featuring the Tip Top Tap, Allerton Hotel in Chicago (1948)| Return to Sender | Eames Institute | STIRworld
A promotional postcard featuring the Tip Top Tap, Allerton Hotel in Chicago (1948) Image: Courtesy of Eames Institute
Western dining at the Nut Tree, postcard featuring Eames furniture| Return to Sender | Eames Institute | STIRworld
Western dining at the Nut Tree, postcard featuring Eames furniture Image: Courtesy of Eames Institute

On the commercial side, postcards from the Eameses' career were either promotional material that the duo designed for Herman Miller or those made by a wide array of businesses as marketing collectable items in view of the couple’s popularity as harbingers of modernity. "The Eames Office viewed the creation of communications and marketing material related to their products as an integral dimension of their role as designers," states the Eames Institute. What the power couple created through the course of their career effectively resonates with their idea of 'making the best for the most for the least'. And to communicate the essence of their furniture, which was unlike what most customers had seen before, postcards became an important tool of storytelling to reach out to the customers. In other cases when the couple were touted as celebrities, third parties printed postcards with vignettes of Eameses products and exhibitions to catch the attention of people. These featured glimpses of plush international properties that used furniture designed by the Eames office. The images symbolised luxury in a world that was suddenly dominated by modern forward-thinking sensibilities. According to the Eames Institute, “The Town & Country Motel in Lincoln, Nebraska, promoted its luxurious rooms by showing its bridal and fireside suites furnished with Shell Chairs on a 1954 postcard.” In another instance, “The Nut Tree, an attraction and amusement-filled destination that opened in 1921 in Vacaville, California,” was shown in 1965 souvenir postcards which featured Shell Chairs in its restaurants and shops, and Aluminium Group seating in the outdoor areas.  

A promotional postcard by Herman Miller| Return to Sender | Eames Institute | STIRworld
A promotional postcard by Herman Miller Image: Courtesy of Eames Institute

The hundreds of postcards preserved by the Eames Collection and presented as part of this exhibition reveal a cross-section of the world of the pioneers of 20th century modern design. It’s interesting and perhaps slightly ironic to peek into the grandiosity of the duo's legacy and bits from their personal lives through a four-by-six inch window where a brevity of words and a strong visual reference were drivers of storytelling.

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