Eight books on Charles and Ray’s Bookshelf that Allude to their Personal Philosophies

Shortly after the Eames Storage Unit was designed in 1950, a customized bookshelf appeared in photographs of the Eames House living room. The bookshelf looked uncannily similar to the ESU, however, the piece was double-sided, oversized, and sported anodized aluminum structural supports. Location wise, the shelf made the most sense nestled closely to the nearly 18-foot tallowwood living room wall so that it would not block the views looking inward or outward through the glass facade. It was pulled away from the wall to allow for access to the back shelves. A handmade ladder was eventually homed behind the shelf for easy access, poetically crawling its way toward the ceiling. Once this structure was in place, it was not moved; the bookshelf has lived in the same spot for nearly seventy years. The objects on its shelves also rarely changed and included a few hundred titles of books–some titles were new at the time and some were already very old–and a multitude of decorative artifacts.

When our visitors (and assumingly, Charles and Ray’s visitors) peer at the bookshelf from the exterior or stand a few inches from it during an interior tour, a sense of silence and curiosity usually develops. The bookshelf is a minute sample of the vast world, inner monologues, philosophies, visual treats, and bits of information that the Eameses enveloped themselves in. Books by artists, designers, architects, mathematicians, circus leaders, and children’s authors are found stacked and jammed into the quarters of the shelves. Some of these books were written by strangers, some by dear friends, and others by living idols like Gandhi.

The Eames Foundation staff is frequently asked about the books on this magnetic piece of Eames furniture, so we found it important to begin sharing more about them. Here are eight titles that we believe allude to Charles and Ray’s philosophies, whether they are related to science, human behavior, art, culture, or simply an act of childish play.

This Fabulous Century: 1900-1910, Time-Life Books (1969)

This is volume two of an eight-part publication series focusing on summaries of the decades of the 1900s (the first volume covered general history leading up to the year 1900). It was not a political account, but it did cover other primary aspects of the human experience as a citizen of the world, featured professional photographs and illustrations, and included a fabric-covered cover with patterns that evoked the aesthetics of that time period. This decade in particular was cherished by Charles and Ray because of its proximity to their birth years (Charles was born in 1907 and Ray in 1912). This Fabulous Century would remind them of the idiosyncrasies of the time they were born into and showcased the early 20th-century aesthetics that Charles and Ray held onto when collecting and displaying objects in their adult years.

Pictorial History of the American Circus, John and Alice Durant (1962)

Described as a “fast-moving story of circusdom”, this book tells of the characters, achievements, losses, and lifestyle of the circus in America pre-1960 using research and photographs from the archives of Harvard, the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and others. The Eameses took a liking to circus acts, but saw them as more than mere entertainment. Charles said, “In the actions of circus people waiting or rehearsing or preparing to perform, there is a quality of beauty, which comes from appropriateness to a given situation. There is a recognized mission for everyone involved. The circus may look like the epitome of pleasure, but the person flying on a high wire, or executing a balancing act, or being shot from a cannon must take his pleasure very, very seriously.” Armed with dozens of rolls of film, the Eames Office staff attended performances hoping to capture the seriousness, the skill, and the play involved with the circus.

The Compassionate Buddha, Edwin Arthur Burtt (1955)

A mid-century account of Eastern religion and the birth of Buddhism 2,500 years prior, The Compassionate Buddha includes teachings of the Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold Path, the story of Buddha’s life, and lessons in compassion and the monastic life. Charles and Ray were acutely in-tune with other races, religions, and practices from all over the world. Despite living and working through WWII and other times of human turmoil, they were refreshingly supportive of and curious about the differences between human beings. They adopted a truly international point-of-view and attitude of acceptance. 

A Place to Live: The Crisis of the Cities, Wolf von Eckardt (1967)

This book is a study on the urban realities of American cities, focusing on the hypothesis that life is “in a state of crisis.” Von Eckardt argued that architects, legislators, and city planners have failed to respond to the needs of the citizens and have contributed to the destruction and mess of our greatest, and even our smallest, cities. It was published just as the Case Study Program saw its last design published in Arts & Architecture, a program that ran for approximately two decades and included the Eames House itself. Charles had a background in architecture and both he and Ray had an ability to humanize design; they were deeply interested in how people lived and situated themselves in the larger scope of society.

Nine Chains to the Moon, Buckminster Fuller (1938)

Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller was considered one of Charles and Ray’s closest friends, and he was an avid design scientist, inventor, future-thinking idea generator, and philosopher of the modern era. Fuller thought that the only limitations humans had were the limitations of the universe itself and in this book he proposed: “If, in imagination, all of the people of the world were to stand upon one another’s shoulders, they would make nine complete chains between the earth and the moon. If it is not so far to the moon, then it is not so far to the limits–whatever, whenever, or wherever they may be.” In creating furniture, films, architecture, and exhibitions, Charles and Ray were continuously sought the limitations of materials, structure, and society and then worked actively to design within or around those constraints.

Doubt and Certainty in Science: A Biologist’s Reflections on the Brain, John Zachary Young (1951)

During research, a biologist came to the following conclusion in the early 1950s: when the human brain’s functions are examined while completing “higher activities” it is found that the processes are “closely compared to those of a calculating machine.” Discovering a book relating brain processes to computers on the Eameses’ bookshelf is not surprising, especially as they became involved with computing companies such as IBM and created exhibitions such as Mathematica: A World of Numbers and Beyond. The Eameses attempted to show others that mathematics and science were integrated into our daily existence in ways we were unaware of.

When the Cathedrals Were White, Le Corbusier (1937)

Architect Le Corbusier was invited by the Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s to visit New York City  and dictate his observations of the urban landscape in the “era of technological progress.” Le Corbusier uncovered a pattern in American city town planning: a focus on the mixture of horizontal and vertical structures across a grid. The city was operating haphazardly mostly due to its architecture, which inspired his first idea of a solely vertical city. Le Corbusier’s drawings sat alongside prose inside When the Cathedrals Were White. The text was translated into English in 1946, three years before the construction of the Eames House. Although we are unsure if Charles and Ray read this book prior to finishing their Case Study Program home, it is possible that they related to his ideas of creating smarter, more mindful forms of architecture enhanced by the need for social change.

What Do People Do All Day? Richard Scarry (1968)

This is a children’s book illustrating the busy lives of people around the world as they fly planes, build homes, tend to gardens, go to work, and care for their loved ones. Charles and Ray had an innate sense of wonder and playfulness and often purchased children’s books for themselves. An entire section of the bookshelf was devoted entirely to children’s books, and other examples of this genre were scattered throughout the rest of the collection. A few of the children’s books on the bookshelf were written and illustrated by Richard Scarry.