Charles and Ray Eames set out to design and build the Eames House by utilizing materials in an “honest” manner. When looking at a structural element made of steel, the Eameses wanted that steel’s performance to be visible and recognized. If steel is holding up the entire structure, why cover it with wood to appear as if the wood is effortlessly bearing the load? That is architectural dishonesty in its highest form.
Here is a list of the most vital Eames House parts, including their original war-time intent and why Charles and Ray wanted the house to be respectful and representative of the innate qualities of its materials.
An advertisement from the Concrete Reinforcing Steel Institute from the mid-1940s described the public’s opinion of concrete as a rational choice for building. “Reinforced concrete is not only a lower cost material for building frames and floors, but it has many other advantages. It provides a rugged, durable, monolith that is inherently fire-safe, as well as highly resistant to wind, shock, and quakes. Equally important, it requires less time to erect.”
Along with providing structural integrity, concrete played a central role in the siting of the Eames House, as it determined the placement of the slab foundation and the orientation of the primary retaining wall. Charles, in the December 1949 Arts & Architecture briefing, wrote about “taking full advantage of the protective qualities of a truly grand row of eucalyptus trees” by excavating a site behind the trees into the hillside. Once the ground was carved out and flattened, a single-story concrete retaining wall measuring 200 feet in length spanned the property from the northern carport to the southern gardening beds. This wall acted as the first story of both residence and studio and, most importantly, would withstand the force of the hillside above. Steel reinforced the board-formed concrete retaining wall, which continued underground into an L-shape for extra stability. The slab foundation rested on concrete footings running beneath the two buildings. “Buff” plaster acted as an exterior wall covering over some areas of the siding; Wall-tex covered the interior of these areas.
Steel presents itself in imperative forms in the Eames House structure: as the supportive H-beams securing the frame, as the interlocking decking and open webbed joists of the roof, as the sashing for windows and doorways, and as exterior wall siding. The Truscon Steel Company supplied each of these members of the structure.
Truscon’s 1946 parts catalog described the Ferrobord steel roof decking system that the Eameses incorporated into their house design: “The result is a parallel system of strong structural interlocking membranes, predictable in performance, which presents a smooth surface over which can be applied built-up roofing, with or without insulation. The members are so designed and formed that each unit firmly achieves the maximum in lateral distribution of concentrated loadings.”
The underside of the roof’s steel Ferrobord was painted white, and its open-web joists were left exposed and alternately painted white, black, and yellow. In the 1946 catalog, Truscon described the material as “adaptable to all types of buildings, regardless of their location” and the system was “proven to be very economical and practical.” The joists’ zigzagged form had another function besides the practical use of carrying the weight of the ceiling: it acted a system to help the Eameses hang objects from the 17.5’ ceiling. Charles and Ray built a moveable wood ladder that they could easily hook to various points of the joists.
The Eameses also utilized Ferrobord as a profiled steel siding on the studio building’s south elevation and a majority of the concealed west elevation “behind” the house.
Charles and Ray developed a system of “bays” as a longitudinal unit of measurement across the facade of the property. Each bay was 7’ 4” wide and consisted of two sections of Truscon’s standard projected sash. The house was seven bays wide, the center courtyard measured four bays wide, and the studio consisted of five bays. The sash evenly distributed weight across the wall planes and was filled with either Cemesto, glass, or stucco.
Cemesto was revolutionized during WWII as an efficient, cost-effective way of building more than $50 million worth of war factories and houses. This material, imagined by The Celotex Corporation, arrived “pre-engineered” in different sized panels (4’ x 4’ to 4’ x 12’) with three thickness options (1 1/8”, 1 9/16”, and 2”). Cemesto was advertised as low-maintenance in terms of manufacturing, purchasing, installation, and maintaining. Product literature for the material boasted that “its remarkable structural strength does away with the need for intermediate support. It saves lumber and nails. It combines exterior and interior finish, plus insulation, in one complete fire-retardant wall unit.” In addition to these features, Celotex made the guarantee that Cemesto was water and vapor-proof and could even be utilized as a long-lasting roof decking.
While the Eames House did not utilize Cemesto in critical structural elements such as roofing, the facade did host many rectangular panels of similar dimensions and thickness. The Eameses treated some of the Cemesto panels with a variety of paint colors; however, a sizable amount was left unpainted in their natural state. The Cemesto simultaneously acted as an interior and exterior wall surface; the areas with Cemesto panels did not require extra insulation, protective coating, or interior wall surfacing. This convenient for the Eameses because they didn’t have to bulk up the structure with unnecessary materials, and it allowed them to cut costs.
There are four types of glass evident throughout the exterior and interior of the house: clear polished plate glass, Factrolite textured glass, wire-embedded safety glass, and translucent corrugated glass. Mississippi Glass Company supplied each type of glass.
Charles and Ray could have built a home with far more Cemesto and stucco paneling, allowing for the structure to be more secluded and facing inward on itself. Instead, a majority of the home’s perimeter is made up of windows and provides for an outward connection with nature. The placement of the different types of glass served a rigid purpose but was sometimes an additional aesthetic bonus. Textured Factrolite glass was placed in areas where extra privacy was required (in the sash of the front door, across the main wall of the kitchen, and in the bathrooms). Corrugated semi-transparent glass separated the dining area and kitchen from the utility room behind so that guests wouldn’t see the laundry quarters, electrical panels, and a few downpipes. The glass was transparent so that light would still permeate into the utility area, which was free of windows itself. The wire-embedded glass was utilized in locations that were more utilitarian and required additional safety precautions, such as the skylight and across the front facade of the working studio. Because of the highly flammable nature of eucalyptus trees, Charles and Ray were conscious of having fire protection in an area where they most often prototyped furniture or shot films with high-intensity lighting.
In terms of aesthetics, Charles noted that the addition of glass “and reflections restore transparency and add double images that become characteristic of the building.” He also made the point that the planes and shadows caused by the wire pattern in some of the glass became an essential visual feature.
Although painting a surface does perhaps defeat the “honest use of materials” policy of Charles and Ray, paint was necessary and vital to coat some surfaces of the home’s exterior for longevity. The site of the house overlooks the Pacific Ocean, and the high salt content of the air needed a layer of paint to protect the steel framing from corrosion. The Eameses chose rubber-based paint from the A. C. Horn Company; the color of this rubberized paint was custom mixed to formulate the “warm grey web” that Charles and Ray referred to with adoration over the years. Out of all of the materials present, the paint has required the most maintenance, and the color of the steel framing slowly evolved into today’s glossy black.
In terms of aesthetics, which followed functionality for the Eameses, paint was the one area in which Charles and Ray felt the most leniency when it came to decisions. Charles, in the Arts & Architecture briefing, recalled, “Paint defines the surface in lines and relation to each other.” Ray, having studied abstract painting in New York City for the six years before meeting Charles, found the paint choices of the home to be of equal importance to its structural integrity. To read more about the topic of how the Eameses chose the specific paint colors, see our blog post, Painting the Palette.
Wall-tex was a sturdy canvas intended as an application for walls to make them waterproof and more resistant to wear. Advertisements from the time deny Wall-tex’s comparison to wallpaper on all fronts. A particular ad from the early 1940s claimed that Wall-tex was, “the most serviceable type of wall decoration known,” and continued, “Canvas won’t chip like paint or tear like paper. Ugly plaster cracks won’t show through. The finish is permanently baked on. You can wash it clean with soap and water; the lovely colors won’t be harmed.”
Wall-tex is the covering on all interior wall surfaces of the residence and studio that are not glass or Cemesto. The Eameses left the canvas unpainted. Charles and Ray noted, in various interviews, that the plain, white sections of wall acted as a visual resting point for your eyes as they traveled around the space.
Swedlow Plastics Company’s war-time achievements included creating a material called Plyon for aviation companies. Plyon acted as the plastic backing for self-sealing fuel cells in aircraft for companies such as Boeing and North American Aviation Inc. When the war ended, this laminated, light-weight material was left in excess and was often re-incorporated as a cabinetry material in industrial and commercial spaces.
Plyon’s weight, incredibly thin body, slight translucency, and ability to be cut into various forms made it ideal for cabinetry facing and sun screens in the Eames House and Studio. Charles and Ray configured wood frames for the facade windows of the studio and the second-story windows in the residence. The pylon was cut into rectangular modules fitting into the window bays and was framed with wood, making them slide easily along the facade windows when desiring privacy and shade. Storage cabinets in the living room alcove and near the utility sink of the studio were installed with a similar modular feeling and sliding capability. Plyon was strong enough to protect the fuel chambers of airplanes during war, so it would undeniably be sturdy enough for constant use in the Eameses’ lives.
A steady incline in the use of plywood occurred in the early decades of the 20th century, but it was considered experimental because of weak, unreliable glues. The invention of synthetic, water-resistant adhesives in the early 1940s catapulted plywood into high production and use. During World War II, plywood built boats, airplanes, homes, and industrial structures. Architectural Forum wrote of plywood’s production as being at an “all-time high: an annual rate of 2.5 billion square feet” by 1950, nearly four times the output of the decade prior.
Charles and Ray fully immersed themselves in the exploration of plywood during the 1940s in the realm of furniture design. After nearly ten years of experience molding, altering, cutting, and heating plywood, the Eameses were well aware of its benefits and limitations. It made for an ideal material for many components of their home: stair treads, doors, and coverings for walls and ceiling. US Korina plywood veneer and bird’s eye maple were applied to the residence stairway below a skylight and to the underside of the Ferrobord ceiling decking in the bathrooms to provide a barrier and mitigation for condensation.
Tallowwood is a species of eucalyptus, and it’s hard, durable nature was well suited for several applications before it was outed as a material sensitive to flames. Historically, its typical use was for decking (more specifically in places like gyms, rollerskating rinks, and bowling alleys).
The Eameses utilized tallowwood as the double-height wall material spanning from the indoors of the living room to one outdoor bay in the south courtyard. It also continues in the downstairs west wall of the utility room behind the kitchen. The House’s National Historic Landmark designation document describes the west wall: “The narrow grooves of the panels emphasize the verticality of the lofty open interior; their solidity is a contrast to the glazing on the opposite elevation. The wood-paneled wall also functions as a screen that reflects the shifting gradations of light marking the house over the course of a day. Because this wall surface extends beyond the plane of the south window wall, it also plays an important part in providing a sense of permeability between interior and exterior.” Another quality to note: the eucalyptus wall is parallel to the line of eucalyptus trees in front of the home’s facade, acting as a mirror between construction materials and the eucalyptus in its organic form.
The parquet floor of the ground floor of the studio building is not original to the 1949 design. Charles and Ray had this wooden flooring system installed in 1958 just before their daughter Lucia and her three young children lived in the studio for the summer. Previously, the exposed concrete slab served as the studio flooring.
The language surrounding vinyl tiles during this era described the material in ways that surpassed carpet and other common flooring surfaces. Vinyl flooring had a longer lifespan than other floor coverings, it could be laid directly on concrete floors, and it could conform to uneven floor surfaces and absorb floor shock without cracking. As far as rubber tiles were concerned, little labor was necessary for installation and upkeep, and the flooring could withstand heavy traffic.
Charles and Ray’s plans called for rubber tiles from Voit, a sub-company of Goodyear Tire Co., as the flooring in the kitchen, upstairs bedrooms, bathrooms, and upstairs loft of the studio. The bathrooms boasted a black and white checkered pattern, the kitchen a darker green, and the rest of the tiles were a color named Sea Sand. Initially, the Eameses decided to leave the living room and hallway floor uncovered, exposing the concrete slab. By 1951, they chose a vinyl-asbestos composite tile to be placed directly on the concrete slab of these areas. This flooring was the standard 9-inch by 9-inch size, sans grout, in a crisp white color with a slight crystalline quality.