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What would Charles and Ray say?

The story of Eames and Vitra

While on a trip to New York in 1953, Swiss entrepreneur Willi Fehlbaum – the founder of Vitra – came across a chair by the American husband-and-wife team Charles und Ray Eames. As a manufacturer of shopfittings, he was fascinated by this innovative design and keen to introduce it to Europe. He soon established contact with Charles and Ray Eames, which later led to the manufacturing of Eames products by Vitra. Fehlbaum’s professional relationship with the designer couple quickly developed into a firm friendship and a deep bond was forged between the two families.

Charles and Ray Eames had a profound and lasting influence on Vitra – both as a point of departure and as a guiding force that is still palpable to this day.

The compelling design philosophy behind all the Eameses’ creations was marked by a deep commitment to problem solving, an acute scepticism of stylistic excess and the seminal notion that a designer’s role was to be a good host, anticipating the needs of their guest. The joyous spirit that infused their work was equally important to them, as summed up by their expression: ‘Take your pleasure seriously’.
Willi Fehlbaum first visited Charles and Ray in their home, the Eames House, in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles in 1957. One year later, Charles and Ray made the trip to Vitra in Basel, Switzerland. Regular meetings followed over the years with Willi and his wife Erika, assisted by their eldest son Rolf, who translated for his parents. This mediating role enhanced the professional collaboration and strong attachment between the families.
The connection to the Eameses was based on a genuine and enduring personal relationship, which continued when Rolf Fehlbaum took over the management of Vitra in 1977. His admiration for Charles and Ray Eames extended far beyond an interest in their product designs:
‘Charles and Ray Eames are our heroes: they are the figures who, more than anyone else, have given this company its defining form and ideas. These were people of incredible talent, very hard workers and visionaries. They not only made furniture, but were architects, filmmakers, photographers and educators, thinking not only about our society, but also the greater world around them.’
Rolf Fehlbaum, Vitra Chairman Emeritus
Following the death of Ray Eames in 1988, exactly a decade after Charles, the Eames Office moved first to the Eames House while key archives found new stewards. In close collaboration with the heirs of Charles and Ray, the newly established Vitra Design Museum acquired a significant part of the couple’s three-dimensional estate. The collection encompasses a considerable share of the surviving experimental models and furniture prototypes from their office and is an important source of reference for Vitra in the further development of Eames designs.
The close ties between the Eames Office and Vitra still endure today in the third generation of the two families. The Eames Office has transformed from a multi-disciplinary design practice into a cultural and commercial organisation led by the Eames family. After initially working with Charles’s daughter Lucia Eames, Vitra now consults with Eames Demetrios – one of the couple’s five grandchildren – on the production of authentic Eames designs and on matters of commu¬nication and exhibitions related to their oeuvre. On the Vitra side, the third generation of the Fehlbaum family is represented by Nora Fehlbaum, who has headed the company since 2014. The spirit of Charles and Ray Eames is still present at Vitra. Their design philosophy continues to have an immense impact on the company’s values, visions and goals, leading Rolf Fehlbaum to frequently invoke the question: What would Charles and Ray say?

Publication date: 07.09.2023
Author: Stine Liv Buur
Images: © Eames Office, LLC 2023; Vitra Design Museum; Vitra

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