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What Designers Can Learn From the Pioneering Work of Charles and Ray Eames

Today’s designers could learn a lot from the pioneering design work of Charles and Ray Eames, their granddaughter Llisa Demetrios told attendees gathered at Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore last Wednesday.

Charles and Ray Eames are perhaps best known for their near-ubiquitous molded plywood furniture designs, which are instantly recognizable to just about anyone who has been in a living room in the last 70 years.

The husband-and-wife team are considered giants of mid-century American design. They also had an impact beyond their own country’s borders. The Eameses played a role in creating India’s National Institute of Design and helped the U.S. government bridge the communication gap with Russia by providing “glimpses of the USA” in Moscow, Demetrios explained.

They were also known for their contribution to architecture, industrial design, and manufacturing. Demetrios said they always approached design challenges with energy and resolve. “They didn’t just jot something on a napkin,” she said, “they actually acted on it immediately, and wanted to start building it.”

But the Eameses especially enjoyed creating furniture because they were able to control all of the design choices. They always approached it with a somewhat “elliptical” designer’s mindset, Demetrios said, leaving all of their options open.

For example, Demetrios said, “They said they were designing ‘seating.’ They did not say they were designing a chair, because if they said that, they were eliminating the ottoman even before they thought of it.”

Some of the pair’s earlier seating concepts included more radical, three-legged designs, which they thought would make more stable chairs. But tests showed that people didn’t know how to get out of a three-legged chair and often fell over. Mistakes like this were part of the process.

“What most people would call ‘failure,’ they would just call ‘one less misconception,’” Demetrios said.

They were also among the first designers to actively try to make their furniture more sustainable. The Eameses suspended the use of rosewood in their products in the 1970s due to concerns over deforestation in the Amazon.

They even dabbled in cinema, making films like Powers of Ten, which examined scale by expanding out from the Earth to the entire universe, then zoomed in to a single atom and quarks. In an age where so much is compressed into small, handheld screens, there’s a lesson there, too, Demetrios said.

“It’s not about how big something is,” she said. “It’s about how big something is next to something else.” Little doubt, then, that Charles and Ray Eames still stand tall today.

For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference, click here.