Ray Eames and the House of Cards
In our Design Object Series we highlight iconic objects designed by women. Many of the contributions of women to design have been obscured if not erased throughout history. We want to do our part to counteract this effect by celebrating the women behind a wide range of iconic design objects. In this issue, we salute Ray Eames for developing the House of Cards. We’ve mentioned Ray before in this series for her work on the Shell Chair, which she designed with husband and design giant Charles Eames. This design, though, is hers, and Ray is increasingly getting the attention she deserves.
In the world of design, there are creations that stand the test of time, captivating the imaginations of both children and adults alike. One such design is the Eames House of Cards. While Ray and Charles collaborated on many projects in the studio, and this project is no different, the House of Cards is officially attributed to Ray in the Eames archive. In this issue, we’ll cover its roots in childhood play, its many variations, and its enduring appeal as a design object.
Inspired by Childhood Play
In the early 1950s, the Eames embarked on a mission to design toys that not only entertained but also educated. The House of Cards was one of the results of this objective, designed by Ray in 1952. The House of Cards finds its origins in the simple childhood pastime of stacking playing cards. Ray Eames, known for her innovative and hands-on approach to design, took this game to new heights.
What set the Eames cards apart from conventional cards was its transformative, modular design. Ray crafted rigid, plastic-coated paper cards, each adorned with six notches spaced strategically around the edges. These notches allowed the cards to slot together, forming sturdy and expansive structures limited only by the user’s imagination.
While the Eames House of Cards was a departure from traditional playing cards, it paid homage to its origins. One design concept, ultimately not included in the deck but preserved in the Eames archives, featured a series of cards with a single red heart in the center of each. These paper hearts, meticulously cut and pasted by Ray Eames onto each card, evoked the spirit of the Ace of Hearts from a traditional card deck. This illustrated how she took standard playing cards as a starting point for further experimentation.
Ray’s card structures were also far more colorful and engaging than the traditional card towers of the time. Two versions of the deck were created, each containing 54 cards with 54 unique designs: the “Picture Deck” and the “Pattern Deck.” The “Picture Deck” featured curated objects from around the her home, carefully arranged and photographed, infusing each card with a piece of their personal world. The “Pattern Deck” showcased a series of mostly geometric patterns. Images of the early prototypes and first generation printings can be seen in the Eames.com digital archive.
More Than a Toy
The Eames House of Cards captured the hearts of children and adults alike. It was so popular that several variations were developed over the years, including the Giant House of Cards, in 1954, and the Computer House of Cards. These variations are still available today, with the Small and Giant decks sold at the MoMA design store and the Giant deck an object in MoMA’s collection. Wanting to expand on the concept as a tool for education and creativity, the Eames Office later designed the Create-It-All deck, a blank version that allows you to make your own custom cards.
The House of Cards is more than just a toy; it’s a design object that represents creativity, interaction, learning, and play. Its ability to engage generations and foster innovation underscores Eames’ remarkable vision. This iconic creation continues to inspire architects, designers, and dreamers of all ages, reminding us that good design knows no boundaries.