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Endless Inspiration

By Joe Gebbia

Photography by Nicholas Calcott

Airbnb cofounder Joe Gebbia shares something of the singular role Ray and Charles Eames played in his own journey—and why it’s impossible to get bored at the Eames Ranch.

Collage image includes a black molded plywood Eames chair, patterned papers in yellows and reds and a plywood leg splint.
 

When I enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), I was convinced I would pursue fine art—painting, specifically. However, during my freshman year, I was flipping through a coffee-table book documenting the best designs of the twentieth century, and landed on the Molded Plywood Lounge Chair by Ray and Charles Eames. I became obsessed by what I saw, even though at first I thought they were brothers. The more I learned about them (including the fact that they were actually a couple) and their work, the more I felt like a whole new universe had emerged. I had been unaware of the realm of industrial design, and I began to understand that design had the power to influence people at scale. I saw how designers’ visions were meant to be replicated and distributed widely, and served as a functional form of art that could reach the masses with creativity and usefulness. The Eameses’ philosophy of design—to make the best for the most for the least—was riveting, and inspired me to change my major to Industrial Design, setting me on a different course entirely.

I took many of the lessons I learned from the Eameses with me after I graduated from RISD. Their playful approach to the world, knack for problem-solving within constraints, and attention to detail all influenced me as I embarked on my next journey—founding and scaling Airbnb. In my new role as the head of a company, I found myself applying their design processes to better communicate with my team, collaborate more effectively, and empower others. The hybrid nature of their work—how they went from film to furniture, or architecture to experiences—spoke to how I saw myself as a creative person, and fueled my work on all fronts

Airbnb cofounder Joe Gebbia and Llisa Demetrios inspect a hand-carved prototype part for the Aluminum Group chair. Shelves in the background contain various Eames chairs.

Joe Gebbia and Llisa Demetrios inspect a hand-carved prototype part for the Aluminum Group chair. / Photograph: Paige Ricks

 

I first learned about the Eames Ranch from a friend a few years after we started the company. I was enthralled by the idea that there was actually a place that housed the Eameses’ sketches, drawings, models, and other unnamed and unknown pieces of ephemera that detailed their process of discovery and problem-solving. I had seen the Eameses’ house and their work in museums, but this was different. The first time I visited the Eames Ranch and met Llisa and her mother, Lucia, I got chills. I was awestruck to be among Ray and Charles’s descendants and to have the opportunity to hear their stories of the legendary designers. I knew from that moment that I wanted to help share that feeling and source of inspiration with the world. Being in that space was something like walking on hallowed ground, connecting directly to the original source of creativity.

 

I returned time and again with Airbnb design teams over the years and the ideas and conversations we would have there shaped much of our strategy going forward. Each time I visited, I discovered something new and left with fresh energy and perspective on my work and my role as a designer and leader—and I noticed my team felt the same way. There was no way to be bored there! Seeing people become transformed by learning firsthand about Ray and Charles’s process was incredible. On one of our trips, we rediscovered one of my favorite Eames quotes: “The role of the designer is that of a very good, thoughtful host, anticipating the needs of his guests.” Nothing could more perfectly articulate my view of the role of designers, and it helped refocus and reinvigorate my team in how they worked to improve Airbnb for our community.

A diagram drawn on white paper by Charles Eames explaining the design process where the needs of the client, the design office, and society as a whole can overlap.
 

When Lucia passed, the future of the Eames Ranch was thrown into question and I felt compelled to ensure the experience was not only preserved, but opened up to an even broader world of curious problem-solvers. While there are other places the Eameses’ legacy is celebrated, the Ranch’s special focus on their work process and the artifacts that illuminate them as human beings felt unique and treasured to me. This place, which had meant so much to me, which had given me so many lessons, moments of reflection, and points of growth throughout my career, would live on, but how? How could I share this feeling, this inspiration, with others? How could I fulfill my role as a designer—to be a thoughtful host anticipating the needs of my guests—through this piece of the Eameses’ legacy? After many conversations with the family, where we built a strong and trusting relationship, the idea of the Eames Institute—a destination to inspire and unite individuals and organizations advancing design with purpose, stewarded by their granddaughter Llisa—was born.

Large wooden drafting table with various prototype parts on top next to a shelving unit with various Eames chairs and chair parts.
Well-worn metal cabinet with many small, shallow drawers. Some of the drawers are open, revealing tiny figurines, toy spinning tops, swatches of fabric, everyday items that were a source of inspiration to Ray and Charles Eames.
 

From that moment to now, it’s been an exciting journey of building the team and shaping how the world experiences and learns from the Ranch and Collection. I first met John Cary, our CEO, when he gave a talk at a Design Vanguard event, and was immediately taken with his experience and perspective. He told me he wakes up every morning and searches for Eames furniture on Craigslist, and I knew I wanted someone with that frenetic passion for their work to lead our Institution. From there, he has amassed a team of doers and creatives of all stripes, each bringing their own uniqueness and wonder to the project, just as the Eameses would themselves.

Exterior image of the Eames Ranch, a white building with a metal roof at sundown. The ranch is illuminated by the interior lighting which seeps out through the expanse of  many windows.
 

While my interpretations of Ray and Charles’s work and the way they shape my thinking has changed since I first came across the Plywood Molded Lounge as a young design student, they continue to have a profound impact on my life. I’ve come to know them as cultural polymaths and gained a deeper appreciation of how they simplified storytelling across mediums resulting in timeless resonance. ❤

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