Thelen: [Feedback] Now why does it doing that, is it because the mics are too close to each other? That seemed to be… Franz

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First Oral History Interview
Robert Staples and Barbara Charles

23-24 June 2011

At their home

Alexandria, VA

By David Thelen


For the American University Archives
Thelen: [Feedback] Now why does it doing that, is it because the mics are too close to each other? That seemed to be…

Franz: That was one of the recommendations; I mean how far apart would you want them?

Thelen: it looks fine now. So we are sitting around the office of Barbara Charles and Bob Staples in Alexandria on the 22nd of April of June.


Staples: Where have you been?

Thelen: I am a historian my life's in the past. Ms. Kathy Franz and Dave Thelen and i should say do we have your permission to record this?

Charles: Absolutely.

Thelen: And transcribe it to collect to go with the collection to American University and for use of scholars or whoever subsequently.

Charles: Yes.

Thelen: Okay, Kathy and I have talked a little bit about how we think this process might work over two days and we’d like to get your reaction and any ideas. Basically we will do a recording for a couple of days then we will transcribe it. Once there is a transcription we will all get copies and we would propose writing follow up questions that occur to us. You might look at it and you might think, “Oh no, why did I say that or leave out that,” and this basically puts you in control of the transcript.

It has been our experience that that way you get a much richer final product than with a literal transcript. Or it may be that the transcriber will not be able to make out something. Anyway it becomes a process and because we are not doing video at this time it may also and probably will also occur that they will want to do video and that can become parts. So we are thinking of an ongoing process so we are not stuck with just what we do these two days. Does that make sense?

Charles: Sure, sure. And we have our dog here.

Thelen: And I forgot to say Lottie, Lottie?

Charles: Lottie Laneya!

Thelen: Lottie Laneya, and who’s Kurt vile?

Charles: Well…

Thelen: Okay, we will not go there.

Charles: Or Mac the Knife.

Thelen: Or Mac the Knife, yes. So we thought that today would be sort of an overview of how you got into this and the challenges you faced doing it. Then tomorrow we might really dig into collections. Probably that’s too formulaic. Anyway that is a way to imagine the two days. I think that it might be best just to start with a kind of, to approach how you guys got interested in this, in fact, wait, where you came from. I would like to start this individually. You each talk a little about where you grew up, what you now think were things in your past that, your parents or whatever it would be, that now look like may have contributed to your ending up sitting at this table, doing this kind of work. Then ask each of you to speak a little bit and how you got together and how you made a firm and so on. You want to start Bob?

Staples: Robert Staples, I was born in Seattle. I grew up in southern California. We moved around a lot during the war and ended up in Hermosa Beach. I went to junior college at El Comino. [Feedback] Then on to USC [University of Southern California] and there I met – I took industrial design courses from Sal Meridio. He suggested, “Why do not you go down and interview for a job at with Charles Eames,” and of course, I said, “who?” that was in fifty-seven.

Charles: I was not there.

Staples: Anyway I did go down, I did. Don Albinson interviewed me and I got hired. The rest is history, as they say.

Thelen: But were there things in your background, classes in school, interests of your parents, hobbies that now look like they may have been relevant?

Staples: My father was a marine in the First World War. He went in when he was very young and became a bugler or something like that. He was not very well educated, dropped out of school and stuff like that and went into the military. During the war, he worked for consolidated aircraft as a spare parts analyst, which meant that he had to worry about where the airplanes were and if there were parts at the airports for those airplanes to land.

We went to Dayton, Ohio and then we all as a family went to Spokane for a year after the war. Then we migrated to southern California again I guess it was. This time we went to Hermosa Beach because my mother had a cousin in Hermosa Beach. While I was in – I am never good at this stuff. The one thing that is sort of unusual, while I was in school my father had a shopsmith. I do not know if you know what that is, but it is one of those little power tools that can do everything. Drill press or whatever. So all my projects….

Charles: This is high school?

Staples: This is in college, junior college. I think college.

Charles: At USC.

Staples: All my projects. I ended up doing all projects around. I made a (inaudible)

Thelen: On this device.

Staples: I had this nice collection of round things. Orange juice squeezer, telephone, [laughter] a kitchen, a dance kitchen. Anyway… I started at the Eames office as a model maker, a pattern maker and it was right when the Eames Aluminum was in concept. So I worked for years with Don and Dale at the office on the Aluminum group.

Thelen: What did the Aluminum group do?

Staples: It was a…it started out as an indoor/outdoor furniture line that was swivel chair, medium size swivel chair, a large reclining chair, a dining chair and an outman. And this was a first web sling furniture for (inaudible) and it was beautiful and it is still in production. They are finally…it ended up to be more of an indoor use furniture just because of the cost and the Saran fabric that was being used at the time was pretty limited. It was heavily affected by sunlight. So they gave up the outdoorness of it. But just recently they have - technology has gotten better with how you coat the aluminum with a powder coating and also a more advanced technical fabric for the sling. That chair the first of the aluminum group. Then came the stable.

Thelen: The stable, one word. The one we are sitting around.

Staples: The one we are sitting around is my quote unquote invention. Obviously you do not do anything alone at the Eames office. It is a whole a group activity, but the idea of the legs and the slipping and the steel tubes locked and being bolted together with a central tension rod to the spider underneath was my contribution.

Thelen: So you got used to working in teams on designing. Somebody would suggest one thing?

Staples: Well Charles would generally bring the problem into the office and then we would begin to solve it.

Thelen: So Bob, as you think back, I am hearing somebody interested in these technical challenges. Can you remember back to before college when you might have had anything that would show similar interests?

Staples: Well I guess it started in my junior college years as an engineering major.

Thelen: So presumably you wanted to be an engineer?

Staples: I did not want to be an engineer; my father wanted me to be an engineer.

Thelen: Now the truth comes, okay.

Staples: So I tried that for like three semesters. I was majoring in D’s.

Thelen: Oh, majoring in D’s. Yes, I know those.

Staples: So I did not do very well. So I came home one day and I said to my dad… [laughter]

Thelen: You have a chance, let us just make sure we understand this, you do not censor it now. If when you see it you want to bracket some piece, you are in control of what appears in the transcript.

Staples: Anyway, I came home and I wanted to be an advertising designer. Advertising art, which was the major that I could do in junior college. And my father, “What do you want to be one of those blanky-blank queers,” “ No, dad that’s not exactly what I have in mind.” So I started getting A’s all of a sudden.

Thelen: In advertising art.

Staples: Right, I have a wonderful instructor there. I cannot remember his name now, but he had been educated at USC. University of Southern California. So I went to USC after five semesters in junior college and studied architecture and design. And then I got, I guess in my third year there I got this job at Eames.

Thelen: While you were still finishing college.

Staples: I almost got fired because I would be away at school for a lot of the day and then I would come back to the office and ask questions about what was going on and Albinson was a little short tempered about that and told me to knock off the questions. So I just became more observant I guess than vocal. That is all on the history books.

Thelen: Now I am hearing….

Charles: I was just going to say the Aluminum group is broader than I heard you talk about. You talked about the original Aluminum group and the table. But it goes on to be airport seating.

Staples: Yes, but same principle. Sling seat.

Thelen: So help me understand and maybe I got this wrong. I heard you say that you were getting D’s in engineering classes and you somehow sensed that art with a particular audience in mind, advertising or commercial art. Can you think back to when you might have found art? Did you find art in fourth grade? Did you like to paint things or take pictures?

Staples: When I was in high school, I had a physics class of which you had to do in papers and stuff like that and I got pretty good grades because I could illustrate them nicely. Not as artist but as illustrator. I had some skill, latent skill there, but that helped me through my high school and then through college.

Thelen: Were there occasions as a kid you liked drawing or painting that you can remember?

Staples: Not, no.

Thelen: Or going to art shows, I do not know where it might be.

Staples: When I was young, I guess I was in junior high school the neighborhood, Hermosa Beach, had an art show. And a young man and myself, we decided we would make a piece of art and slip it into the show and not tell anybody. Of course it was made up of funky little pieces of copper wire and spokes or wheels from a clock and things, you know. And then it was sitting on a piece of cedar and so the idea that we snuck it in and set it on the table with a lot of other thing s and other people and stood around and listened. And it was daring.

Charles: So what did they say? I have never heard this story.

Staples: They wondered who did this piece and of course we did not fess up to it because we did not want to get kicked out or whatever.

Thelen: Did they say get rid of it?

Staples: I do not remember, it was a very small object, something we could carry and set down on the table, it was not very dominant. Maybe I was meant to be an artist. Who knows? But my father at the time wanted me to be an engineer and there was a need for engineering.

Charles: And good jobs. Bob’s father always was chronically looking for work, just because of the situation and the depression.

Thelen: So you going to college was probably an event? Were you the first in your family?

Staples: I am the only one in my family. My mother was born in Russia and migrated to, I guess it was Portland, Oregon in the twenties.

Charles: No, no. I think more like the teens, 1905 or 8.

Thelen: Well there were various events in Russia; do you know what led her to migrate?

Staples: Her family came from the Ukraine and I think there was some Russian military action against the Ukraine, so her brother who was older, called Henry, decided that everybody should just get out of there.

Thelen: It was not like Pogroms against Jews or revolutionaries. Or service in the war.

Staples: I think it was more like that because my uncle Henry changed identities with his younger brother and gave him the rights to the family, quote unquote; farm or name and then he migrated to the U.S. and then brought my mother and her mother.

Charles: I think your mother and other brother. At least I have seen pictures; there are pictures of the whole family.

Thelen: So they all sort of migrated to, well that was well before me. Anyway the war was interesting from my point of view. Just because it was the military and I collected badges.

Thelen: World War two now. I did so, so I recognize that.

Charles: And you collected pots and so on. Did you? Metal, did not you have to collect metal for the war.

Staples: Well, you collected newspapers and aluminum kitchenware.

Charles: And knitted little squares.

Staples: Right. As part of the USO kind of blanket.

Thelen: So your mom came from Russia and your dad came from Omaha, Nebraska.

Staples: Omaha, Nebraska and he had, I guess, three sisters.

Thelen: And he ended up is Southern California because of the war? Or was he an Okie?

Staples: Actually he met my mother in Seattle Washington and during that, during the depression. He had been a salesman in Haberdashers store in Seattle. Then he lost his job there and then they migrated down with me. I was born in Seattle. Migrated down to Southern California in thirty, I guess it was thirty-nine. I think I was six.

Charles: You were born in thirty-three.

Staples: Right.

Thelen: Okay.

Staples: So then we migrated down my father just had any number of jobs. I mean he delivered laundry, derby, pianist. Then it was milk. Just anything that was work. Then of course the war came, then he volunteered to go in the service again, but he was too old. So he went into the military production because there was a lot of activity in Southern California. So we moved to San Diego and he was then transferred to Spokane. Then the war was over and we migrated back to Southern California.

Charles: Was it Uncle Henry that had the garbage trucks?

Staples: Uncle Henry was a very enterprising German from Russian who had been - his family had been taken to the Ukraine to help educate or grow food because the Ukraines were more productive and things.

Charles: Yes, I think Katherine.

Staples: And, anyway when he came here it was during the war, he got a job as a garbage collector and of course at that time, garbage was, there were no incinerators. There was just garbage or trash. So he decided that all this good food in the garbage should have hogs so then he started raising pigs to eat the garbage.

Thelen: That was clever.

Staples: He and several others would combine together as a consortium and bought some land in Lakewood, which is interior of Southern California and they would dig a big hole in the ground and put the garbage in or the trash in and the dirt would then become the basis for the freeway system. Then when the hole was filled it would be sold as industrial property. Then you would have to buy more property a little farther away and dig another hole, et cetera et cetera. So as the freeway spread the dirt and spread garbage spread, so it became quite lucrative. I guess I cannot remember exactly.

Charles: Well your dad work for him at one point and you did too right?

Staples: Well, he…I do not know the exactly chronology of my dad’s employment, but after the war it really hard to get a job and hold a job with so little education. So he became a garbage collector friend. I mean it was Marie’s brother Jack who had the truck and then it was my dad went to work for him and got a truck.

Thelen: So I am still kind of intrigued by going to college. So your father did not. Do you remember if he really encouraged you to go to college or if you picked this up? Where do you think you got that?

Staples: It was a Korean War when I got out of high school and I was ready to go.

Thelen: Go to war?

Staples: Well I was in - many of my friends were going to war and I thought well I should go. I think that was when they had the draft and when I was called down to take my physical and I had very bad asthma, so I could not go. So the next thing after high school was junior college.

Thelen: Did it just feel like a natural thing to be doing because your friends were doing it? Did it feel like something your parents, one or the other, was pushing you to do?

Staples: Well, I suspect my father wanted me to be better than he was.

Charles: But your father by this point or a little later was mayor of this little town. He got into politics. He was not always job to job.

Staples: Well, once he got into the garbage business there was profit to be made out in Lakewood. All of these houses were being built for the returning GIs and stuff like that. So that was lucrative. Of course he had to hire help to drive or pick up and one day his help ran over a child. It was very painful for him, so he got out of that garbage business. [Background noise]. He had some good friends in Carmel, California that had a gift shop and they tried to convince my dad to - well they did convince my family to take over their gift shop in Carmel.

Charles: No but he had one in Hermosa before that.

Staples: Yes, you are right.

Charles: So I think the Spencers helped him start one in Hermosa.

Staples: Yes he started a gift shop in Hermosa Beach. My mother being a worker there and I worked there.

Thelen: In the gift shop.

Staples: Then he became part of the Rotarians and the little civic communities.

Thelen: The things that lead you into politics.

Staples: Because he became a member of the rotary, then he was a mason. It is a network of people and the shop was moderately successful I guess. When the Spencers decided to get out of their business up in Carmel my family moved to Carmel. I did not go because I was out of the house by that time. So they had that gift shop for a number of years and then he passed on.

Charles: Well he wanted you to take it over, the gift shop in Carmel, in the late sixties.

Thelen: So you graduate from high school in like…

Staples: Fifty-one.

Thelen: Fifty-one, you did not go into to the army in fifty-one. You did go to junior college around fifty-one. What junior college?

Staples: El Commeno.

Thelen: Then you were there for three years.

Staples: Five semesters.

Thelen: Five semesters, so now we are around fifty-three, fifty-four. Now did you go straight to USC?

Staples: Yes, I went from El Commeno to USC. At USC my credits were from a junior college, so I had to take a lot of things over again because they were not transferrable at the time. And that is when I was introduced to Eames.

Thelen: So that would have been around fifty-seven. Then you start going to work for them. And you worked there for how long?

Staples: Sixteen years.

Thelen: Sixteen years, wow.

Staples: Until seventy-three.

Thelen: Okay, I was just. This is great. This is really very helpful. What, if you were now going to tell your story and you are because there is a microphone. Do not go by my question, what about this life strikes….

Staples: It was very fortunate that I stepped from one stone to the next and I just kept going up.

Charles: But you had another job.

Staples: Yes, well that obviously. When I was, there were periods of time where I was delivering newspapers and I was the only breadwinner in the house.

Thelen: In the forties maybe.

Charles: I was thinking you had other jobs while you were at USC at the far company and so on.

Staples: My father wanted, I tried to get a job on my own, of course I did not have any experience so you cannot get a job. How can you get experience unless you do get a job? So I interviewed at all these industrial firms in the Southern California area that I could. And I could not crack the nut, so my dad spoke to a friend who was, worked at this company called Fora Company and they made air filtration systems for railroad engines. So they hired me as a draftsman. I was doing quite well there and then I had to make a decision, well do I continue my drafting at Far company or do I go on an interview at Eames? i did not know who he was or what he was, so I guess Merino helped me decide to go to a job in the field that I was interested in, which was design.

Charles: But did not you have to take a pay cut?

Staples: I did take a pay cut.

Thelen: So that indicates to me, I do not know if correctly, that you were really interested in design at that point. If it came to making more money and not pursuing design or taking less money and pursing design? Am I misunderstanding?

Staples: I do not know if I was that bright to make a choice. I was following the hint of other people. My professor at USC thought I had some smarts or whatever. So he said why do not you go down and talk to Eames and so I did.

Thelen: But you yourself were interested in design?

Staples: I guess so.

Charles: I think Marindo, from what I have hear over the years, was very influential, Sal Marindo.

Thelen: In getting you interested in design?

Staples: Well, nurturing the interest that I had, I guess.

Thelen: Better, nurturing the interest you had.

Charles: And directing you at Eames. He sent various, did not Sal Marindo send various people to Eames?

Staples: Yes [feedback] Dick Dons for instance.

Thelen: So he had a kind of relationship with Eames.

Staples: Yes, I think so.

Thelen: And they probably trusted him.

Charles: In this new book that’s come out about furniture and the history of the design of furniture, the Eames office there is a little section, I think actually maybe in the section about Bob that talks about Sal Marindo and all the people that he sent to the Eames offices. I think he would have been one too.

Staples: A farm team.

Thelen: So how much was your pay cut?

I do not remember that.

Charles: I have heard that it was like one hundred and fifty to one hundred and twenty-five an hour. I mean these numbers are so small. Something like that, maybe less.

Staples: One thing that was nice about it was that it was in Venice California.

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