Charles: No funding. I took whatever little money I had. I bought and old Ford Econline van and Bob built an interior for it, a little place for me to sleep a little slide table, et cetera. Another guy at the office worked on the mechanics of the van. The two were not talking often, so I would drive the van between the two of them. Eventually it was a cute little van and I headed out. I left Bob, left the Eames office. I had an intention originally of coming back that fall. It was a getaway.
Charles: A walkabout or something.
Thelen: So you did intend to return.
Charles: I think so, I certainly hadn’t. I ended my apartment and so on, I did not have a destination other than to go around the country.
Thelen: There is another area that, you were obviously a woman in this period.
Staples: Still is.
Thelen: Still is as far as I can tell. So I want to get in that whole area. Was there anything, did you encounter either problems or for that matter opportunities at any point and you have to mention Oberlin, which I am guessing was a haven. My daughter went to Oberlin. I am guessing…
Charles: I mean theoretically supportive, but I was not sent on a single job interview.
Thelen; Go ahead talk about that.
Charles: Well, I think I was not so academically inclined or encouraged to go on in school. I was a pretty solid B plus, but I got one A minus in my whole career at Oberlin.
Thelen: Do you think that that has something to do with being a woman?
Charles: No, I am just saying because I was not an academic star, I was not necessarily encouraged to go on to graduate school. On the other hand, I know that companies came to the campus to interview people for perspective jobs, but I was also never encouraged by anybody to go to those interviews. This could have been my own myopia that I just did not know what I was going to do in my life, which I did not. I also think that the companies were not particularly looking for women. I could be wrong.
Thelen: Tell them your IBM story, about Deers.
Charles: That is a later story after we had our own business. We were doing stuff for IBM actually. It was not quite written dear vendor, it was really written dear supplier, vendor is a word I hate, but it was addressed to me Barbara Charles. Now Barbara is not a name like Gene or other names like Leslie that can go either way, it is pretty much always a woman’s name, but it was addressed after my whole name to dear sir, then it went on to notify me that I could not as a supplier I had to know that IBM employees that I could not give any gifts to an IBM employee or his family. So I wrote back and said….
Staples: Dear sir.
Charles: I wrote back basically saying of all the companies in the country we had done this huge project, America on Stage for IBM I think it was around that period. I wrote back to the vice president that sent this letter to me, and said of any company in the country that ought to be able to set up a computer to differentiate between names to figure out if I am male or female, you ought to be able to do that first of all. And you ought to be able to write a letter that is non-sexual, it could be and I think I even gave an example, please do not give any gifts to IBM employees or their families. I mean there were clearly ways to write this. I got a very nice letter back from a vice president apologizing that they would correct this. I said there is no reason for you to assume that all of your suppliers are male-owned businesses.
Thelen: When are we talking about this exchange?
Charles: It would have been after Computer Perspective, it would have been in the seventies. America on Stage, after America on Stage. A little story before that.
Staples: The bicentennial project.
Charles: When I was in elementary school, the boys got the gym field three days a week and the girls got it two days a week, otherwise we had to play inside and if it rained so the boys did not get one of their days, they got one of our days. I was probably in about fourth or fifth grade, so I organized a petition and took it to the principal complaining. I think my mother was called about my attitude. The principal actually was very sharp and I knew she and I had the same birthday. We got along okay. Anyway that was my first foray. I will say I have never been very aggressive about this, but that was my first foray into saying, hey. Essentially I do not think, other than [laughter] sorry.
When I first worked at the Smithsonian, after I left the Eames office I stayed in Washington because I thought I could research carousels and I got a little freelance job to design and install for fifteen thousand dollars a little exhibit of Sears toys. And other toys, some were mechanical and so. Bob helped me long distance with some of the more complex design, et cetera. We had this one case we were going to make mechanical toys and it was agreed that the Smithsonian model shop would make the Mani maid, so that was cool. So I said after a while I would like to see what they are doing. As a woman I could not go into the Smithsonian model shop. The model makers did not let you in.
Staples: A male bastion.
Thelen: A male bastion, I guess they had something in mind.
Charles: Who knows?
Thelen: Who knows.
Charles: So I went to their boss who worked over at natural history, who I think condoned all of this certainly. It turned out as a young man maybe he had run away, but at some point he had run a merry-go-round. So we talked about merry-go-rounds and he became sympathetic. So we negotiated that I could not go into the model shop, but they could bring their work out into the exhibit hall and I could critique it there.
Thelen: And this is?
Charles: No 1971.
Staples: This is not the only place that was that way. Chicago had the same.
Charles: 1975 at Chicago Historical Society we were not allowed and none of the female curators were allowed in the prep shop, where they prepared everything. The Smithsonian one is fun because a year or two later there was a big effort to unionize all of these employees and one of the union issues was could women work in the model shop.
Thelen: And did they want them to or not?
Charles: The women wanted to, the people organizing.
Thelen: Sometimes unions defended male privilege.
Charles: The model people were defending, but it was the employees in general who said if we were going to unionize here are some of the issues is equality and the model shop was shown up as. The man who had been the head who had negotiated my deal said well if he had to hire somebody I would be acceptable. I was not at the union meeting, but I heard that. This was not uncommon obviously in museums if we are running into it at the Smithsonian and at Chicago. I had been, my mother was president of the school board, my grandmother was a leading Unitarian. I came from a family.
Staples: That did not take shit.
Charles: That never said women could not do it. My father had his PhD, but his two sisters did too. This was women were women.
Thelen: Were people.
Charles: Were people. It was not, I think if you expect to be treated one way maybe you get trated that way. I never expected to get treated that way.
Thelen: At Eames did you fin discrimination there?
Charles: As long as you wore your mini skirt you had no problem.
Staples: Well even the bookkeeper enforced those rules. Miss. Poole insisted that Barbara had a little accident with her car and bunged up her knees so she came in in pants one time, slacks you would call them and Miss. Poole got upset.
Charles: She came over, how come I had pants on. I said well I have stitches in my knee, so I had a one week dispensation.
Thelen: Why do you think they had that, women should not wear pants? I can come up with two reasons in my mind.
Charles: I think Charles liked the environment. I mean in college we wore dresses. I think that was not uncommon.
Thelen: It was also what men wore.
Staples: Miss. Poole was a person of …
Charles: She did not do it alone though.
Staples: Of course she did not do it alone. She was the accountant for several Hollywood stars and she probably felt women should look like women. After World War Two many women were in slacks or pants.
Charles: In World War Two sure. This was an office, but we did not dress office-like.
Staples: We never wore suits to the office.
Thelen: Did you ever experience a dress code?
Thelen: You could have worn a T-shirt and jeans?
Staples: Well I never wore a T-shirt.
Charles: But you could have. I think people did.
Staples: Henry did.
Charles: And Carl did and so on.
Thelen: So it was not a rigid dress code place.
Charles: Not at all but, miniskirts were very very short and I will say installing an exhibit in 1968 at the Smithsonian is
Thelen: A challenge
Charles: It is a challenge.
Staples: Especially when you drop things on the floor. You have to learn how to squat as opposed to bend over.
Charles: I think we should go over.
Thelen: I was just going to say.
Charles: To the war.
Staples: I knew you would say that.
End of track 2 Thelen: That is record, here we go. I guess what we want to do now is talk about your individual backgrounds and how you were beginning to collaborate in the early days at Eames. I think what we want to do the rest of today is talk about an overview of challenges you have experienced how you contributed to building, making the field and experiencing the field and you are relationship to the field whatever it is, because in a way you really are inventors of it.
Staples: We are participants in the beginning of it let us say.
Thelen: Alright let us put it that way.
Staples: How did we get together?
Thelen: Yes, let us start with that.
Staples: Barbara was here in Washington and there was an opportunity to do a design build project for the Smithsonian. So Gary Harvey from New York, is a fabricator, and I made a proposal to the Smithsonian on an exhibition called We the People. The We the People, not the Chicago We the People.
Thelen: That was for the Smithsonian.
Staples: Barbara had already gotten the contract to do the catalog for We the People, which was for Peter Marzos, I believe.
Charles: No, Ben Lawless and Margaret Clapthorn. I had already done a catalog for Peter Marzos.
Staples: Oh that is right you had done the printing one for Peter.
Charles: This is more of the clutter school of design.
Thelen: Ah the clutter school of design. [Feedback] It is the clutter school of design.
Staples: Those are four big tubs in the hall of the, I guess it was the ground floor, second floor of the museum of history and technology to represent America’s symbolisms.
Charles: This was just before the bicentennial, but I do not think that we had any idea what was going to happen with the bicentennial. That it was going to be big that there would be all kinds of work and so on.
Thelen: So they came to you.
Charles: Ben Lawless, I had done, as I said earlier, this freelance job for toys. Ben Lawless, the head of exhibits at the museum knew Bob’s work in particular because of the Eames office, the Naru show and the Photography in the City. But I was, did the toy show, a little catalog for Peter Marz, I was doing odds and ends, freelancing, you know, making ten thousand dollars a year maybe if I was lucky. Ben asked me, said this big show was coming up, they had Congressional funding, did I know any designer, they did not think they could do it inside.
I knew Bob was thinking about leaving the Eames office. So I said, “well Bob might be available.” Ben was very excited about that. I do not know if anybody else submitted a proposal. At that point there were not these formal RFPs, in fact, I think it was for the toy show. Ben told me how to write out my letter of proposal. I typed it in his office and he walked me down to Tillinson, Bob Tillinson’s office, who was sort of the treasurer, CFO in effect for the museum. Bob picks up the paper, holds it up to the window and says “Ben you cannot have a contractor submitting a proposal on Smithsonian watermarked paper.” We went back to his office, I went to the Xerox copier I got blank paper, we retyped the letter, there is no computer holding it, I have to do it again and resubmit it. That is sort of how casual you could, it was basically, Ben would say who he thought would be good to do it.
Ben Lawless was head of exhibits at the national museum of history and technology. He had been the first designer. He had been hired there as a designer to design the initial exhibits when the museum opened. So he had started at the Smithsonian in the late fifties and I think the museum opened in sixty or sixty-two. So they had a design staff, not a very big one and they had a very good prep shop. But they felt this was big enough that they should go outside. So as Bob said, Bob and Gary put a proposal together.
Staples: It was a 15,000 foot show.
Staples: It covered sort of the, well almost half of the second floor.
Charles: The whole east end of the second floor.
Staples: And it was soup to nuts. The tubs that you saw in the catalog there were the popular symbolisms of eagles, flags and liberty. When it got into the beginning, it talked about the census, US census, the first one being Holra, which was an IBM product.
Charles: The first census was 1795.
Staples: Well the first one in the electronic world, you might say. The electro-mechanical world.
Charles: It was all in a sense political history in a broad sense, whose participating.
Thelen: Just to back up a minute. The Smithsonian had been around before that and had been putting things out for display, was there any sense that this was going to be anything different?
Staples: Political history always had some space there in the museum, but this was a major space.
Thelen: But there was no sense of what you were doing?
Charles: Was unique.
Thelen: Was different from what they had been doing before you were doing it. You see where I am going, at what point do you become mindful, hey I am making up a new field.
Charles: In fact, Ben had done the initial proposals for this gallery. He had, for example, proposed demonstrations on the capitol steps. We implemented it probably, arrogantly I could say, more elegantly than it was initially conceived. I think Ben, if you said there was a concept proposal already in hand, Ben had done it, the museum had done it already to get funding.
Thelen: Who did they get funding from?
Charles: This was mostly Congressional.
Thelen: So, Congress specifically appropriated money for this exhibit.
Charles: So we had big discussions, particular in this exhibit, where we are kind of picking quotes. This is late end of the Vietnam War, this is ninety-three, seventy-three. There are demonstrations in Washington on a regular basis. We in fact would go down and photograph demonstrators and then ask them for their artifacts. This was collected on the mall. Some of this stuff was collected on the mall. This banner with those people carrying it and so on. This was an old photograph. This was a merry-go-round guy I had photographed the year before stepping off a merry-go-round.
There is a wonderful story about this lady. Eddie Mayo, who was the curator, she and I worked on what all these quotes should be and some of them are a little bit on the edge. I think there is a Ceaser Chavez one here when that was just all happening and so on. We were always nervous, would Congress complain? I think maybe today they would, but then…
Staples: Well certainly Republicans would.
Charles: Then sisterhood is powerful , hell no we will not go, this kind of stuff. Am I not a brother, no union with slaveholders, just different things that we thought made sense to talk about the whole environment of political speaking out. The show was all done and I think pretty well received when all of a sudden there is a huge panic from the lawyers because this woman in this photograph, who we had photographed on the mall, her grandson was going to school at Georgetown and had written to her and said, “you know grandma they really got your number, you are in the Smithsonian in this exhibit.”
Now her complaint was not that she was there, it turns out she was a weekend warrior, going to every demonstration possible, but that we had given her a sign that said "War is not healthy for business and children and other living things.” Her complaint was that war is very healthy for business and that she would never ever have carried that sign. Of course the lawyers want to know do we have permission from people to have their photographs in the display. We are going through all our negatives trying to figure out what the context was. Finally, Eddie, smart lady that she is and said, “look you are so wonderful we want to keep you in the exhibit, we will send you pictures of every sign we have, do you have any of your signs, we would love to collect your signs.” No she did not have any signs that were appropriate. Then Eddie sent her pictures of all the possible signs we thought she could carry from that period and she picked a different sign, she was happy, the lawyers went away.
Thelen: If they should all be so simple.
Charles: I mean this was pretty amazing for a first, and we were not officially a firm, but we were a firm. I think we signed all the projects Staples and Charles and got a letterhead and so on. We had not incorporated.
Thelen: Did you think, we are now. I am just trying to picture, you see yourselves as Staples and Charles now. You are bidding, Smithsonian. Where does, I am trying to picture how do you go from employees…
Staples: One step at a time.
Charles: You just fall into it.
Thelen: You just fall into it.
Charles: I wanted a job when I got the toy show job. I went to Ben asking for a job and he said I cannot hire you. I had no concept of independent. But he offered an independent project, the little toy show.
Thelen: Which you did?
Charles: Which I did. Then after that I got word that one of the fabricators here, design and production, a great big house, had a major Russian show coming in that had been designed by a Russian designer. It was the first big exhibit out of Russia after the icebreaking with Nixon. It too was going to be fifteen or twenty thousand square feet. The Russians wanted somebody on the project who had handled museum objects, so I got recommended to them.
So I worked with the Russian designer at each venue, how do you want this set up. Then I would oversee getting the fabricators to set it up and all of that. So I spent about a year on and off traveling wherever it was going, I would travel out to it. I had my little catalogs and Bob came east and then we were a couple, we became a firm. He applied with Gary and got that job. After that we now were a firm and during that job we started signing drawings Staples and Charles, but Staples and Charles did not hold the contract, Gary Harvey held the contract.
Staples: I was a sub to Gary.
Thelen: I see. Is there a connection, you must of, you obviously liked each other, but was there also a sense that you brought different things to a collaboration.
Staples: We jokingly call ourselves hardware and software.
Thelen: Okay, explain that.
Staples: I am hardware doing the mechanical stuff and she is the software, the brains of the organization.
Thelen: Did you have that sense if not those words back here in the 70s?
Charles: Sure, I was working more with the client on the content. It was a big day when I did my first drawing, I cannot remember what it was but I remember I actually did an elevation and that was a big event for me. We were figuring out the graphics and so on. Part of what was interesting on this project, I jokingly earlier today said designers can do anything. At the Eames office when we did an exhibit we worked with scholars. But we did the research, we wrote text, you know, we could do it all. Not necessarily any one person, but between the three dimension design and the research and the graphics and the filmmaking, we could do it all.
Staples: We could do it all for an exhibition.
Thelen: Well as opposed to what.
Charles: At the Smithsonian, I joked with Sylvio Badini, who was then number two, they had a tradition that a curator would write the whole script, pick all the objects, I think practically say to the left you will now see to the right you will now see I mean this whole walkthrough idea before a single thing was put to paper. It often had no relationship to the gallery, but maybe it did. Maybe there were some sketches. So I said, “what do you do? Keep the designer in a separate room and slip the whole script under the door. How can you work in that environment?” I think I drove Margaret Clapthorn at least crazy because I kept asking all sorts of questions, you know does it really mean that and what about this and should not that be next to that?
Thelen: This may be interesting, the Smithsonian before had never thought it needed to do that kind of planning.
Charles: I think designers were kept in a more traditional role of people who give it physical form and make it look pretty.
Staples: Did not Productivity come before….
Thelen: What do you mean by Productivity?
Staples: It was an exhibition by Shermi and Guysmore, who were designers.
Charles: That was after us.
Staples: For Ben again and the Smithsonian.
Charles: And the subject of productivity. And Nations to Nations was also after us, the big Peter Marzo show. So they started working with outside designers, but I do not think they had a tradition of a designer taking an aggressive role is maybe the way to put it.
Staples: A big part of the intellectual development.
Thelen: Of the thing.
Charles: Right, I did not know any better. I came from an environment where that’s what you did, all of a sudden I realized at some points that I was not very smooth on the edges, maybe.