James Yang on Charles & Ray Eames

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday May 16, 2024


James Yang, illustrator/author of A Boy Named Isamu: A Story of Isamu Noguchi (Viking 2021), will launch his new book, Charles & Ray: Designers at Play (Viking 2024) next week. Today Yang, who also has a busy career as an illustrator for national media programs, shares his thoughts on Mid-Century design, and the playful art of learning how to learn.

Peggy Roalf:  Where did the idea of doing a book about the designers Charles and Ray Eames come from? 

James Yang: Growing up as a child in the 60’s “The Jetson’s”, a TV show about a family in the future, was my favorite cartoon. I l oved the moving sidewalks. Flying cars would magically fold into briefcases. The cities, houses, appliances, and furniture were colorful and fun. I wanted to live in a Jetson’s world!  


The first time I saw a version of the famous Eames chair as a child my reaction was “OMG it’s a Jetsons chair!” and suddenly a little Korean boy in Oklahoma was a fan of Mid-Century Design. Another reason Charles and Ray came to mind is because I’m influenced by Mid Century artists like Isamu Noguchi and the Eames. My concepts and style blend well with telling a story about the Eames. The main puzzle to solve is finding a hook with the Eames that related to me emotionally. The hook turned out to be the fun and collaboration they had with the creative process.

Q: Is there any reason in particular why you chose this moment to shine a spotlight on Charles and Ray?

A; Doing any project about the Eames seems like an unattainable dream. After the positive reaction to A Boy Named Isamu, my editor asked if there were any other Mid-Century designers I wanted to write about and I sheepishly asked if I could do a book about the Eames. Viking said, “Of course you can!” It was a case of the opportunity rising and I wasn’t going to let it pass. Mid Century as subject matter is perfect because you don’t have to worry about it being out of style before your book comes out. Having said that, it was intimidating because you want the story and art to be worthy of the Eames and that’s a very high bar. 


Q: Where did ideas for all of the wonderful perfect chair “failures” come from?

A: I read somewhere that the iconic Eames chair was the hardest problem for the Eames to solve. There’s pressure on kids today and I wanted kids to know it’s okay to fail and try again. The Eames enjoyed the process as much as the destination. Many chairs in the book are based on sketches by Charles. Some are my imagined possibilities. The painting on the ceiling is influenced by shapes Ray used as a painter. That was a very fun page to write and illustrate and since Isamu, I’ve learned to appreciate the importance of how text flows. I’ve always liked the musicality to Dr Suess’ text as a child and while my writing doesn’t come close that level, that’s the goal.

Q: Please tell the readers about your design process

A; I first come up with a premise for a book and one of the biggest lessons learned is: it has to be a story both I and the audience want to read. Next is a very rough storyboard to see if a story can be told visually and this is where many ideas die. If it passes that hurdle, I drop rough text into the storyboard and start working on the tone of the text. Is it first person? Is it third person? How does is rhythmically work with the images? A cleaned-up version of the storyboard is sent to Creative Director Jim Hoover and Editor/Associate Publisher Tamar Brazis at Viking and notes are sent back and forth and we decide how many pages and what format. 

There’s a lot of trust and I’m more than happy to defer to Jim and Tamar even though it’s “my” book because I’m a big believer in collaboration. Tamar and I are just getting started in our relationship but I’m impressed with how quickly she got me and her notes and edits are “chef’s kiss”. Jim and I have worked on five books now and I let him go nuts with the design because he never disappoints. His ideas are a little surprising but perfect for the story.

Then I do a tight version of the revised sketches to size, final notes are given, then we make the book! The final art is executed in Photoshop on my mac mini pro M2 with an Apple Studio Display and an iPad Pro is mirrored with Astropad to the screen so I can draw. There’s a layer for almost everything because there is tons of tweaking on my part and I want to give Jim flexibility to move things around for text.

Q: How do you simplify the difficult situations that designers face in problem solving—and show young readers that trying really hard, over and over again, is a good thing

A: Fortunately, my approach to illustration has been about breaking concepts down to their essence and this turns out to be a perfect skill for children’s picture books. The story had to be about the Eames Chair and how the many attempts before they hit on the solution and a comfortable chair is very relatable. At its root, this is a metaphor for the saying “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again”.  In my version, once they solved the Eames chair it, their excitement gives birth to many other problems they wanted to solve. 

Ironically, as a child I was extremely results oriented, so now—besides wanting to write about my design heroes—I also wanted kids to learn what I didn’t know about the fun of the design process so they can have more fun with their own projects.

Q: Have you furnished your own space with designs by Charles and Ray? 

A; Oh yes! Herman Miller was a client back in the day so I had the chance to load up our living room and recreate the Jetson experience. We have the mini tables, plywood dining chairs and hang it all. Let’s just say it was very easy to find references for the Eames book. One of my favorite Mid-Century finds is an Eiremann work table with a beautiful plywood top that I picked up at a sale by a German illustrator friend who was moving out of the country.  

Q: I loved your book on Isamu Noguchi; do you know what your next book for young readers will be about? 

 A: Thank you! Isamu is a book that means a lot to me, not least because it’s the book where the light bulb went off about storytelling. Jim I and I were talking and I once told him I doubted I’d ever do a book again as good as Isamu and after Eames he said it’s crazy but he thinks Isamu might have been just the beginning.  I’m currently wrapping up a book about Carl Sagan that will fit nicely with both Isamu Noguchi and Charles and Ray Eames. We’re very geeked about it and it will come out Summer ’25. The Sagan book is the first of a two-book deal, (I like doing two books at a time) and I already have a couple ideas for the second. 

Q: What kind of projects are you working on now? Anything you can share?

Life is good and I’m working on various assignments that come in and still working with long time collaborators like SooJin Buzelli, Michael Mrak, and Ronn Campisi while having the luxury of doing books without rushing. At least for me, having a dual existence as an illustrator and children’s book maker has been a perfect existence. 

Save the dates:

May 21st 6:30-8:30: Book Launch Party with James Yang and Josh Cochran  at Lofty Pigeon in Brooklyn. To rsvp:

 May 29th 7:00-9:00

Taylor & Co. Books

1021 Cortelyou Rd
Brooklyn, New York 11218

Art For All Season, James Yang talks art and books 

no registration necessary

June 1st 11:00am

Words Bookstore

Charles and Ray: Designers at Play book event