Daydreaming about fashion, a future matriarch of modern design spent much of her youth sketching clothes and making paper dolls. Bernice "Ray" Kaiser saw herself as an artist.

After studying in New York, she married architect Charles Eames, and together they changed the world of furniture -- and a lot more.

Though she became one of the most influential designers of the 20th century and broke ground for women in the arts, few realize she came from Sacramento.

Finally, to mark last year's centennial of her birth, Ray Eames is being celebrated in her hometown for the first time. A 3,300-square-foot exhibition on her work, "Ray Eames: A Century of Modern Design," opened in February at that city's California Museum, where it continues through Feb. 23.

Eames, who died in 1988 at age 75, would likely be surprised by all the fuss. She was not into self promotion. "I'd rather do something than talk about it," she once told a Smithsonian interviewer.

Partners in all aspects of life, she and Charles worked as a team. Their Los Angeles-based Eames Office created innovations in architecture, furniture, films, toys, photography, textiles and more.

Though brought up in an era when heavy wooden furnishings were popular, they created lightweight "Space Age" designs that blended form with function. Their lounge chair and bucketlike seats remain their best-known achievements, but the couple also filmed the acclaimed 1977 documentary "Powers of Ten" (about the relative size of things in our universe) and created the still-popular children's building set House-of-Cards.

Mistaken gender

During their lifetimes and today, people who know only the couple's names and work often assume that Ray was Charles' brother, not his wife. Charles, however, never claimed the lion's share of credit for their accomplishments. "Anything I can do, she can do better," he said not long before his death in 1977.

The Ray Eames celebration has brought together members of the extended Eames family, who have worked countless hours to preserve and catalog the legacy. Lucia Eames, Charles' only child, from his first marriage, and her five children contributed.

In trying to pull together the body of work, they spent years "sifting through thousands of pieces of paper," says Eames granddaughter Carla Hartman, of Denver. "Clearly, (Ray and Charles) were passionate about what they did. All five grandchildren carry that passion."

The grandkids experienced Ray Eames' zest for life firsthand. "Work and play were seamless," Hartman recalls. "She had that sparkle, vivaciousness, infectious laugh. At the same time, she was so detailed. She could teach a lesson as quick as a thunderbolt."

Grandson Eames Demetrios, who works with the Eames Office in Santa Monica, helps keep their designs alive. Chairs they created are still available from the Michigan-based Herman Miller, now a global company.

Charles and Ray Eames on a Vecocette Motorcycle, Venice, c. 1948.Copyright 2013 Eames Office, LLC (eamesoffice.com)
Charles and Ray Eames on a Vecocette Motorcycle, Venice, c. 1948. Copyright 2013 Eames Office, LLC (eamesoffice.com)

"What's really amazing about Charles and Ray is that almost all of the pieces are still in production," Demetrios says. "There are more than a hundred chairs and other furnishings. A lot of Eames chairs people don't even realize are Eames chairs. That's a real test of time.

Design polymaths

"Basically, they had a very holistic approach to design," he continues. "What's striking about Charles and Ray is they made world-class contributions to so many different media -- not just furniture, but films, toys, architecture, you name it."

More than many of their design contemporaries, the pair still influence the way we live. For example, their innovative bucket bench seating, which won a design competition, is still in use at most of the world's airports.

"There isn't a person in America who hasn't sat in an Eames chair," says the California Museum's Brenna Hamilton, who helped organize the centennial exhibition. In addition to the furniture and other projects, the exhibit focuses on Ray Eames' early years.

"For us as a family, it was very exciting, putting all this together," says granddaughter Llisa Demetrios, who lives in Petaluma. Ray "was a real force of nature, a strong woman that could get things done. What makes this exhibit so exciting is it's about her early days in Sacramento. You can see what she was doing before she met Charles, then how that relationship evolved."

Ray's father, Alex Kaiser, was a vaudevillian who managed Sacramento's Empress Theater (now the Crest), and later owned a downtown insurance office.

After one semester at Sacramento City College, Ray Kaiser left for art school in New York. She studied abstract expressionist painting with Hans Hofmann and helped found the American Abstract Artists group.

A fateful meeting

Her life changed when she met Charles in 1940 at Michigan's Cranbrook Academy of Art during a furniture design competition. They married the next year and moved to Los Angeles.

Seeking ways to make good design affordable for all, they pioneered the creation of furniture from molded plywood, fiberglass, plastic resin and wire mesh. Their interests extended to every aspect of daily life.

"It's almost incomprehensible how much (Ray Eames) produced in her lifetime," Hamilton says. "She had a 60-year career. As a child, she started with paper dolls and never stopped. She never lost that childlike wonder of creativity and experimenting."

A 1951 photo in the exhibition shows Ray outside the Eames house with geometric structures built from brightly colored cardboard squares and triangles, dowels and pipe cleaners. Versions were eventually marketed as The Toy and The Little Toy.

With the help of the Eames family, exhibition curator Amanda Meeker spent months sifting through potential display items. In addition to scale models and finished works, Ray Eames kept copious notes, often scribbled on the back of cigarette packaging or scraps of paper. Barely 4 foot 11, she designed her own wardrobe.

"I feel like I've gotten to know her much better," Meeker says. "She had this sense of whimsy. ... She brought so much creativity, with an eye for detail, to ordinary things."

Hartman adds, "Ray taught us that we can all have something we're passionate about. ... You don't have to settle for something; you can transform your environment. You can create your own magic."

'Ray Eames:
A Century of Modern Design'

Through: Feb. 23
Where: California Museum, 1020 O St., Sacramento
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-
Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. Sundays, closed Mondays
Admission: $8.50, $7 college
students and ages 65 and older,
$6 ages 6-17, free ages 5 and younger; 916-653-0650,
www.californiamuseum.org