The World of Charles and Ray Eames @ the Barbican

Never heard of Charles and Ray Eames before. Didn’t realise Ray (b.1912) was the wife of Charles (b.1907). Didn’t know that, as a team, they are among the most influential (American) designers of the twentieth century.

Charles and Ray Eames selecting slides. © Eames Office LLC.

Charles and Ray Eames selecting slides. © Eames Office LLC.

Potted biography

They met in 1940 at the Cranbrook Academy of Art where Charles was head of Industrial Design, married in 1941 and moved to Los Angeles. They were working on the problems of moulding plywood to make chairs and other furniture when war broke out (December 1941) and they quickly got a contract to supply a design of leg splint to the US Navy. They moved their workshop to 901 Washington Boulevard in Venice, Los Angeles, which became the Eames office for the next 45 years.

Chairs

Design of chairs and other domestic furniture continued to be a central thread of their work – an entire room is dedicated to sketches, examples and videos of the manufacture of a new style of flexible, lightweight fibre-glass chairs. Their numerous designs for efficient, mass producible, stackable, storeable chairs revolutionised design, changing the feel of meeting rooms, assembly halls, conference centres all around the world.

The World of Charles and Ray Eames - Stacking Chairs, 1957. © Eames Office LLC.

Stacking Chairs, 1957. © Eames Office LLC.

Interiors

Chairs are obviously only one element of interior design and one whole bay of the exhibition is dedicated to a display of the Charles and Ray Eames’ room created for the For Modern Living show, hosted by the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1949. The commentary emphasises that the house was emblematic of a whole attitude to living. It included the pioneering flat-packed Eames Storage Units, as well Eames folding tables, plywood DCM chairs and other household accessories displayed in a clear uncluttered space. Looking remarkably like the mock-up of a living room in an Ikea superstore.

The World of Charles and Ray Eames. Ray Eames. Collage of room display for An Exhibition for Modern Living, 1949. The Work of Charles & Ray Eames, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. © Eames Office LLC.

Ray Eames. Collage of room display for An Exhibition for Modern Living, 1949. The Work of Charles & Ray Eames, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. © Eames Office LLC.

And interiors, of course, occur inside buildings – As early as 1944 Ray (an artist by training) was hired to design the covers of Arts & Architecture magazine, to which the pair contributed articles on prefabricated housing. The magazine then launched the ‘Case Study House’ series, by inviting eight leading designers to design and build their dream homes – think Grand Designs circa 1945.

The Eames house (1949)

One bay of the show displays architectural plans, photos of the construction and then a film of Case Study House number 8, designed by Eames, completed in 1949, and really striking for both its Mondrian-style, gridlike exterior and the cool, open, relaxed interior. The Eameses were very Californian, right from the start, in their emphasis on fun, play, curiosity.

Eames House Living Room. Photograph: Antonia Mulas. © Eames Office LLC.

Eames House Living Room. Photograph: Antonia Mulas. © Eames Office LLC.

Multimedia

The conjunction of architecture, art, design, photos and film is no accident – if the exhibition demonstrates one thing it is that the Eameses were pioneers of the multimedia presentation of information. The chronology of their achievements shows that each year there were developments on the furniture side (folding tables 1947, storage units 1950, wire chair and sofa 1951, stacking chairs 1955, and so on) and they also made toys and other practical items…

Glimpses of the USA (1959)

… but the exhibition is dominated by the films they made, and the multimedia presentations combining film, slideshows and music which they pioneered and perfected. A good place to start is the multi-screen installation Glimpses of the USA from 1959. It was commissioned by the US government for the first US-USSR cultural exchange. The result is a thirteen-minute film which was projected onto seven twenty-by-thirty foot screens, installed in a 250-foot diameter geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller, in Moscow’s Sokolniki Park. Must have made a phenomenal impact.

Installation view of Glimpses of the U.S.A., American National Exhibition, Moscow, 1959 © Eames Office LLC.

Installation view of Glimpses of the U.S.A., American National Exhibition, Moscow, 1959 © Eames Office LLC.

The narrator is Charles Eames himself who, in rich slow sonorous American tones, describes a day in the life of contemporary America, with its huge freeways and soaring skyscrapers and humming computers and dirty factories and mighty dams. Accompanied by a soundtrack by long-term Eames collaborator, the Hollywood movie composer Elmer Bernstein (think The Magnificent Seven), it is booming propaganda for the American Way of Life.

Altogether the workshop made over 120 short films, you can buy a five-DVD set in the shop (as well as a CD of Bernstein’s scores for them). They are relentlessly educational and pedagogic, with titles like The Expanding AirportMathematica, the House of Science, A Computer Glossary, The World of Franklin and Jefferson.

National Fisheries Centre and Aquarium (1967)

The mid-sixties was a prolific period. One project was a film, slideshow, booklet and design for a new national aquatic museum – the National Fisheries Centre and Aquarium. One of the multimedia elements was a slideshow – playfully titled Tanks – which plays here in a darkened bay of its own, three screens next to each other showing beautiful and relaxing images of countless beautiful sea creatures, jellyfish and so on, with pleasant dopey music. I can’t find it online, but – characteristically – the Eameses made a 1967 film outlining their plans for the Aquatic centre which captures the bright confident tone.

House of Science (1960)

In 1960, the U.S. Department of State asked the Eames Office to create a film for the United States Science Exhibit, which took place at the Century 21 World’s Fair in Seattle, Washington.

‘Think’ (1964)

In 1964 New York hosted a World’s Fair and the Eameses created a huge multiscreen slide show in a large, egg-shaped structure called the ‘Ovoid Theater’. This sat above the canopy and central structure of the pavilion and up to 400 people at a time were brought up to it by means of the ‘People Wall’ built like a grandstand.

The slideshow – shown here in a dedicated room – was titled Think after IBM’s famous corporate motto. Once again narrated by Charles’s rich deep tones, Think explains how design is really only glorified common sense, that it is a systematic way of solving problems, both the technically complex and the ordinary everyday.

As a ‘humorous’ example of the latter it shows a fashionable 1964 hostess planning the perfect dinner party, analysing out the parameters and decision points she needs to take account of. Think projected animated, still and live-action images onto fourteen large and eight small screens of various shapes and sizes. Again, it must have been an extraordinary experience.

IBM at the Fair (1964)

The Eameses had a lifelong partnership with computer giant IBM and, as well as Think, produced this film as a souvenir of the Eames/Saarinen IBM Pavilion at the World’s Fair.

Note the soundtrack by Bernstein again, which – to me – combines a wide range of influences – slapstick film music is in there – with an overarching feel of The Soldier’s Tale-era Stravinsky.

Education and pedagogy

The partnership seems to have taken a steadily greater interest in education, in teaching people about good design, in trying to spread the word about how to analyse problems and reach elegant solutions. Typical titles from the later 1960s and 1970s include: The Smithsonian Institution, Babbage’s Calculating Machine, Computer Landscape, Design Q&A, Two Laws of Algebra: Distributive and Associative.

From the top of the stairs to the second floor of the exhibition, you can see seven different films all running simultaneously in different bays and rooms, and their sound and imagery tends to swamp the other artefacts, the small black and white photos, the collection of ethnic masks from India, a roomful of pioneering Modernist chairs.

Charles held a number of teaching posts throughout his career and was invited to lecture around the world, including here in London, at the V&A. One arena which combines teaching and design is The Exhibition. It was slightly vertiginous to be wandering around an exhibition about the people who pioneered the modern exhibition, with consistently creative and imaginative use of sounds and visuals anticipating the exhibition’s imaginative use of, er, sound and visuals.

The Eameses organised scores and scores of major exhibition events. Typical titles include: Mathematica: A World of Numbers, Photography and the City, What is Design?, Isaac Newton: Physics For a Moving Earth.

Powers of Ten (1977)

This eight-minute film – to give it its full title, Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero – does what it says on the tin, starting with a family having a picnic in a park by a lake, then moving up 1 metre, 10 metres, 100 metres, 1000 metres and so on up vertically away from the scene so that only a minute into the journey we are leaving the atmosphere before travelling at dizzying speed out to the edge of the universe.

This unashamedly didactic film, based on a Dutch children’s book, is quaint and interesting and innocent. The subject obviously attracted the Eameses because it exists in two distinct versions, one from 1968, one from 1977, comparison between them demonstrating the evolution of film-making technique during that period.

Conclusions

  • The films overwhelm the more traditional static displays.
  • The films give a stunning sense of the size, wealth and dynamism of American society in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • I didn’t realise multimedia, the concept of total immersion in sound and imagery, was so old. Made me realise the projection of imagery onto live bands (Pink Floyd, the Velvet Underground 1967) was copying something pioneered by these very staid, sober educationalists over a decade earlier.
  • Quotable quotes. As a lifelong educator, Charles is famous for his quotes: the shop is selling numerous books, notebooks, posters and fridge magnets full of his pithy wisdom (eg ‘The details aren’t details. They make up the product.’)
  • Again and again, the books, lectures, pamphlets, films and slideshows make the same point – that good design is problem solving and that problem solving is based on having the information: we must have the means, the technology, the skills with which to process the exploding amounts of information we are being presented with in order to make the right decisions.

This awareness of information – their close collaboration with IBM and their pioneering ways of communicating and informing – explains why the Eameses are referred to as the godparents of The Information Age. One of their earliest films is the classic The Information Machine, produced for IBM’s pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.

Optimism and pessimism

The IBM at the Fair film features speeded-up footage of Americans going about their daily business. It reminded me of the similar sequences in Koyaanisqatsi or ‘unbalanced life’, (1982), the cult movie directed by Godfrey Reggio and showcasing the music of American minimalist composer Philip Glass. But how much has changed – what a gulf there is – between 1964 and 1982! In the interim, along with the explosion of all sorts of political movements, black power, feminism, the oil crises and revolutionary terrorism, has come environmentalism and the realisation that the planet is finite and we are degrading and despoiling it at a now-measurable and noticeable rate, which cannot continue forever.

No doubt the Eameses would refer us to their umpteen films, books, pamphlets and quotes about the power of information, the ability of modern computing power to process and analyse new worlds of data and – to solve problems! But thinking about this reveals the weakness of their rationalist approach: unlimited amounts of data and the infinite computing power of the internet mean nothing unless people fundamentally change their behaviour. Although their approach can tell you how to plan the perfect dinner party or design a mass-producible chair, it cannot tell you how to wean your entire economy off fossil fuels and your entire culture away from wasteful consumerism.

Nothing can.

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