Art Deco by Alastair Duncan (1988)

Perhaps most significant to the development of a twentieth century aesthetic was the birth in the interwar period of the professional industrial designer… (p.118) In the 1920s commercial art became a bona fide profession which, in turn, gave birth to the graphic artist. (p.150)

This is one of the older volumes from Thames and Hudson’s famous ‘World of Art’ series, famous for its thorough texts but also, alas, for the way most of the illustrations are in black and white (this book has 194 illustrations, but only 44 of them in colour, most of them quite small).

Duncan also wrote the WoA volume on Art Nouveau, which I read recently, and has gone on to write many more books on both these topics, including a huge Definitive Guide to the Decorative Arts of the 1920s and 30s. He knows his onions.

Main points from the introduction

  • Art Deco was the last really luxurious style – people look back to Art Deco and Art Nouveau with nostalgia because they were florid, indulgent and luxurious – since the Second World War all styles have been variations on plain functionalism.
  • Art Deco is not a reaction against Art Nouveau but a continuation of it, in terms of ‘lavish ornamentation, superlative craftsmanship and fine materials’.
  • Received opinion has it that Art Deco started after the war, but Duncan asserts that it had begun earlier, with some indisputable Art Deco pieces made before 1914 or during the war. In fact he boldly suggests that, had there been no war, Art Deco might have flourished, peaked and been over by 1920.
  • Art Deco is hard to define because designers and craftsmen had so many disparate sources to draw on by 1920 – Cubism, Fauvism, Constructivism, Futurism, but also high fashion, motifs from the Orient, tribal Africa, the Ballets Russes, or Egypt, especially after the tomb of Tutankhamen was discovered in 1922.
  • Duncan distinguishes between the decorative styles of the 1920s which were luxurious and ornamented, and of the 1930s, when machine chic became more dominant, lines sleeker, more mechanical. The chapter on metalwork makes this clear with the 1920s work alive with gazelles, flowers and sunbursts, while the 1930s work copies the sleek straight lines of airplanes and steamships. In the architecture chapter he distinguishes between zigzag’ Moderne of the 1920s and the ‘streamline’ Moderne of the 1930s (p.195).
  • There’s also a distinction between the French style (the French continued to lead the field in almost all the decorative art) exuberant and playful, and the style of the rest of Europe and, a little later, America, which was cooler, more functional and intellectual. Throughout the book Duncan refers to the former as Art Deco and the latter as Modernism.
  • To my surprise Duncan asserts that Modernism was born at the moment of Art Deco’s greatest triumph i.e. the famous Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925. The severe modernist Le Corbusier wrote an article criticising almost all the exhibits for their luxury and foppishness and arguing that true design should be functional, and mass produced so as to be affordable.
  • Duncan contrasts the attenuated flowers and fairy maidens of Art Nouveau with the more severe functionalism of the Munich Werkbund, set up as early as 1907, which sought to integrate design with the reality of machine production. This spartan approach, insistence on modern materials, and mass production to make its objects affordable, underpinned the Bauhaus, established in 1919, whose influence spread slowly, but affected particularly American design during the 1930s, as many Bauhaus teachers fled the Nazis.

So the entire period between the wars can be simplified down to a tension between a French tradition of luxury, embellished and ornamented objects made for rich clients, and a much more severe, modern, functionalist, Bauhaus style intended for mass consumption, with the Bauhaus concern for sleek lines and modern materials gaining ground in the streamlined 1930s.

In reality, the hundreds of designers Duncan mentions hovered between these two poles.

Structure

The book is laid out very logically, indeed with the rather dry logic of an encyclopedia. There are ten chapters:

  1. Furniture
  2. textiles
  3. Ironwork and lighting
  4. Silver, Lacquer and Metalware
  5. Glass
  6. Ceramics
  7. Sculpture
  8. Paintings, Graphics, Posters and Bookbinding
  9. Jewelry
  10. Architecture

Each of the chapters tends to be broken down into a handful of trends or topics. Each of these is then broken down into area or country, so that successive paragraphs begin ‘In America’ or ‘In Belgium’ or ‘In Britain’. And then each of these sections is broken down into a paragraph or so about leading designers or manufacturers. So, for example, the chapter on ceramics is divided into sections on: artist-potters, traditional manufactories, and industrial ceramics; each of these is then sub-divided into countries – France, Germany, America, England; each of these sub-sections then has a paragraph or so about the leading practitioners in each style.

On the up side, the book is encyclopedic in its coverage. On the down side it sometimes feels like reading a glorified list and, particularly when entire paragraphs are made up of lists of the designers who worked for this or that ceramics firm or glass manufacturer, you frequently find your mind going blank and your eye skipping entire paragraphs (one paragraph, on page 51, lists 34 designers of Art Deco rugs).

It’s a shame because whenever Duncan does break out of this encyclopedia structure, whenever he stops to explain something – for example, the background to a particular technique or medium – he is invariably fascinating and authoritative. For example, take his explanation of pâte-de-verre, something I’d never heard of before:

Pâte-de-verre is made of finely crushed pieces of glass ground into a powder mixed with a fluxing agent that facilitates melting. Colouring is achieved by using coloured glass or by adding metallic oxides after the ground glass has been melted into a paste. In paste form, pâte-de-verre is as malleable as clay, and it is modelled by being packed into a mould where it is fused by firing. It can likewise be moulded in several layers or refined by carving after firing. (p.93)

Having myself spent quite a few years being paid to turn a wide variety of information (about medicine, or botany, or VAT) into clear English, I am full of admiration for Duncan’s simple, clear prose. There’s a similar paragraph about silver which, in a short space, brings an entire craft to life.

By virtue of its colour, silver is a ‘dry’ material. To give it life without the use of surface ornament, the 1920s Modernist silversmith had to rely on interplay of light, shadow, and reflection created by contrasting planes and curves. Another way to enrich its monotone colour was by incorporating semiprecious stones, rare woods, ivory and glass. Towards the 1930s, vermeil or gold panels were applied to the surface as an additional means of embellishment. (p.71)

He tells us that the pinnacle of commercial Art Deco sculpture was work done in chryselephantine, combining bronze and ivory, and that the acknowledged master of this genre was Demêtre Chiparus, who made works depicting French ballet and theatre.

Duncan makes the simple but profound point that, in architecture, Art Deco tended to be applied to buildings which had no tradition behind them, to new types of building for the machine age – this explains the prevalence of the Art Deco look in so many power stations, airport buildings, cinemas and swimming pools. Think (in London) Battersea power station (1935), Croydon airport (1928), the Golden Mile of Art Deco factories along the Great West Road at Brentford, Brixton Lido (1937), Charles Holden’s Art Deco Tube stations, and scores of Odeon cinemas across the country.

I liked his wonderfully crisp explanation of costume jewelry.

Costume jewelry differs from fine jewelry in that it is made out of base metals or silver set with marcasite, paste or imitation stones. (p.167)

Now you know. When he’s explaining, he’s wonderful.

Likes and dislikes

To my great surprise I actively disliked most of the objects and art shown in this book. I thought I liked Art Deco, but I didn’t like a lot of this stuff.

Maybe I’m a Bauhaus baby at heart. I consistently preferred the more linear work from the 1930s.

Then it dawned on me that maybe it’s because Duncan doesn’t include much about Art Deco posters (despite having authored a whole book about them). Indeed the section on posters here was remarkably short and with hardly any illustrations (7 pages, 6 pictures).

Similarly, the section on the scores of fashionable magazines and graphic illustrations from the era (Vogue, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar and countless others) is barely 3 pages long.

There’s nothing at all about movies or photography, either. Maybe this is fair enough since Duncan is an expert in the decorative and applied arts and that’s the focus of the book. Still, Gary Cooper is a masterpiece of Art Deco, with his strong lines ending in beautiful machine-tooled curves (nose and chin), his powerful symmetries – as beautiful as any skyscraper.

Gary Cooper, super duper

Gary Cooper, super duper

French terms

  • animalier – an artist who specializes in the realistic portrayal of animals
  • cabochon –  a gemstone which has been shaped and polished as opposed to faceted
  • éditeur d’art – publisher of art works
  • nécessaire – vanity case for ladies
  • objet d’art – used in English to describe works of art that are not paintings, large or medium-sized sculptures, prints or drawings. It therefore covers a wide range of works, usually small and three-dimensional, of high quality and finish in areas of the decorative arts, such as metalwork items, with or without enamel, small carvings, statuettes and plaquettes in any material, including engraved gems, hardstone carvings, ivory carvings and similar items, non-utilitarian porcelain and glass, and a vast range of objects that would also be classed as antiques (or indeed antiquities), such as small clocks, watches, gold boxes, and sometimes textiles, especially tapestries. Might include books with fine bookbindings.
  • pâte-de-verre – a kiln casting method that literally means ‘paste of glass’
  • pieces uniques – one-off works for rich buyers

Conclusion

In summary, this is an encyclopedic overview of the period with some very useful insights, not least the fundamental distinction between the French ‘high’ Art Deco of the 1920s and the ‘Modernist’ Art Deco of the 1930s (which flourished more in America than Europe). But it is also a rather dry and colourless book, only occasionally coming to life when Duncan gives one of his beautifully lucid technical explanations.

Probably better to invest in a coffee-table volume which has plenty of large illustrations (particularly of the great posters and magazine illustrations) to get a more accessible and exciting feel for the period.


Related links

Every room in the Victoria and Albert Museum (part one)

Cousin Carlos was over from Spain and asked if we could have a go at visiting every room in the (vast) Victoria and Albert Museum. In one full day, from opening time at 10am to chucking out time at 5.30pm, we managed to visit the first 50 rooms, i.e the whole of the ground floor.

The highest-numbered room in the V&A, up on the sixth floor, is 146 – but it quickly becomes obvious that not all the rooms exist, or are accessible, and that entire sets of rooms seem to have gone missing. So maybe there are more like 120 accessible rooms.

The advantage of the ‘every room in XXX’ approach is it makes you visit parts of museums you’ve never visited before, didn’t even know existed, or usually walk past in a hurry to get to the latest exhibition.

Cosimo III de' Medici by Giovanni Battista Foggini (1718)

Cosimo III de’ Medici by Giovanni Battista Foggini (1718)

Rooms 1 to 7 Europe 1600 – 1815

These are next to the tunnel entrance and are relatively new. They show objects from Europe – mainly France – between 1600 and 1815. A gallery attendant was keen to show us the latest digital innovation, which is you can look up some of the objects on a smartphone app and listen to commentary about them.

But the most striking thing about these seven big rooms is the question – Why are they in reverse chronological order? Why don’t the rooms start in 1600 and proceed through to 1815, showing you the development of various styles of furniture, metalwork, silverware and cutlery etc?

Instead, you begin with busts of Napoleon and Josephine and some striking ‘First Empire’ furniture from 1805 or so, and then move slowly back in time through the neo-classicism of the late 18th century with elaborate clothes and enormous dinner services (1770), past attractive rococo paintings (1750) and on into the heavy, elaborate and melodramatic statuary, painting and metalwork of the Baroque (1600-1700).

Of the wealth of impressive objects on display I most liked the rococo paintings. I liked their delicacy and humour, especially so close to the heavy, grinding Baroque mirrors and furniture and the architect’s plans and paintings of the vast palaces designed to squash the viewer with their power and wealth.

The Alarm (La Gouvernante Fidèle) by Jean Francois de Troy (1679 - 1752)

The Alarm (La Gouvernante Fidèle) by Jean Francois de Troy (1679 – 1752)

The galleries include several spaces entirely recreating the inside of a rococo or Baroque room of the time. There’s also a fancy interactive video built around the characters of the commedia dell’arte, popular across Europe in the 18th century.

Towards the end was a space devoted to 17th century guns with an informative video showing how they were loaded and fired. Beautifully made with plenty of fancy scrollwork and decorative metal work, these are, nonetheless, instruments designed to blind, eviscerate and kill people. As I get older I find it harder to ‘enjoy’ the sight of such things.

Case of 17th century muskets

Case of 17th century muskets

Rooms 8 – 10 Medieval and Renaissance 300 – 1500

I’ve reviewed these rooms elsewhere.

Not enough late antique/Dark Age/early medieval stuff, for my taste. More Vikings, please! In line with the confusing room number policy, although the numbers indicate three rooms there are in fact six, numbers 8, 9, 10, 10a, 10b and 10c. I like the pagan motifs, the Dark Age animals, the hieratic postures of these pre-Conquest figures, and the strange forest animals and foliage woven into the capitals of the wooden columns on display.

11th century carved wooden columns and capitals

11th century carved wooden columns and capitals

I liked this 12th century Madonna and child because it is so modern. It looks like an Eric Gill.

12th century Madonna and child

12th century Madonna and child

I love the enormously solid but beautifully carved wellhead from 900. Although a Christian artefact it is decorated with classic ‘Celtic’ interwoven knots and is redolent of a strange dark time, full of pagan secrets and mysteries.

Carved stone wellhead from Murano, north Italy

Carved stone wellhead from Murano, north Italy (c.900)

Room 10c is dominated by an enormous work – the Devonshire Hunting Tapestry: Boar and Bear Hunt (1425-1430). The tapestry is impressive in itself but benefits enormously from a stylish touch-screen guide. This lets you select particular themes or parts of the image and then zooms in to give extra information about them, giving you time to really absorb the details and let the impression of this huge work really sink in.

On the whole, I prefer medieval art because I find it full of touching and humorous details, to Renaissance art which I find too austere and coldly perfect. Hence I liked the three wooden statues in this room, depicting a knight and squire and man at arms, quirkily thin and cartoon-like, missing bits of their arms and equipment.

Three standing English wooden figures (1450)

Three standing English wooden figures (around 1450)

Rooms 11 to 15

Missing, as far as I can tell.

Room 16a

A corner room between 27 and the café which contains one statue, probably by Tilman Riemenschneider of Wurzburg, Germany, made around 1510.

Carved limewood statue by Tilman Riemenschneider from Wurzburg, Germany (1510)

Carved limewood statue by Tilman Riemenschneider from Wurzburg, Germany (1510)

Along with the north European statuary in rooms 26 and 27, this makes me wonder if there is a distinctive northern Renaissance ‘look’ i.e. the faces seem longer and narrower, the figures slightly gaunter, than the smooth perfections of the Italy Renaissance. I find them more characterful, in their strange remote medieval way.

Rooms 17 to 19

Don’t appear to exist.

Rooms 20 to 24 The sculpture gallery

Room 20 appears to be closed off. You could be mistaken for not realising numbers 21 to 24 were rooms at all since they in fact constitute the long narrow corridor you cross when you step down from the shop and walk across a narrow space to get to the swing doors into the John Madejski garden in the centre of the museum.

Joshua Ward by Carlini, Agostino (1764)

Joshua Ward by Carlini, Agostino (1764)

The corridor is lined with, and has a long central row of, a great array of statues of all shapes and sizes. This is the first time I’ve ever stopped and read the wall panels here and so I realised for the first time that this is the V&A’s European statue collection. As I’ve sauntered through it towards the exhibition rooms, I never suspected that it was divided into categories – funerary statuary, portrait statuary, garden statuary. Nor that it is arranged chronologically.

In the usual V&A manner, the rooms are in reverse chronological order i.e. the oldest statues – Jacobean funeral images and wall monuments from churches – are in ‘room’ 24, while ‘room 21’ contains a surprising array of 20th century sculpture. So, as so often, if you start at the lowest number and go through them in order, you are travelling back in time.

I had no idea that the far left of the corridor, room 21, contained such brilliant highlights of 20th century Modernist sculpture.

Mankind by Eric Gill (1928)

Mankind by Eric Gill (1928)

By taking the time to stop and read the many wall panels, I learned that most of the statuary belongs to the neo-classical i.e. hyper-real style which dominated from 1700 to around the 1850s. Master of this style appears to be have been Antonio Canova, who was one of several European sculptors who immigrated here and made a living supplying tasteful classical statuary for the homes and gardens of members of the aristocracy who had learned about this sort of thing on their Grand Tours of the Continent.

The cut-off date of 1850 coincides with the rise of ‘Romantic’ sculpture, which for practical purposes is dominated by the French artist Auguste Rodin. Apparently, eighteen or so of his works were being shown in a London exhibition of modern art in the summer of 1914 just as the Great War broke out. As the British found themselves fighting the Hun alongside the French, Rodin made the magnanimous gesture of donating all the works to the British nation. And so here they are, the Rodin Bequest, on permanent display in room 21a.

Rooms 26 to 27

These form the corridor running between the exhibition shop with windows to the left onto the Garden, which you walk down to get to the café. They are statues, so sort of related to the earlier preceding rooms, but statues of the north European (German, Dutch) Renaissance, almost all figures of Christ, the Crucifixion, Mary, saints, from around 1500, so in fact more closely related to the medieval and Renaissance galleries. And mostly in wood, often cracked perished wood, compared with the impossibly smooth white marble of Canova’s 18th century creations.

Rooms 28, 29, 30, 31

Missing.

Rooms 32 and 33

These are the numbers of the corridor outside the main exhibition rooms. They have half a dozen huge mosaics commissioned by an early director of the museum from contemporary artists. The one that stood out for me was the figure of Pisano as created by Frederick Lord Leighton.

Rooms 34, 35, 36, 37

Missing.

Rooms 38a, 38b, 38c

The main exhibition rooms. 38b and 38c are closed while the curators take down the big Botticelli exhibition and prepare the 1960s Revolution show, which is due to open in September.

38a is hosting a temporary exhibition of photographs from the past century, which take the camera itself as their subject. Oooh, the self-referentiality! From kids in New York slums taking pics of themselves holding Kodak brownies to paparazzi shots of glamour models or Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor being hounded by press photographers, none of these really interested me.

Earlier this year it was announced that ‘The world’s largest and finest collection on the art of photography is to be created in London when more than 400,000 objects transfer from the National Media Museum (NMM) in Bradford to the Victoria and Albert Museum.’

Just from a few hours’ exploration I’d realised that the V&A is really pressed for space. Its collection is vast and the rooms and corridors and galleries which currently exist can only show a fraction of its artefacts.

So where on earth is it going to display an additional 400,000 photographs? A purpose-built photography museum would be a much better idea.

Room 40

This is a big stand-alone room in the west wing, just up the stairs from room 21 of the statue gallery. In the centre of the room is a big circular construction which you need a ticket to enter and which hosts clothes-related exhibitions. This is where they had the stimulating show of fashion shoes earlier in the year. Now it’s hosting the exhibition of underwear through the ages, which I whistled through a few weeks ago and found surprisingly boring.

Lining the walls of the room which surrounds it are big cases displaying historic European clothes.

Rooms 41 to 45 – The Asian galleries

These four rooms are each a world unto themselves, focusing on, respectively the art and culture of:

Room 43 is the central main V&A shop

  • China (44)
  • Japan (45) ‘The V&A has been collecting Japanese art and design since it was founded in 1852 and now holds one of the world’s most comprehensive collections, including ceramics, lacquer, arms and armour, woodwork, metalwork, textiles and dress, prints, paintings, sculpture and modern & contemporary studio crafts.’

These rooms are so large and so packed with stuff that they have their own diagrams showing how the displays are organised into themes and subjects. Whole worlds, thousands of years of tradition, can be sampled and enjoyed in each one and they are related to specialist rooms tucked away elsewhere in the Museum. From these rooms I liked the geometric woodwork of the Islamic galleries, like this 19th century window panel.

Islamic wooden carved screen

Islamic wooden carved screen

  • the numerous small 18th century watercolours from India, such as this depiction of Nawab Sikander Jah (1810) artist unknown
  • almost any of the lovely Japanese prints:
19th century Japanese print

19th century Japanese print

Rooms 47a to 47g – The Asian corridor

As with the sculpture galleries, I’d always thought of this as a corridor – architecturally it is the long corridor which runs to either side of the main entrance (47d). I’d never really realised that each division of the corridor counts as a ‘room’ and that these are arranged to showcase artefacts from South-East Asian countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and so on. There were no end of golden Buddhas from all these countries and a space dedicated solely to Buddhas. Among all these the delicate puppet figures from Indonesia stood out, for me.

Rooms 46a and 46b – The cast courts

At the east end of this long corridor is an entrance into the famous Cast Courts. There are usually two of these but room 46a is closed for refurbishment.

46b is an enormous room, well-lit by a glass roof, which contains monstrously enormous plaster casts of some of the great classics of the Italian Renaissance. The casts were created for the 1851 Great Exhibition and were an education for the great majority of the population, and the many artists, who couldn’t afford to go on the Grand Tour to Italy themselves. Obvious highlights include:

although many of the best things are the tiny details to be found among the vast friezes and reliefs copied from towns and cities across Renaissance Italy.

Room 48a The Raphael Cartoons

This is entered from the South-East Asia corridor – from room 47a to be precise – and is a vast darkened room containing half a dozen enormous ‘cartoons’ by the famous Italian Renaissance painter Raphael. These are ‘full-scale designs for tapestries that were made to cover the lower walls of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. The tapestries depict the Acts of St Peter and St Paul, the founders of the early Christian Church.’

Subsequently, they were bought by King Charles I and transported to Britain, to the royal tapestry manufactory at Mortlake, where they were used as templates to make tapestries, before eventually passing onto the V&A.

In this shrouded room we are intended to reverence the genius of the Renaissance in hushed tones. You can see the characteristic soft-focus outline of the angelic faces, and the bold physical gestures of the figures in a totally achieved three-dimensional space. All of this must have seemed like magic to its earliest viewers.

Room 49 Exhibition space

I’m guessing room 49 is the exhibition room to the left of the main entrance hall. This is currently displaying an exhibition of the life and work of Ove Arup, the engineering company.

Rooms 50a to 50d

50a and 50b are enormous rooms, big wide and very tall, containing original Renaissance statuary and entire stone pulpits and the entire facade of an enormous Italian church.

Room 50a: The Renaissance City 1350–1600

I disliked most of the things in room 50a, the bigger of the two spaces – the flawless pastiches of classical statues, the vast looming choir screen from the Cathedral of St John at Hertogenbosch which covers one wall, the numerous heavy, threatening church features such as pulpits, fonts and screens, all done with a leaden, heartless perfection. It is a spectacular space, no doubt about it, and individual items are beautifully carved and created – but I recoiled from its overbearing scale.

Vast Renaissance sculpture in the renaissance Gallery

Vast Renaissance sculpture in the Renaissance City Gallery

What I love in Dark Age and Medieval art is the sense of delicacy and mystery, not vague sentimental hints, but the real, solid, dark impenetrable mystery of the northern forests. What I dislike about a lot of Renaissance, especially public Renaissance art, is its oppressive projection of power and control, typified by the equestrian statue above.

50b: The Northern Renaissance

The smaller of the two rooms is still enormous. Its artefacts appear to come more from the Northern Renaissance and feature more painted altars and crucifixes than 50a. Overall, I prefer statuary from the Medieval or Northern Renaissance, as being less superhumanly perfect. It tends to portray the imperfections of the human form, and therefore be more capable of humour. Very roughly speaking, repeat visits to the V&A make it clear to me that I prefer ‘Gothic’ to ‘Classical’.

Gothic North European altar

Gothic North European altar

But also, strolling through these rooms, the 50s, the goal of our challenge to see all the rooms on the ground floor of the V&A – another reservation emerges. Compared to the timeless simplicity of much of the Japanese art, the heavenly serenity of Chinese jade sculptures, the geometric mazes of Islamic design – all these bloody crucified Christs and saints and martyrs being beheaded, crucified, burned, drowned and eviscerated seemed like the quintessence of barbarism. Compare:

with any of the hundreds of serene, unviolent Buddhas from China, India, Thailand and across Asia:

with the dainty paintings of graceful Japanese women, with characterful Chinese jade statues of horses, with the geometric beauty of Islamic design, with the watercolour depictions of life at the Mughal court in India.

It’s difficult not to be appalled at the bloodthirsty images which lie at the core of the Western Christian tradition. But maybe this guy should have the last word…

English carved sandstone corbel (12th century)

English carved sandstone corbel (12th century)


Related links

Other museums

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.

Audio For Travelling To, Or From, The World of Charles and Ray Eames

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