Preview: The Barbican Debuts Exhibit on Charles and Ray Eames

Living Room

Tamsin Blanchard, The Guardian, October 19, 2015

You will already be familiar with the work of Charles and Ray Eames. You might have one of their fibreglass shell chairs around your dining table. You may be lucky enough to have an Eames Lounger in front of the TV. You could even have spotted your armchair supporting the famous posterior of Joan Harris (played by Christina Hendricks) in Mad Men. That chair – designed for the International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design and shown in 1948 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York – was the pinnacle of democratic design. It was created to be mass manufactured as cheaply as possible and made available not just to the lucky few.

This week, however, The World of Charles and Ray Eames opens at the Barbican, central London, with an extraordinary body of work you may not be so familiar with. For the past three years, curator Catherine Ince has been sifting through the archives of one of the design world’s most creative and prolific couples, putting together a series of objects, films, drawings (although most of their work was done by modelling rather than on a drawing board), sculpture, paintings, furniture and toys. Some of it has never been seen before.


Grounded: Charles and Ray Eames posing with chair bases.

Grounded: Charles and Ray Eames posing with chair bases. Photograph: Eames Office

One of the highlights of the exhibition will be the newly commissioned 1:50 scale model of the Eames House, the property they built in a meadow in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, between 1945-49. It is now a National Historic Landmark, but it was their home until Charles died of a heart attack in 1978 and Ray died exactly 10 years later. This was where the Eames’s experiments and ideas became a living reality. It has industrial steel, Mondrian colour blocks, eucalyptus trees and a joyful mix of folk art, patchwork cushions, Japanese lanterns, pots, ceramics and curios from their travels. For many it represents the ideal home as much now as it did then.

Ince spent some time in the original house to research the exhibition, visiting it on several occasions. “Everything is as it was,” she says. “And it was really interesting to look at over time, as you would with your own home. When the Eameses first moved in, it was incredibly Japanese and spartan. But it changed over the years as they acquired more things, made more new furniture and brought in more plants. It was a living entity, but also a theatrical space.”

Here Charles and Ray entertained artists and actors, including Charlie Chaplin, with a tea ceremony, providing visitors with their own individual low table to kneel at – a perfect fusion of American pragmatism and Japanese tradition. It was also here that the couple worked: half of the house was a studio filled with everything from box kites to model theatres and prototypes.


Inside story: collage of room display for An Exhibition for Modern Living, 1949.

Inside story: collage of room display for An Exhibition for Modern Living, 1949. Photograph: Eames Office

Since 2004 the house has been looked after by the Eames Foundation, overseen by Lucia Eames, Charles’s daughter from his first marriage. Lucia, a sculptor, died last year, but the Eames legacy continues to be preserved by her children (she had five), including Eames Demetrios, director of the Eames Office since 1993. Demetrios has been working with Ince on the exhibition and is a brilliant ambassador for his grandparents’ work (check out his Ted talk on the subject).

“The two places we associate with Charles and Ray are the house and the studio,” he says. “They are both magical in their own way.” He would see his grandparents making films, and as a child in the studio he was amazed by their inventiveness and their playfulness. More than anything, Demetrios says it was the setting of the house that made it so memorable. “One of the great things about the house is its relationship to the environment – there is so much nature. The indoor/outdoor feeling was so much fun.

“With their work you can see the ideas in the objects. So with the house you can see the respect for the landscape – it comes through loud and clear. People think of it as being very respectful to the environment. But it’s the exact opposite of a structure that is trying to mimic natural form. It’s steel boxes.”

For a boy, playing in the studio with inventions like the Solar Do-Nothing machine – a wonderful series of spinning discs, and one of the first uses of solar power to create electricity – must have been enchanting. “It has a very playful spirit,” he said. “It goes back to this idea of how you approach design.”

For the Eameses, design was about solving problems, working out the best possible solution. “I would love to see the idea of design being taught as a life skill, not just a professional skill, because it’s so useful,” adds Demetrios. As his grandfather once said: “Who would say that pleasure is not useful?”

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This article was written by Tamsin Blanchard from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.