by Robert Atkins
The World of Charles and Ray Eames opens with a bubble diagram depicting the designers’ priorities, drawn for the 1969 exhibition What is Design? at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. A sort of manifesto, the Eames’ sketch shows three overlapping circles representing the “interests and concerns” of their Design Office, the client and society. “It is within the circles’ overlapping areas that the designer can work with conviction and enthusiasm,” they wrote. Like Charles Eames’ proclamation (below), this is a full-blown expression of modernist idealism and temperament. It was made at the absolute peak of a hopeful era that climaxed in 1969 with the Moon landing, but faded a mere decade later with the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island, a tippling point in the transition of the U.S. from its post-war global dominance to its current status as an empire in decline.
“Eventually everything connects—people, ideas, objects—the quality of the connections is the key.” — Charles Eames
This gargantuan and impressive exhibition of 380 objects not only provides plenty of food for thought, it also – thanks to the efforts of Museum Design Director, Scott Moulton– transforms the neutral OMCA space into a luxe multi-media wonderland. There’s synergy between the museum’s architecture by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, a former Eames Studio collaborator, and the exhibition, curated by Catherine Ince of the Barbican Centre in London. Plan on spending at least a couple hours.
Even if you’ve never heard the Eames name, you know the work of this husband-wife duo, long considered among the premier designers of the 20th century. Their designs and production techniques, especially for chairs, are iconic. The best-known are made of molded fiberglass set on wiry, steel legs, or else molded plywood, either freestanding or encasing leather lounge chairs. The latter, accompanied by matching ottomans, decorated every shrink’s office in films of the late 20th century. Among the many furniture forms that designers create, chairs occupy a special role: They not only make physical contact with our anatomy, but their component parts — “arms” and “legs” – are the only design descriptors evoking this intimate connection with their users. Few chairs cushion and support us as sensitively and as sturdily as the Eameses’ voluptuous, pear-shaped designs.
The couple also produced designs for domestic architecture, multi-media presentations, fairs and exhibitions, games and graphics, as well as sculptures and murals. The scale and character of their mid-century renown is difficult to imagine today. In a culture hostile to art and artists, their down-to-earth style and focus on the functional were irresistible. They belong to a roster of other exemplars of the American can-do spirit: the Wright Brothers, Amelia Earhart, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jonas Salk, Julia Child; and the pediatrician Benjamin Spock, who urged mothers to “trust yourselves…you know more than you think you do.”
Their timing was perfect for winning over a society that had yet to devolve into 24/7 popular culture. Jacqueline Kennedy’s regard for the high-cultural elan of Pablo Casals, for instance, proved both glamorous and infectious. Nor did it hurt that the Eames Office was trusted by a nervous United States Information Agency to represent America in a cultural cold war against the Soviet Union, for which it commissioned the film Glimpses of the USA (“a day in the life of the United States”). That 1959 work, about which I’ll say more, pitted the US consumerist lifestyle against the technological superiority of the Soviet Union, which had launched Sputnik 1 (and the space race) in 1957. Like the astronauts, the Eameses were cold warriors in the propaganda battle to best the Soviet Union, a conflict intended to end in victory, as the military triumph of the Allies over Germany had ended World War II.
Here it’s worth recalling that the mantle of superiority in the arts and sciences was passed from Europe to the US by World War II-era émigrés escaping Nazism. Hitler’s assault on modern art and architecture prompted many European architects including Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohe to move to the US during the mid-1930s. Others, such as the Finn Eliel Saarinen and the Jewish-Austrians Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler, arrived more than a decade earlier. En masse they gave meaning to the term “International Style” architecture coined by curators Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock for their influential show of industrial-style architecture that opened at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932.
Charles Eames and Ray Kaiser met while at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, headed by Eliel Saarinen. Charles, married and a decade older than Ray, had left an architectural practice in his native St. Louis to join the faculty at Cranbrook. Ray, an abstract painter and student of the prominent abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann in New York, came to Cranbrook as a student following the death of her mother in 1940 in her native Sacramento. After Charles divorced his first wife, Catherine Woermann, the couple married in 1941 and immediately moved to Los Angeles. By then Eliel Saarinen’s son, Eero, a brilliant architect and designer, had become a friend, and he and his office would become a frequent partner of the Eames Office on projects including the design of the IBM Pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair and its Information Machine.
During the 1940s — their first decade in Los Angeles – Charles and Ray Eames came of age professionally. In 1950, photographs of them in their airy, newly constructed home, appeared in Life, shot by Peter Stackpole, the photographer known for his pictures of the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. Their first residence in Los Angeles — an apartment in Westwood, adjacent to UCLA — was more modest. One of its two bedrooms housed the Kazam Machine designed for the production of molded plywood chairs.
Rhyming with the joyful exclamation Shazam!, it embodies the couple’s playfulness, evident in so many of their designs. Their whimsical Solar Do-Nothing Machine (1957) outside the Alcoa, (Aluminum Company of America) headquarters in Pittsburgh, is seen on film delighting spectators. Hands-on variants of giant tops, kaleidoscopes and the best-selling House of Cards — decks of grooved cards bearing thematic imagery that offered nearly infinite possibilities of configuration — are exhibited alongside a stack of molded, fiberglass chair shells. Produced in a rainbow-like range of colors, they function as a rejoinder to Henry Ford’s jest that his Model T was available in every color a customer desired, as long as that color was black.
Soon after their arrival in Los Angeles in 1941 they were introduced to John Entenza, the owner and editor of Arts & Architecture magazine. The meeting proved life changing for the three of them. It was Entenza who introduced the Eames to Richard Neutra, the well-known architect who found them a place in the Strathmore apartments in Westwood he’d recently designed. Entenza, a writer, editor and recent convert to modern architecture, had just acquired the magazine and was intent on transforming it. The Eameses were active participants in its transformation: Ray’s more than 20 Picasso-inflected covers gave the publication its characteristic, mid-century look. Charles, for his part, served on the magazine’s board of directors. The relationship was reciprocal: Entenza invested in the Plyformed Wood Company, which the Eames formed to produce their sinuous, molded plywood splints, used by the U.S. Navy during World War II. One of these propeller-like splints hangs in the exhibition. Another appears in the Eames Office Christmas-card photo of 1944.
Arts & Architecture’s chief claim to fame was the Case Study House project. Launched in 1945, it was intended to showcase cost-effective, prototype housing employing newly developed materials for the needs of returning GIs and their families. The project lasted for two decades but its impact was strongest in the immediate post-war years. By 1948, the first six homes were built and attracted an astonishing 350,000 visitors. A few homes were architectural collaborations, including Entenza’s, which was designed by the Eameses and Eero Saarinen.
Along with Neutra, Pierre Koenig, William Wurster and Craig Ellwood, they were the best known of the designers involved in the project. The Eameses own Case Study House 8, next door to Entenza’s in the Pacific Palisades, was designed in 1945 but not built until 1949, when its off-the-shelf components were available following the end of the wartime steel shortage. By then its design had morphed considerably.
The multi-colored glass-and-steel structure consists of two boxes, one residential, the other a studio. Set among eucalyptus trees on a rustic looking site, it quickly became the most photographed residence of any Americans connected with the arts since that of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Paris, a half century earlier. (It can be now visited by appointment.) Julius Shulman, who glamorized mid-century architecture in Los Angeles and Palm Springs, evocatively photographed it, somehow managing to make it appear both chic and comfortable.
Shulman’s photographs promoted contemporary furniture and the latest conveniences, but the houses in which he pictured them could also appear cozily inhabited, depending on their editorial destination. For Shulman, the presence of art and books evoked lives richly lived. His
pictures show Case Study House 8 adorned with Northwestern and Oceanic tribal artifacts that echoed Ray’s Arts & Architecture covers. His pictures also showed the designers’ eminent guests: Charlie Chaplin and the artist Isamu Noguchi at a tea ceremony; as well as tete-a-tetes with such émigré celebs as the writer Christopher Isherwood and filmmaker Billy (and Audrey) Wilder, both neighbors of the Eameses in West Los Angeles.
Some, like the Austria-born Wilder (director of Some Like it Hot, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity), were also business associates. The Eameses’ unusual fascination with technological imagery and immateriality of photography and film set them apart from most of their design peers. This interest assumed its most famous forms in multi-screen presentations such as The Information Machine (1957), made for IBM’s pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair and Think (1962), designed for IBM’s pavilion at the 1964 New York Worlds Fair. Think is an oddly compelling and highly gendered film that illuminates the thought process of a woman (played by Joan Shawlee) pondering the nerve-wracking possibilities of seating arrangements for a posh dinner party. With its dramatic score by Elmer Bernstein, a frequent contributor to Hollywood films, one can easily imagine the 14-minute film as a scene in an early feature by Wilder.
Although the Eamses produced some 100 short films, they seemed to think of them as ways of engaging compelling ideas, both their own and others, rather than as conventional film-making. They tended to be short, non-commercial and non-narrative; some were produced without obvious distribution possibilities and all of them with studio-quality finesse and attention to detail. Their best-known film is Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero (1977). (Like all of the films mentioned, it is visible in the exhibition and, in this case, also on YouTube.) Based on the book, Cosmic View (1957) by the Dutch educator Kees Boeke, the 9-minute Powers of Ten is an essayistic tour de force explication of the subject in its title. It begins with a view of a man, seen from above, picnicking in a Chicago park on Lake Michigan. Every 10 seconds, the camera zooms out by a factor of 10, from 10 meters to 100 meters, to a million meters, all the way to the edge of the universe and then back, returning to the picnicking man and then going inside him, passing through white blood cells to even tinier electrons. As with many other Eames Office films, this cosmic journey features a score by Elmer Bernstein and support from IBM, widely considered the classiest corporation of the day.
Films and photographic media played central roles in other Eames projects, whether as the format for prototypes of innovative curriculum development, or as the medium of communication for their research about fish and shellfish, intended an unbuilt national aquarium. They also shot striking print ads for their furniture, and designed the Herman Miller showrooms in which their furniture was displayed and sold. The ingenuity of their work and their clean-cut appearances made them the design world’s unthreatening equivalent of Ozzie and Harriet, yielding promotional benefits par excellence. Their lounge chair, for instance, made its high-profile debut on NBC in a conversation with the television personality Arlene Francis. Back then, promotion had yet to become a dirty word, and advertising was not yet synonymous with misdirection and spin.
Their 12-minute-long Glimpses of the USA (1959) — designed for the American National Exhibition in Moscow, a showcase of new products and technologies — was somewhat different. An unremitting paean to late-capitalist consumerism, the newly restored installation can be experienced while reclining with headphones, in a black leather Eames lounge chair. Glimpses comprises seven ovoid screens arranged in two rows, four on top and three below. A dazzling and encyclopedic array of 2,000 thematically arranged images are projected on them, including traffic jams and freeway cloverleafs, arid deserts and lush mountain meadows,
suburban homes and urban row houses, and children at play as their parents rush to work. Occasionally a row of screens jointly transmits a single image of, say, a baseball stadium divided into thirds, each seamlessly connected with the partial image alongside it. The narration, which trails off after a few minutes, tends toward the condescending. It announces that 12 minutes “is too short for our nation to tell its story to one another.” Oddly, and perhaps disrespectfully, it refers to the audience as Russians, rather than Soviets.
Things become dicey when Charles Eames, the narrator, tells us that “much of the research” in the US is produced in “the laboratories of private industry.” These laboratories are seen from above, marooned in vast, oceanic parking lots filled with cars. The point – that U.S. workers profits from their labor and can afford to purchase what they produce — comes across forcefully. But what is most shocking about Glimpses of the USA is not its promotion of a petro-fueled economy or the ubiquitous swimming pools in the backyards of suburban homes, but its total corporate orientation. To call its equation between the aims of corporations and those of the government identical is to be guilty of understatement.
The stylistic approach taken by Glimpses strikingly resembles that of the Museum of Modern Art’s Family of Man exhibition, which opened in 1955, followed by an international tour that lasted eight years. Both were upbeat and propagandistic, and both represented, United Nations-style, multi-cultural populations. They differed in a key way, though: The Family of Man depicted an actual multi-cultural world, albeit in a naively anthropological fashion, presenting a universe
of Us and Them. Glimpses, by contrast, presents a multi-cultural U.S. society that falsely implies racial integration by portraying white and black Americans in the same frame, as if environments where meaningful interactions among Americans of different races existed then. This attitude of alleged culture- and values-free universalism characterizes both these photo bonanzas — and Modernism in general.
Glimpses’ promotion of capitalism and its conflation of material and social success also flies in the face of real-world events of the 1950s: the fascist threat posed by McCarthyism and the perils of an economy dependent on the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned against. Nor is it surprising that the sustainable architecture and design of Buckminster Fuller or the critique of Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, would initially be seen as cranky assaults on the modernist mainstream, rather than as the still-vital classics they would become by the end of the century. Thus, viewing Glimpses today is a bit of a shock. Even if we discount the fact that the film was knowingly made as propaganda – aimed at America’s chief nemesis – it still conjures visions of the 20th century that are now unrecognizable.
This is ironic, given that the Eameses’ designs for material objects continue to elicit pleasurable tingles of an eternal contemporary that epitomize responses to the mid-century design and architecture. These sensations derive partly from the fact that the way we live now differs only slightly from the material conditions of our forebears, who welcomed the advent of electricity and the automobile a century ago. Yet we think very differently now about these once- revolutionary developments, which have morphed into emblems of unsustainability and reminders that even inviolable faith can shift. Does anyone today believe in the predictable and rational order of things? Even if the Eameses’ modernist assurance about technology and science seems out of date, their commitments to connection, investigation and knowledge production feel absolutely vital. And inspirational. How else can we begin to design a future more to our liking?
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"The World of Charles and Ray Eames" @ Oakland Museum of California through February 17, 2019.
About the author:
Robert Atkins is a writer and art historian, currently at work on The TrumPoems and The Eternal Frame: Sex & Politics in Recent American Art, a collection of three decades of his writing.