Charles & Ray Eames are among the most celebrated designers of the twentieth century, so when I heard that a major retrospective exhibition, showcasing the work of these famous Americans, was to be staged at the Barbican in London, I leapt at the chance to visit. The exhibition runs until 14 February 2016, so there’s still time to catch it.
Without doubt, their most well known design is the Lounge Chair and Ottoman, which was launched by Herman Miller in 1956. The exhibition includes a lovely black & white TV clip of Charles demonstrating how quickly and easily this moulded plywood chair, with it’s X shaped aluminium base and leather cushions, could be assembled, having been supplied in a box as a kit of parts. He cited the English club chair as inspiration and sought to design a modern version that had “the warm receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt”.
The Lounge chair followed on from a model chaise longue, La Chaise, which Eames had produced for the Museum of Modern Art’s 1948 “International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture” and in 1950, they explained their design philosophy:
“The objective is the simple thing of getting the best to the greatest number of people for the least”. (Ray & Charles Eames, 1950)
They sought to make great design accessible, so I can’t help but wonder what they would make of the fact that the lounge chair has become so iconic, that it now retails for around £4000….
But beyond the Lounge Chair, the huge exhibition (and two hours wasn’t really long enough to see it all) opened my eyes to the extraordinary range and diversity of the designers’ work. Moving to Los Angeles in 1941, they began experimenting with moulding plywood to make furniture, but they also used it in the design of a revolutionary leg splint for emergency use on the front line in the Second World War. It wasn’t long before the US Navy was ordering tens of thousands of the splints and no doubt the injured were grateful for their considered and thoughtful design.
After the War, Arts & Architecture magazine launched a seminal Case Study House programme, commissioning different architects to design and build modern homes. Ray & Charles designed and then lived in Study House no 8, which became the centre of their productive activities and “a background for life in work”. They used standardized off the shelf materials to create a pragmatic, informal and adaptable house. Alternating painted panels and glass on the facade, create kaleidoscopic effects of light and shade in the interior.
Charles had originally worked in the art department at MGM Studios and the couple favoured the mediums of film and photography throughout their careers, making over 100 short films. Actively involved with educational institutions, in 1952 they produced a pioneering multi-media presentation to demonstrate a proposed university course, founded on “breaking down barriers between fields of learning” and incorporating graphics, film, music, slides and commentaries. The exhibition includes Samples – a series of three Kodak slide projectors which advance simultaneously, the sounds of three slides all changing together, providing a soundtrack in itself.
Each set of three slides shares a theme that ranges from the man-made and industrial through to elements of the natural world. It was mesmerising to watch three close-ups of architectural features, followed by 3 bridges, 3 shop signs, 3 textures, 3 seed pods and so on, on and on – describing it in words somehow just doesn’t do it justice, sadly….. but if you get a chance to see it, I think you’ll see what I mean. It was in essence a version of Pinterest half a century before that had even been thought of, and in a way that quite neatly sums up this remarkable couple.