Designers Charles and Ray Eames seem as though they would have been fun to know because they always seemed to be enjoying themselves. Ray, in her trademark jumper and espadrilles, her hair piled into a neat little bun on the top of her head, looked just slightly more exotic than the standard-issue 1950s TV housewife. Charles, in his bow-tie and suits with cuffed trousers, looked like a man who would have been the most popular professor on campus.
The Eameses were constantly photographed holding handsstanding on a beam on their partially constructed house (1949), lying on the sidewalk pinned like specimens by the parts of their famous chairs (1966). That they should be photographed doing something so ordinary, but in a most extraordinary way, is appropriate for this team: They designed with the intent to solve everyday problems, but their designs were often so refined that the everyday became iconic.
The results of the couple’s problem-solving expertise are everywhere, especially right now, thanks to an exhibit traveling the country. Having already finished a stint at the Library of Congress, ”The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention“ opened Oct. 12 at the New York’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, where it will remain through Jan. 9. After that, it moves to the Saint Louis Art Museum (Feb. 19-May 14) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Jun. 25-Sept. 11).
Half the fun of walking through the ”Legacy of Invention“ exhibit is watching the look of recognition spread across people’s faces as they encounter piece after piece of the Eames collection. The exhibit contains several versions of molded chairs, in plastic, plywood, and wire; experimental chairs with three legs; and others covered in a wide assortment of upholstery. One of the molding machines designed by the Eameses is also on display. (When I saw the exhibit at the Library of Congress, one young visitor decided the machine made a decent chair; the docent didn’t agree.) The furniture displays are rounded out by samples of sales materials designed by the Eameses, as well as magazine clippings, cartoons, and other bits of popular culture that feature Eames chairs.
Most people have seen and even sat in an Eamesor at least an Eames-inspiredchair. Depending on your age, your first exposure to the Eameses may have been in elementary school, when you sat in a brightly colored plastic chair in the school cafeteria. Those fun, stackable, easy-to-clean, and fairly durable chairs were first presented in 1948 for The Museum of Modern Art’s ”International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture.“
The Eameses had been working on the basic design of the chairsa shell from a single piece of material mounted on metal legssince they settled in Los Angeles as newlyweds in 1941. One of their earliest commissions was to construct lightweight leg splints for the U.S. Navy. Experimenting with plywood, they created aircraft parts, splints, and various curved structures. Plywood proved too temperamental for the curved chair they envisioned, but the design resurfaced in plastic reinforced with a fiberglass coating. The resulting chair, which was to find its way into cafeterias and waiting rooms everywhere, was manufactured by the Herman Miller company for five decades, from 1940 to 1989.
Another Eames classic featured in the exhibit is the lounge and ottoman constructed in black leather and molded wood (1956). The chair was originally designed for Eames pal Billy Wilder, who wanted a chair that would be comfortable for napping, yet not out of place in an office.
While the now ubiquitous plastic chair was originally intended for use in the home and was only later adopted by institutions, the Eameses did also design seating intended for public spaces. In 1962, the couple unveiled Tandem Sling Seating, which used affordable and lightweight aluminum and a revolutionary upholstery technique. The seating provided an economical way to provide comfortable seating for a large number of people and was first used in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and Washington, D.C.’s Dulles Airport.
The latter airport was designed by Charles’ friend and frequent collaborator Eero Saarinen, the son of Charles’ architectural mentor. The two men had worked together on many projects by this time, including a design that would become as closely associated with the Eameses as any of their chairs. After World War II, the search was on for cheap, quick housing for returning GIs and their families. Eames and Saarinen designed a house for Art & Architecture magazine’s Case Study House Program. Built in 1949 in Palisades Park, Calif., with parts from a prefabricated kit, Case Study House #9’s steel frame was assembled in 36 hours.
The house’s exterior is boxy, with a grid pattern of glass and colored panels. This rigid grid structure may at first seem out of keeping with the flowing, gentle curves of the Eames chairs. But the similarities between this house and pieces like the Eames Storage Unit (1950), with its panels of red and blue, are quite striking.
Charles and Ray Eames were meticulous in documenting the design process, and ”A Legacy of Invention“ makes great use of the vast material they left behind. Visitors can examine drawers full of the stuff the couple collected, catalogued, and used as inspiration over the years. The drawerswhich can be pulled open, but not rummaged throughcontain items grouped by color. There’s also a light table where visitors can use magnifying glasses to study slides from the Eames office; there ice cream cones, buildings, plants, water, patterns of nature, and numerous other images.
Enclosed in glass panels adjacent to an Eames Storage Unit are hundreds of Christmas cards sent to the Eameses from other designers, architects, and artists. Not surprisingly, most of these cards feature original designs showcased in glorious color; it’s also no surprise that one of the most intriguing cards was designed by the Eameses themselves. The couple’s 1946 Christmas card features a photograph of a glass ornament with a large paper bow tied at the top. Inside the ball stand Charles and Ray, holding hands and each dangling a glass ornament high in the air with their free hands.
For almost 40 years, Charles and Ray Eames helped define the look of postwar America. Not limited to interior design, they also created museum exhibits and catalogs, films, advertising, and toys. ”The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention“ allows visitors to step inside the minds and studio of one of the greatest design partnerships our time. In the process, it gives us a chance to see how design shapes our world, even without our realizing it.
Note: If you can’t make it to one of the stops on the Eames tour, don’t worry, Charles and Ray are closer than you think. Pre♦To♦Post Modern, at 2110 8th Ave. S. (292-1958) has a wide assortment of Eames furniture, both originals and recent reproductions. Among the selection found on a recent visit were two black leather and wood lounge chairs (one original), a navy leather swivel bucket chair, and a yellow bucket chair on rockers.
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