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VM inspiration: The World of Charles and Ray Eames

The work of husband and wife super designers Charles and Ray Eames forms a fascinating exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery, and one well worth a visit for all VM practitioners.

In 1941 Charles Eames (1907 – 1978), a trained architect, divorced his wife of two years and virtually on meeting fine art student, Ray Eames (1912 – 1988), married her. They worked together for the rest of their lives. Their joint work spanned architecture, furniture, exhibitions, film, textiles, and graphics over the following five decades.

Basing themselves in California, after working with architect Eliel Saarinen (1873 – 1950) and his architect/industrial designer son, Erno (1910 – 1961), the Eames began experimenting with an inexpensive, moulded-plywood leg splint for wounded soldiers before developing chairs, using the same method originally developed by Alvar Aalto (1898 – 1976).

Within five years chair prototypes were suitable for manufacturer, Herman Miller, to produce commercially.

Moving on to architecture, the couple designed their own steel-framed house in California, Case Study House #8, in which they lived for the rest of their lives. With bright panels of colour and an adaptable interior, it was one of a series commissioned by Arts & Architecture magazine in Pacific Palisades, north of Santa Monica, designed to satisfy life in a contemporary world.

The creation of an ovoid-shaped temporary theatre for IBM, for the New York World Fair of 1964 – 5, set above stylised trees, allowed the Eames to project a series of images simultaneously onto a collection of screens.

This became their preferred method of communicating information for many future talks and seminars, and would seem to anticipate today’s audiences who prefer multiple screens to the possible boredom of single sequential images.

While Charles appeared publically to be the leading light of the design duo, Ray was very much the multi-tasking creator. She designed and created the covers for the Arts & Architecture magazine for some years, and was instrumental in determining the innovative layout of many of the brochures and catalogues the couple produced for exhibitions and their furniture. Her input is noted in Charles’ favourite statement: ‘Anything I can do, Ray can do better.’

With a design studio established adjacent to their home, the Eames’ new assistants were reputedly given the task of creating a new tune by rearranging the metal bars of the studio’s gravity-powered glockenspeil-like Musical Tower. Created for the Eames’ amusement, this fifteen feet tower, only six inches across on each side, is made of wood, fronted with acrylic on one side. A small hard plastic ball dropped in to the top ‘plunks’ its way down to the base, playing a tune as it falls, hitting each bar. The balls are ejected by manual pneumatic piston, which shoots the balls back to the top of the tower, ready to be dropped again. Every studio should have one.

With an educated eye and the opportunity to travel, the Eames filled their home with collections of objects that interested them, including this collection of masks and the Pacific North West whale below, all almost VM props. Entertaining frequently, they hosted a formal tea ceremony on one occasion, reflecting their continuing enchantment with Japan. Today, something of a design education shrine, their home can still be visited by appointment.

As gurus of 20th century design their best known films, an extension of their education and exhibition work, The Powers of Ten, are two shorts depicting the relative scale of the Universe. They expand by a magnitude of ten in each slide, until the entire universe is displayed, then reversing the process to a single atom. The exhibition shows the original version from 1968, but the later version, from 1977, is perhaps better known.

Today, the Eames are perhaps best known for their more costly post-war Lounge Chair, which became very popular in the 1960s and 70s, but the exhibition throws light on their other work and the development sketches for much of it, putting their furniture in to context. Well worth a visit.