In our post from the Barbican Art Gallery exhibition “The World of Charles and Ray Eames” we noted the disappointing sparsity with which the otherwise excellent exhibition deals with the private world of Charles and Ray Eames. Arguing that understanding the designer is necessary to fully understanding their work.
Charles and Ray are sadly no longer with us to directly answer our many questions; however, in the person of Charles’s grandson Eames Demetrios we have an excellent alternative.
Aside from having grown up with Charles and Ray, as current Director of the Eames Office in Los Angeles Eames Demetrios is in many respects the Official Keeper of the Eames legacy and in addition to working with Herman Miller, Vitra and the Vitra Design Museum on the Eames product lines has also been responsible for numerous film, exhibition and book projects on Charles and Ray Eames and their work; his most recent book, “An Eames Primer”, in many respects covering much of the ground we felt is and was missing in the Barbican exhibition.
As such we took the chance offered by the exhibition opening to try to get a little bit closer to Charles and Ray Eames the people…. and thus ultimately Charles and Ray Eames the designers.
smow blog: One of the things that has always interested us about Charles Eames is that he appears to have been a journeyman architect, he then went to Cranbrook Academy of Art and subsequently, as it were, revolutionised design and how we view the world. Why was Cranbrook so important for Charles Eames’ development….. or are we interpreting things wrongly?
Eames Demetrios: I actually think the turning point in Charles’s life came before Cranbrook when in the 1930s, during the depression years, he went to Mexico for eight months. In Mexico he supported himself by working as a painter and he said that on that trip he observed the communities with whom he was living and realised they were very poor financially but they had very rich emotional lives, very rich cultural lives and very rich social lives, they just didn’t have any money. And from that he realised that you really could live on just about nothing, and so therefore because that was true you had to stop using making a living your excuse for doing things you didn’t believe in. And if you look at the projects he undertook right after returning from Mexico, there are for example a couple of churches in Arkansas which are much more honest than much of his earlier works. And it was of course an article about one of those churches which Eliel Saarinen saw which led to his interest in Charles and ultimately to the invitation to Cranbrook. However by the time Charles arrived at Cranbrook I think he had experienced his turning point, had realised this idea that you should bring your whole self to everything that you do, and that is what one sees here in the exhibition and in their work in general, their whole being is in every object they made.
smow blog: And did Charles then imbue Ray with this spirit, or did she arrive at such a position herself?
Eames Demetrios: With Ray things were a little different. Her mother died in 1940, she had left New York shortly before in order to care for her mother and so following her death was in a way looking for a fresh start. At around that time she was becoming increasingly frustrated with the limitations of painting and was looking for new ways to express herself and had started to explore modernist architecture and design, which was why she then went to Cranbrook, to lean more about modernism. In later years a friend of mine once asked her how it had felt to give up her art for design and she replied that she hadn’t given up art, she had changed her palette. And so in a way Ray approached design from an art perspective, and Charles from an architecture.
smow blog: In the 1950s the pair travelled to India, was that then also an experience that made a big impact on them?
Eames Demetrios: I don’t think one can describe their experiences in India as life changing in the same way that Charles’s experiences in Mexico were, largely because India happened much later in their lives when many of their views and attitudes were fully formed. However as a moment of reaffirmation I believe India was a very important moment.
smow blog: The world of Charles and Ray Eames is always presented as this bright, kaleidoscopic world of perpetual success. Were there also projects that didn’t work out, things that they maybe regretted they didn’t achieve?
Eames Demetrios: I think there are two answers to that question, the first is that given what we’ve just discussed about Charles experiences in Mexico and the realisation that financial success wasn’t the most important goal in life, I don’t think that, for example, if their experiments with moulded plywood hadn’t been a success or if the plywood chairs never sold, I don’t think they would have regretted the six years invested in the project because they viewed it as a journey, they were on the journey together and were very content experiencing this journey wherever it may take them. And on the other hand I don’t think they were ever satisfied with their own work, they were always trying to make it better. The best example is the plastic chairs where having developed one of the most successful chairs in history they then set about trying to improve it and for example developed the H base as an alternative to the original X base. However there are obviously projects which didn’t work as planned, and in the exhibition we have a wonderful example of one of the best examples namely the Musical Tower. It was intended for the lobby of the Time Life building in New York and the idea was that it should teach people that the laws of science always work. You drop a marble in the top and as it falls it knocks on the metal bars and plays a tune. Always the same tune. There is no trick to it, it always plays the same tune because the law of gravity remains the same. However the logistics of keeping such an object in a public space are very complicated and so they ultimately didn’t install it. But I don’t think Charles tore his hair out because they had failed, they learned from it and moved on.
smow blog: In terms of furniture Charles and Ray Eames only worked with Herman Miller and then subsequently also Vitra, given that they were arguably the most successful designers of their generation, the obvious question is why this monogamy?
Eames Demetrios: On the one hand one must remember that back then there were fewer producers, and whereas today it is normal that top designers work with several manufacturers, back then that wasn’t necessarily so. But specifically I think they simply liked the relationship with the companies. Even though Hermann Miller and Vitra were aware of the “design” label, their principle aim was to deliver quality products that worked and Charles and Ray Eames wanted to bring well designed products to as many people as possible, and so the two worked very well together. In addition there was also a common respect, for example, initially no-one thought the Lounge Chair would be a success but Herman Miller released it because they knew that Charles and Ray wouldn’t deliver a product that wasn’t well considered and founded on the best intentions. The very first Lounge Chairs were all made by hand because no one thought they would sell, and such experiences obviously help form a special relationship and sense of mutual respect. And while I’m sure they received offers from other companies, I’ve never heard about them taking them that seriously.
smow blog: Charles Eames died in 1978, so just before the internet, had he been alive today would he have been a big internet fan?
Eames Demetrios: There is no question that they would have seen many possibilities, and the first thing they would have done is to play about a bit with it and look for ways to harness the medium. Also one shouldn’t forget that Charles and Ray were responsible for some of the first interactive laser discs, back in the days when there were probably five laser disc players in existence, and they made a film called “Cable the Immediate Future” which anticipates much of the internet and which underscores that they totally saw the possibilities of the emerging digital technology.
smow blog: Digital technology is good bridge to our final question, given their desire to bring the best to the most for the least, would Charles and Ray Eames have been fans of Open Design?
Eames Demetrios: I always try to avoid placing myself in their opinions, however one of the things with Charles and Ray is that they always wanted to maintain the quality, and have the quality as part of the experience, and that becomes harder to do in an Open Design format. In addition Charles and Ray continually pushed things further than most others could or would and they felt they owed that to the people who sat in their chairs, viewed their movies, visited their exhibitions, to keep pushing things as far as they could go, and I am certain they would have queried how one can achieve such in an Open Source context. However on the other hand one could argue that folk art is an Open Design format, they would have certainly understood Open Source and Open Design as part of a similar concept of uncontrolled control and so they would have definitely been intrigued by the developments and explored them, if not necessarily adopted them.