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All About Eames

Eames House: Charles and Ray Eames

by James Steele
Phaidon Press/Chronicle Books, 60 pp., $29.95

Eames House

by Marilyn Neuhart, by John Neuhart
Berlin: Ernst und Sohn, 64 pp., DM 58.00

The Films of Charles and Ray Eames, Volumes I-IV

Pyramid Home Video, $39.95 each

1.

Since transformations in architectural style often follow major economic, social, political, or technological upheavals, it is not surprising that the building art in this century has been so marked by change. And certainly few periods in modern history were more marked by a conjunction of sudden changes than the years just after World War II. With America’s industries reinvigorated by the all-out military effort and its primacy on the international scene confirmed by victory, peace brought an urgent need for new civilian and commercial construction. For fifteen years there had been an architectural hiatus in the United States, imposed by the Great Depression and protracted by the wartime ban on all non-essential building.

Thus in 1945 opportunities for American architects at last seemed almost limitless, especially in housing for homecoming veterans and their new families. That day had not been unawaited. Long before the end of the conflict, forward-thinking architects, critics, and editors began to plan for large-scale construction, the first such boom in a generation. An unprecedented opportunity presented itself: the chance to reshape the world in the gleaming image of Modernism, which before World War II had been largely experimental in Europe and little more than a sporadic phenomenon in the United States.

Despite avid proselytizing in this country during the 1930s by Philip Johnson and others on behalf of the arbitrary version of Modernism they called the International Style, it took the forced industrialization of American architecture in the first half of the 1940s to make a case for a truly mechanized Modernism. Before World War II, Modernist architects sometimes had to resort to custom fabrication or outright fakery to achieve the machine imagery advocated by the Bauhaus after its initial, Expressionist, phase. Stucco masqueraded as reinforced concrete; rivets were used for decoration. All such strategies exposed the fact that theories calling for architecture to reflect technology had outpaced technology itself. The war brought with it the real thing. Construction using advanced engineering developments in the use of steel, concrete, glass, and plastics supplanted the highly aestheticized version of Modernism that had been presented in such attention-getting exhibitions as Johnson’s Machine Art of 1934 at the Museum of Modern Art, with its clever appropriation of propellers and ball bearings as sculptures trouvées.1

During the years before World War II it was easy for architects to make use of the ornamental detail that was common to many styles of twentieth-century architecture—from the high manner of Beaux-Arts Classicism and the Arts and Crafts movement to such populist modes as Art Deco and the Spanish Revival. The architects could rely on the cheap labor of immigrant artisans, and the deflationary economy of the Great Depression prompted a flurry of applied decoration. That tradition came to an abrupt end with America’s entry into World War II and was to return only with the advent of postmodernism in the 1980s.

The unheralded and seemingly automatic acceptance of the unornamented International Style in this country after 1945 was among the significant legacies of the war. Even before the hostilities, the influx of refugees from Hitler’s Germany had changed the nature of American architectural education, previously dominated by the historicizing Beaux-Arts method. In 1938, two former directors of the Bauhaus assumed influential academic positions: Walter Gropius as chairman of Harvard’s Department of Architecture, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as head of the architecture school at the Armour (later Illinois) Institute of Technology in Chicago.

The euphoria of the immediate postwar period was reflected in the particular qualities that the International Style assumed in this country—buildings became bigger, more expansive, and more transparent than any that had been built in pre-war Europe, thanks to the structural capacities developed through wartime engineering. The new architecture was seen as expressing America’s optimistic outlook, just as the fragmented visions of German Expressionism had mirrored the anxieties that accompanied the end of World War I.

The endorsement of the International Style as the official architectural form of the American business establishment was rapid and nationwide. Between 1946 and 1952, for example, commissions from General Motors in Warren, Michigan, Equitable Savings and Loan in Portland, Oregon, Lever Brothers in New York, and Alcoa in Pittsburgh gave prestigious corporate approval to a movement that had been considered alien and radical when those companies had previously built their headquarters. The move away from the tepid Classical Eclecticism of the 1920s and toward a bold new Modernism signaled one of the most astonishing shifts in the annals of public taste and patronage.

No American architect and designer better exemplified that change than Charles Eames, who, with his wife and partner Ray Eames, marketed high-style Modernism more skillfully, successfully, and influentially than any of their contemporaries. From their marriage and the founding of their firm in 1941 until Charles’s death in 1978, the Eameses produced an astonishing outpouring of work ranging from architecture and interiors to the design of furniture, graphics, and exhibitions, as well as films, multimedia presentations, advertising, and the logos and other emblems of what is now known as corporate identity. Through their concerted, consistent approach, anchored in the almost religious postwar belief in rigorous research and patient experiment, the Eameses dominated Modernist design in this country throughout the third quarter of the century. They achieved what no other practitioners before them had been able to do: they gave late Modernism, in its otherwise corporate phase in America, a human aspect and made it not only nonthreatening but indeed personable.

2.

Charles Eames was born in 1907, six years after Louis Kahn and one year after Philip Johnson. Son of a Civil War veteran, he was a member of the architectural generation whose youthful prospects were circumscribed by the Great Depression. Eames’s boyhood fascination with mechanics and engineering is not at all evident in the neo-Georgian and semi-Art Deco houses he built in the 1930s, after being dismissed from Washington University in his native St. Louis. One reason given for his expulsion was his overzealous support of the then-unfashionable work of Frank Lloyd Wright, even though that earthy aesthetic had no discernible impact on Eames’s style then or thereafter. Doubtless it was Wright’s heroic sense of himself and his grand conception of architecture and design as an indivisible, organic whole that appealed to the young man; and the overall consistency and integrity of the mature Eames style does indeed recall Wright in its unity if not its specifics.

Publications showing Eames’s early buildings caught the eye of Eliel Saarinen, the émigré Finnish architect and director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, the Michigan design school that was America’s closest equivalent to the Bauhaus (although only in the Bauhaus’s early phase emphasizing craft). Saarinen recognized a kindred spirit in Eames, some of whose better early schemes bore a certain resemblance to the master’s own style, a Nordic variant of the Arts and Crafts movement that, in his adaptation, had its origins in the designs of the Vienna Secession and its use of stylized folk motifs. Saarinen, who offered Eames a fellowship in 1938, insisted on a unified approach in which the structure, the furniture, and the details of a building would all reflect the same concept of design. This was an early tenet of the Arts and Crafts movement, and it had a deep effect not only on Eames but also on another new Cranbrook student, Ray Kaiser.

Born in Sacramento in 1912, Kaiser began studying art in New York during the early 1930s with the painter Hans Hofmann, the most important avant-garde studio teacher of his time. Hofmann’s enthusiastic transmission of European principles of abstraction, his strong emphasis on the structure of the picture plane, and his incorporation of biomorphic and quasi-figural forms in non-representational compositions all became part of Ray Eames’s approach to design, after her work at Cranbrook redirected her interests from the fine to the applied arts.

The Eameses married six months before Pearl Harbor and settled in Los Angeles, which they chose for its informal way of life and its lack of social distractions. As their longtime friends and associates Marilyn and John Neuhart—compilers with Ray Eames of the essential reference work Eames Design2—pointedly observe in their informative new monograph on the Eames house, “Charles and Ray’s lives were structured in an almost monastic way and can be described very simply: Charles’s life was his work and Ray’s life was Charles.” Yet her work was also of paramount importance to Ray.

Together the couple embraced John Ruskin’s precept of “joy in labor” and took a puritanical pleasure in a hard-working routine that Pat Kirkham documents in a splendid new study, Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century. In it, she quotes Charles’s description of their way of life as “based on doing rather than having.”

Preferring to stay apart from Los Angeles life—visitors to their Venice, California, atelier remarked that it could have been almost anywhere in its complete detachment from the outside world—the Eameses conducted an energetic, and ultimately lucrative, practice in which their individual efforts were for the most part inseparable. Professor Kirkham (who was recently appointed to the faculty of the Bard Graduate Center in New York) reconstructs the working relationship of the couple in extensive interviews with former Eames Office employees—the only possible source of information, since the Eameses kept virtually no papers, communicating verbally and working with models and photographs rather than developmental drawings.

It is true that Ray Eames was not as fully involved as her architect-husband in the design of the firm’s very few buildings, in which he pursued the Modernist chimera of a building vocabulary based on interchangeable industrial components that would easily be available. Yet her deep engagement in all other aspects of the creative work of the partnership—at once intuitive and forceful—was greatly underestimated until the publication of Kirkham’s corrective study.

Indeed the central point of Kirkham’s book is to show that Ray was not an acquiescent helpmeet but equal partner in one of the most fruitful artistic collaborations of the century. As Kirkham makes abundantly clear—and what was evident to anyone who spoke with Mrs. Eames (who died in 1988, a decade to the day after her husband)—one of the leading culprits in unjustly downplaying her status was Ray Eames herself. With a minimum of feminist special pleading, Professor Kirkham traces Ray Eames’s self-abnegating tendency to prejudices against women in architecture (all too pronounced even today). Taking account of the difficulties that Ray Eames might have had if she had been on her own, Kirkham also gives a plausible interpretation of the private emotional contract that the Eameses worked out. As this most understanding of biographers sees it, Ray had a deep need to be protected, while Charles Eames possessed an equal desire to protect, though he also caused her great distress.

With an admirable tact rare today, Professor Kirkham shows that the diabolically good-looking Charles Eames had many extramarital affairs, and she describes their effect on his professional relations with his wife. Although she names no names (they will be familiar enough to those in the architecture world), the author reveals that during the late 1950s Ray Eames considered divorce: “Part of her decision to stay with Charles almost certainly was a desire to remain in a close working partnership—as was his decision to stay within the marriage and that partnership.”

As Professor Kirkham astutely points out, and as was demonstrated by Ray Eames’s complete inability to keep the Eames Office going after her husband’s sudden death, “so blanketing was [his] protection, however, that Ray never had to face up to doing things she did not like or do well. This meant that she never came to grips with certain matters in which she was not as skilled as Charles, particularly business dealings, most things practical, and speaking in public.”

In an intriguing analysis of a part of architects’ lives too often overlooked, the author considers the meaning of the Eameses’ distinctive way of dressing. Their clothes might have seemed merely an artier version of California Casual—he in slacks and open shirt, wearing a bowtie only for corporate conferences, she wearing peasant dirndls and ballet slippers—but the look was in fact as carefully thought out as Wright’s presentation of himself as a Crafts period dandy or Le Corbusier’s as a Magrittian bourgeois. The Eameses’ interest in what is now called power dressing was as obsessive as their work habits, and Professor Kirkham recounts stories of the Eameses’ friends being driven to distraction in search of just the right fabric, ribbon, or braid for the couple’s not-so-offhand outfits. Indeed, Charles’s sporty clothing was made by Dorothy Jeakins, a Hollywood costume designer.

The author likens Ray Eames’s little-girl pinafores, which she wore to the end of her life, to Judy Garland’s costume in The Wizard of Oz. Professor Kirkham’s instincts are sound: the dust-jacket photo of the Eameses, taken in 1944, shows the perky Ray bearing an uncanny resemblance to the young Garland; and in her incongruous, unchanging costume the elderly Ray, kindly and ingenuous, seemed like a superannuated Dorothy.

3.

Today the Eameses are best remembered as the creators of what many critics regard as the best furniture of the Modern movement, most famously for their chairs. Now fifty years old, the most important of those pieces—the series of molded plywood designs introduced in 1946—have withstood the test of time so well that they have tended to eclipse the couple’s other, highly varied accomplishments.

Although most of the great architects of this century—including Wright, Mies, Corbusier, and Alvar Aalto—produced noteworthy furniture, architects who are renowned primarily for furniture—including Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Josef Hoffmann, and Marcel Breuer—have been consigned to a second division. Paradoxically, although a sideline in furniture has been seen since the 1980s as a necessary adjunct to a highly successful architectural career—the designs of Frank Gehry, Michael Graves, Richard Meier, and Robert Venturi come to mind—it remains true that to become well known particularly for a chair is something of a liability.

The Eameses’ collection of 1946 presented the basic chair that became a notable commercial success. It was profitably manufactured first by the Evans Products Company and subsequently by the Herman Miller Furniture Company—the couple’s longest-running sponsor—and grew out of their pre-war interest in biomorphic form and their wartime experiments with molded plywood. In 1941, Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen (Eliel’s son) took first place in the Museum of Modern Art’s Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition. The most direct source for their prize-winning chair was the molded plywood furniture Aalto had designed in the 1930s, offering a softer, low-tech alternative to the metal-framed designs of Breuer, Corbusier, and Mies.

Continuing to explore the potential of bending laminated plywood into sensual, continuous forms, the newly wed Eameses applied their findings to the design of airplane seats and fuselage components for the Evans firm during World War II. They also devised molded plywood splints and stretchers that followed the contours of the human body more naturally than conventional rectilinear models did. In one of the most effective retoolings of a wartime industry to peacetime purposes, the Eameses redirected Evans’s production to furniture they conceived along the same lines of comfort and economy.

Not the least of the impulses unleashed by the outbreak of peace was a pent-up hunger for consumer goods, especially household objects for repatriated soldiers and their incipient families. The cautious revivalist styles of the straitened Depression years seemed to many young people hopelessly dated in the dawn of the Atomic Age, and the light, affordable, informal furniture of the Eameses caught the buoyant spirit of the moment to great effect. Unquestionably it was an advanced taste—even “highbrow,” in the jargon of the time—but the Eames line was not incomprehensible to those primed by such earlier mass-produced biomorphic designs as Russel Wright’s American Modern ceramic dinnerware, widely available since it was introduced in 1937 and another icon of Modernist postwar interiors.

Professor Kirkham is particularly good in pinpointing Ray Eames’s precise role in the development of the brilliant 1946 design colloquially known as the Potato Chip chair, arguably the most inventive piece of seating since Michael Thonet’s disassemblable bentwood pieces of a century earlier. Ray Eames had been much influenced by Hans Hofmann’s idea that there must be “push and pull” in a composition—as with the dynamic tension between advancing and receding planes that he often explored in his own paintings. This became a cardinal rule for Ray Eames and is clearly discernible in the Potato Chip chair’s breathtaking separation, and dramatization, of the ovoid seat and back, which are poised above, and away from, both the legs and the piece of metal supporting the back.

The Eameses’ later furniture series appeared in concentrated bursts of activity, but the new pieces never entirely superseded earlier groups, which retained their freshness because of the couple’s ability to refine their designs before they were released into the marketplace. Inspiration came from sources as varied as Venice’s nearby beach, where they saw the surfboards that prompted their Elliptical Table of 1951, or London’s Victorian men’s clubs, which suggested the capacious Lounge Chair and Ottoman of 1956, whose leather upholstery Charles Eames said he wanted also to approximate “the warm receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt.”

As adaptable and accommodating as the Eameses’ furniture designs could be, they were perfected under conditions of complete control exceptional even in a profession given to extremes of perfectionism. Architecture, with its many variables and compromises, allows for less control, and this explains why the Eameses did so few buildings. To be sure, their own house of 1947-1949 in Pacific Palisades is on any short list of great modern American structures. Long overshadowed by its more glamorous contemporaries, Mies’s Farnsworth House of 1946- 1951 and Philip Johnson’s Glass House of 1949-1950, the Eames House in recent years has been the subject of increasing attention from admirers, who see in it a humane Modernism that was lost as the International Style moved from the marginal to the imperial.

Officially known as Case Study House #8, the Eames residence was built as part of the architectural demonstration program organized in 1945 by John Entenza, editor and publisher of the Los Angeles-based journal Arts & Architecture. Recruiting the most advanced young architects in Southern California, Entenza set out to provide easily adaptable models for developers and homeowners about to embark on the most concentrated period of domestic construction in American history. Although Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler had built influential Modernist houses in Southern California beginning in the 1920s, Entenza wanted examples more suited to the modest means of post-war families. In return for publication in Entenza’s journal and some financial help, participants had to agree to open their houses to the public for a while after they were completed. The Case Study Program was indeed a success in winning converts to the Modernist cause, even though most postwar suburban design followed more conservative prototypes, such as the mass-produced designs of the Levitt organization. That good modern design was accepted on the West Coast well before the rest of the country is directly attributable to the Case Study Program.

Charles Eames wanted to show that a timeless but wholly contemporary structure could be assembled from ready-made parts that would offer substantial savings over the specially constructed elements that can add enormously to the cost of building. Preferring to allocate the better part of their budget to a spectacular site—a cliff-top meadow overlooking the ocean in Pacific Palisades—the Eameses and Entenza (for whom Charles and Eero Saarinen built a smaller adjacent residence, Case Study House #9) determined from the outset that their house would have historical importance.

Charles Eames’s initial design for his own house resembled a bridge raised on stilt-like supports above the sloping terrain. But his visit to the Museum of Modern Art’s 1947 Mies van der Rohe retrospective caught Eames up short. There he saw the German master’s unexecuted design for a remarkably similar house, and perhaps fearing charges of plagiarism Eames returned to California and came up with a completely new configuration.

Clearly presented in James Steele’s well-illustrated monograph (part of Phaidon’s admirable Architecture in Detail series), the Eames House is a handsomely proportioned pair of simple paneled boxes. Its rhythmic interplay of opaque, translucent, and transparent wall elements is reminiscent of classical Japanese architecture, but without any antiquarian or ethnographic overtones. The minimal Modernist tones of black, white, and gray are enlivened by the De Stijl movement’s hallmark red and blue, bringing to mind the paintings of Piet Mondrian. And in place of the third primary color, yellow, there is a gold panel recalling Japanese screens. X-shaped cross-bracing wires on some of the panels bring to mind similar use of the same structural device in the Eameses’ bookcases and other storage units. The verdant setting, now shaded by towering eucalyptus trees that almost obscure the long main façade, mitigates the industrial character of the structure, which in its enchanted glen seems more like a large toy than a small factory.

The Eameses’ almost unfailing ability to make utilitarian design feel cozy is demonstrated most effectively in the interior of the house, which they occupied until their deaths and which happily remains almost unchanged. Here the couple worked out their most intricate exercise in “functional decoration,” as they called it, a teeming assemblage of furniture and objects that made the somewhat austere architectural container a mere backdrop for their vast collections of folk art, native crafts, playthings, and found objects.

Almost singlehandedly the Eameses broke the Modernist taboo against drawing on the history of culture; they reintroduced a density of detail not seen in architectural interiors since the Victorian age. In this respect the Eameses can be seen as the missing link between Modernism and postmodernism, allowing architects of a younger generation, most notably Charles Moore and Robert Venturi, to indulge their love of decorative ornamentation, the forbidden desire of the Modern movement.

Much has been made of the fact that the prefabricated steel framework of the Eames house was erected by five men in only sixteen hours—a kind of Modernist barn-raising—which is apparent proof of the scheme’s logic and adaptability. Yet as with almost all other innovative structural concepts, the reality turned out to be quite different. Though Charles Eames boasted that his house cost an amazingly low $1 per square foot to build—in contrast to the standard $11.50 per square foot for wood-frame construction at that time—he neglected to factor in the huge amount of preparatory labor by his office staff in specifying the many component parts, which were not as readily available as he assumed they would be, to say nothing of the huge expense of steel, as opposed to wood, framing.

Whatever the true cost of the Eames House—its architect never disclosed the final amount—this “high-tech fantasy” (in Steele’s phrase) was unquestionably expensive for its day. That sobering experience dampened the Eameses’ enthusiasm for architectural practice. They turned away from building design, and from then on, as the Neuharts write, “a completely prefabricated, off-the-shelf structure was not designed by the Eames Office.” Like his closest twentieth-century counterpart, the Dutch furniture-designer-turned-architect Gerrit Rietveld, Charles Eames created only one great house, and yet it is more than enough to sustain a major architectural reputation.

4.

The year after their house was completed, the Eameses produced the first of more than eighty short films that became the most significant part of their output during the second half of their career. (Some of their important films, previously difficult to attain, are available on video cassettes.) In 1953 they devised what is now considered to have been the first multimedia presentation. Called Communication, this demonstration of the Eameses’ interdisciplinary interests combined film, slides, graphics, music, aromas, and spoken commentary in a synesthetic manner that attempted with considerable success to recast the nineteenth-century notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk in a contemporary mold.

The Eameses’ pioneering use of multiple-image projection—most memorably exploited in their 22-screen film Think, shown in the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair—sought to break down conventional notions of the most quintessentially modern medium. Even when their films were confined to a single screen, the Eameses could convey exhilarating feats of imagination. This is exemplified by their unforgettable Powers of Ten (made in two versions, in 1968 and 1977), which shows orders of magnitude in the universe through a powerful sequence of progressions from the submolecular to the cosmic.

Exhibition design became the Eameses’ last major enterprise. For clients including IBM and the United States Government, they created the public equivalent of their private interior spaces, a many-layered mosaic of images that offered a cumulative impression of subject matter that is frequently missing in pristine Modernist installations.

Here their intent was obviously cinematic. For The World of Franklin and Jefferson of 1976, an exhibition in Washington, D.C., commissioned by the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration, the Eameses juxtaposed historical artifacts and photographic reproductions, lengthy wall labels and graphic mottos inscribed in overhead banners, along with maps, full-scale architectural details, and even a stuffed buffalo. So much was put on view that no visitor was likely to come away from the show with a predictable experience of the panoramic exhibition; and yet it communicated an immediacy that few such historical surveys are able to impart.3 Widely copied, the Eameses’ display techniques were the final manifestation of their genius for synthesizing visual information and presenting it to a wide audience with wit, taste, and originality.

Though the Eameses would now be approaching their nineties, one cannot help wondering what they would have been able to do with today’s emergent computer-generated technologies—the Internet, morphing, and “virtual reality.” One can be certain, at the very least, that these committed humanists would have been able to identify and stimulate the best aspects of our cybernetic Information Age; whatever they did they would have added the civilizing element always at the center of their joyous art.

  1. 1

    The exhibition catalog has been republished in a sixtieth-anniversary edition (Abrams/Museum of Modern Art, 1994).

  2. 2

    Abrams, 1989.

  3. 3

    Volume III of the video cassette series The Films of Charles & Ray Eames contains three films based on this exhibition, including one showing its opening in Paris.

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