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Diverse designs of a creative couple

The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Inventionby Donald Albrecht et al. Abrams, 1997. 208pp. £34.95

Individually, the Eameses were talented but not exceptional designers; together, they achieved greatness.

One of the things that this excellent book illustrates, in both words and pictures, is the way that the partners complemented each other. They were a compound, not a mixture. It isn't just that one was an architect and the other an artist; they seemed to unlock each other's creative potential.

In the 1930s, before he met Ray, Charles was designing competent but dull houses in St Louis. Joseph Giovanni, in one of the four truly scholarly essays (the others are by Donald Albrecht, Beatriz Colomina and Helene Lipstadt), describes these houses as 'influenced by the colonial revival and Scandinavian modern styles, with traces of Wright'. Ray, meanwhile, was pursuing a modestly successful career as an abstract painter in New York under the influence of Hans Hofmann. In 1941, Charles and Ray married and moved to Los Angeles, where they started developing plywood moulding techniques, used by Charles to make leg splints for the US Army and by Ray for sculpture.

When, in 1949, they built a home for themselves in the Pacific Palisades, architectural and painterly talents combined to create a vision of the post-war American good life and one of the most influential houses of the twentieth century.

What made the house new and different, as Beatriz Colomina points out, was precisely that it was not the cold, dry Miesian exercise that it would perhaps have been if left to Charles alone. After the components of the steel frame had been delivered to the site, the original plan for a heroic, Farnsworth-like steel and glass bridge was altered, made more simple and direct, and also more subtle and spatial, more colourful, more human. The Smithsons loved both the house and the Eameses themselves, who seemed, in their use of standard industrial components, to reject all the pomposity and rhetoric of conventional architectural authorship.

The Eameses were not architects in the ordinary sense. They were designers who redesigned design itself. There was the furniture, of course, and here again we see the fruitful combination of Charles' practical inventiveness with Ray's subtle painter's eye. The classic glass-fibre moulded chairs were practical solutions to problems of mass production and ergonomics, but they were also beautiful objects.

An early version known as 'La Chaise' (1948, but still manufactured by Vitra) looks like a passing wisp of cloud. According to Giovanni, Charles could never have produced such grace and elegance without Ray.

And then there were the educational films and the exhibitions designed for the Federal Government and big corporations like IBM.

Designers are not often good communicators but, for the Eameses, communication and design were the same thing. For example, the film Powers of Ten, a continuous eightminute zoom from the human to the galactic scale and back down to the molecular, is a brilliant concept as well as a visual feast. Its opening scene, characteristically, is a picnic - convivial, classless and innocent.

Even in propaganda films like Glimpses of the USA, a seven-screen slide show for the 1959 American national exhibition in Moscow (analysed in detail here by Helen Lipstadt), the Eameses managed to avoid crass materialistic display by emphasising cultural diversity and human contact.

No doubt there are aspects of the Eameses not fully revealed by this book. There are hints that Charles Top: the Eames visit 'The Bride of Denmark' at the Architectural Press.

Above: Little Toy box label, 1952 was less than willing to give full credit to his wife (and to other collaborators), and we are left wondering how such a relatively small design practice managed to cultivate such an array of powerful and influential business and government clients without succumbing to bureaucratic mediocrity.

Not everything they did was successful. Their last major project, 'The World of Franklin and Jefferson' exhibition for the American Bicentennial celebrations, was panned by the critics, and justifiably so. It was cluttered and muddled and its message was obscured. Perhaps the designers identified too closely with their subjects.

For once they had lapsed into pomposity and rhetoric.

Colin Davies teaches at the University of Nor th London

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