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Communicating the contemporary JEREMY MELVIN The Work of Charles and Ray Eames At the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 until 3 January

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If anywhere explodes the artificial distinction between high and low culture, it is Los Angeles. Of course it's where the most pervasive images and icons of our time originate; but a recent biography of Thomas Mann includes a diagram of Sunset Boulevard showing how European emigres congregated along it in the 1940s: Mann, his brother Heinrich, Schoenberg, Klemperer, Stravinsky, Walter and many others. Mittel Europa, the summit of Western civilisation, accorded Sunset Boulevard a cultural resonance long before Hugh Grant added a sordid footnote to Andrew Lloyd Webber's dumbing-down.

Reyner Banham, in his book on la, spotted this in his chapter 'The Style that Nearly . . . ' He showed how the city had more than the consumerist populism so derided by European intellectuals. Case Study houses by Craig Ellwood, Raphael Soriano, Pierre Koenig, and above all the single house and studio designed by Charles and Ray Eames for their own occupation, almost created a refined style which combined sensitivity to climate and local materials - like steel sections - with an understanding of architectural culture. To young British architects in America they represented high culture. But they were also enormously populist. It is the Eames, above all, who illustrate la's convoluted spiral of cultural development, drawing on, uniting and feeding populism and intellectualism, which proves so elusive to the European mind. This combination, more than their specific individual works, makes them so relevant today.

The exhibition gives some markers. The Eames' evolution, from designers of buildings, furniture and products to devisers of communication, it suggests, mirrors the shift in the American economy. Its five themes are: how to produce affordable yet high-quality furniture; how to build economical yet well-designed space for living and working; how to help people see beauty in the everyday; how to help Americans and other cultures understand each other; how to make fundamental scientific principles accessible to lay people. They show how the Eames struggled with issues which strike right at the heart of contemporary life, even if they are not normally defined as architecture.

How close they were to certain aspects of European Modernism comes across in a letter Charles wrote to Henry Ford II in 1954. 'We believe in the use of standard product models,' he explained; but having driven Fords for 15 years, they could no longer find one to their taste. And their taste was for anonymity - a black convertible with a natural top, a minimum of advertising signs . . . an interior in simple neutral tones. If Mann or Mies wanted a car, their specification would surely have been the same.

At the time the Eames wrestled with chair design. In practical terms they wanted to create simple, cheap, well-designed furniture. Aesthetically, this meant shaping the chair to be comfortable without padding. In fibreglass they could mould the seat and back in one piece; unfortunately plywood was not so amenable. Despite numerous attempts with a home-made moulding kiln where they experimented with plywood forms, and which greets visitors at the entrance to the exhibition, a single piece could not be coerced into serving both functions.

Their leap from product designers to interpreters both of science and of American culture seems almost logical. They drew on the enormous wartime advances in materials technology precisely to 'modernise' American households. Not surprisingly, they became interested in communicating technology. Their film Powers of Ten zooms from a single viewpoint from the the edge of the universe to the Earth, the usa, Chicago, a park, a man, his hand, to the composition of his skin. Dealing with macro and micro scale, it touches on fundamental scientific concerns.

Meanwhile, understanding American life moved from an implicit theme of their furniture design, to the explicit subject of their Glimpses of America, made for a trade fair in Moscow in 1959. On seven co-ordinated screens, Muscovites could see impressions of America, from natural phenomena, to landscape, urban scenes, fashion and style. It certainly carried an implicit political message - that America was littered with consumer goods - but at the event, where Khruschev approvingly examined a washing machine, that did not matter. Later films, expecially those for corporate clients like ibm and shown at trade fairs, underline the importance of affluent capitalist consumerism in their work. Organised by the Library of Congress, this message is ever-present in the exhibition.

Just as the Case Study houses almost created an indigenous Angeleno Modernism, so the Eames, in architecture, furniture and film, almost succeeded in codifying America into an innovative and Modernist series of images. They failed, but even in failing, they left icons which remain embedded within American life. Their office furniture helps to define populist notions of a corporate boardroom; the classic study chair and ottoman remains a potent symbol of a specifically American notion of opulence and luxury; Powers of Ten still says much about America's view of itself in relation to the universe.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

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