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The World of Charles and Ray Eames at the Barbican

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Joseph Rykwert reviews the Barbican Art Gallery exhibition of the Eameses’ pioneering designs

They were the golden pair of their time, the Eameses. They first got together in 1941 at the Cranbrook Academy, that unique outpost of Finnish Modernism on the outskirts of Detroit. Nor were they eclipsed as long as they lived: Charles died in 1978, Ray 10 years later. Being already an architect of note, Charles was an instructor at Cranbrook; she, an aspiring abstract painter, was a student. Their immediate sympathy translated into work and play, into designs – their letters to each other, even the envelopes had their humour and grace, which involved the addresses and stamps – but everything they touched, and that included their deftly picked, but seemingly casual dress – was absorbed into their project.

It was, in any case, a euphoric period for American design, encompassing George Nelson, the Knolls, Harry Bertoia, the Push Pin Studios, Saul Bass, Alvin Lustig – some of that brilliance a byproduct of the Bauhaus team making their collective transatlantic landing (though Cranbrook was earlier anyway). The Eameses moved to California, attracted by the climate and by the ethos, as well as by the film studios. Soon they were able to design and build themselves a house. It was one of a series in a west coast enterprise patronised by the eccentric but benevolent publisher-editor John Entenza: the Case Houses, which were to stand as exemplary developments for housebuilders during the post-war boom. There would be 40 of them eventually. The Eameses’ own wonderfully relaxed and welcoming home, steel-framed and rapidly built, was number 8 in the series, and they were to occupy it for the rest of their lives. While working on it they helped Entenza on his own – No.9. All the houses were published in the monthly Arts & Architecture, which Entenza edited and for which Ray did some graphics, as well as designing many of the covers.

The World of Charles and Ray Eames at the Barbican

The World of Charles and Ray Eames at the Barbican

Source: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Arts & Architecture magazine covers designed by Ray Eames

While working on the houses they were already experimenting with various materials. They found technical innovation endlessly fascinating and stimulating – using plastics and fibreglass inevitably, but also moulding plywood for a range of uses, from splints for broken limbs to gliders, the latter of which occasioned an unfortunate glitch – a fatal accident – though it was more the fault of the aeronautical engineer than of the material and, indeed, a splendid section of the glider shell stands at the entrance of the Barbican exhibition. But gliders thereafter were to rely on aluminium instead of plywood.

The World of Charles and Ray Eames at the Barbican

The World of Charles and Ray Eames at the Barbican

The Eames name is now familiarly attached to a most prestigious moulded plywood object, the ‘Eames chair’, a stately fauteuil (with footstool), which has appeared in many films and fashion photographs – and very splendid it is. But it is in fact the climax of a long development, which begins with Ray’s shaped plywood sculptures and goes on to many experiments with splints and stretchers.

But also with seating: fibreglass shells on metal rod bases (on some of which their friend Saul Steinberg has drawn playful figures, which are in the Barbican show); the early padded wire mesh chairs and, finally, the bent metal and moulded plywood ‘classics’, shown here in many early transformations. While most visitors to the exhibition will at some point put themselves down gratefully on some Tandem seats (the plastic fabric and moulded aluminium benches which the Eameses produced for Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in 1962 and which have become the almost ubiquitous airport furniture) in fact the curators of the exhibition did not want to place too much emphasis on chairs. Yet I do not see how it can be avoided: the sitting position is one of those perplexing but pervasive human conditions for which the Eameses managed to devise a variety of supports, each one of them uniquely satisfying.

The World of Charles and Ray Eames at the Barbican

The World of Charles and Ray Eames at the Barbican

While they were developing such product designs they were working on graphics and on exhibitions as well, covering the whole range of design from book production to buildings. In fact, they never drew hard lines between their different activities. Charles had begun his career as an architect, after all, and this led them back to buildings – sometimes, as in the case of the New York World’s Fair of 1964-5, to an enterprise in which they formed some of the sheltering building as well as the exhibits proper, working with the office of Eero Saarinen, a friend from Cranbrook days and occasional collaborator. Their involvement in the design of the IBM pavilion there, with its Dymaxion-like, ballooning superstructure housing their multiple-projection show, and of the exhibits in the main structure, was total.

The projection was a series of moving images – they jibbed at calling them ‘films’, which to them implied some kind of continuous narrative. What they did develop was a form of movie-show employing several screens – six, nine, or more – which provided the spectator with simultaneous exposure to many facets of an argument. So, in Mathematica, for instance, they attempted to present lay people with a series of mathematical arguments untechnically, while in the IBM pavilion they offered a vision of a human-friendly, unscary world of the new marvels of computers. This kind of presentation through multiple images, which has since undergone so many transformations that it is taken for granted, is as much their contribution to the man-made environment as all theirs permutations on the sitting position.

The World of Charles and Ray Eames at the Barbican

The World of Charles and Ray Eames at the Barbican

Their involvement in the design process extended even to institutional matters. Two long visits to India produced a report and a proposal. Since India had turned to the (then) Soviet Union for advice on heavy industrialisation, which resulted in the construction of great steel mills, American sponsors were more interested in stimulating small-scale production, even in regenerating rural handicrafts. The Eameses’ particular involvement resulted in the creation of a National Design Institute in Ahmedabad – arguably the capital of Indian design and craft activity – which, Indian conditions being as they are, had a rough passage after its auspicious beginnings.

Yet India remained an inexhaustible source of images for them. And it is their magic touch in juxtaposing, re-reading and moulding such images which remained a constant source of wonder in their shows, while their sympathetic but quite relaxed treatment of historical documents and artefacts makes them the ideal devisers of shows dealing with the past, as shown by their travelling exhibition on the World of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, to celebrate the bicentenary of the American Revolution.

That exhibition also shows their constant – if ambivalent – involvement with the political process.Their politics involved support of the Whole Earth Catalog on the one hand and on the other of the 1959 American exhibition in Moscow, for which the United States Information Office was the client and which extolled the pleasures of consumerism, yet nevertheless seemed unaffected by the McCarthyite rows of the 50s. Some of their closest friends, which included Billy Wilder (for whom they even designed a house which remained unbuilt) and Tony Benn, were men of the left, if always of an independent cast of mind, yet the Barbican exhibition does not really make much of it.

Above all, they were both intensely visual. There was a kind of insatiable visual appetite, even hunger, about them. I remember Charles’s visit to Gio Ponti’s studio in Milan (at about the time when they did a cover for Domus), when he would almost obsessively photograph drawings, models and prototypes. And when we went up to lunch, every dish as it came to the table he greeted with: ‘O! I must show this to Ray! Ray would love to see this!’ as if every visual impression was something to be instantly treasured – but also shared.

The World of Charles and Ray Eames is at the Barbican Art Gallery until 14 February 2016

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