‘Is design an expression of art?’ we hear a voice ask Charles Eames to which he replies ‘design is the expression of purpose’. The video completes The World of Charles and Ray Eames, a brilliant look into the life and work of Charles (1907-1978) and Ray (1912-1988) Eames, two of the most celebrated designers of the last century.
With its timeless modernist aesthetic and utopian vision, London’s Barbican Centre is a perfect set for a discourse on the Eameses. For over four decades, the Eames Office, the ‘laboratory’ as it was often referred to, in sunny California produced an array of pioneering and experimental work.
Here architecture, furniture, graphic and product design, painting, drawing, film, sculpture, photography, multi-media installation and exhibitions were explored. New models for education were envisaged at the Eames Office not just for the US and the western world, but India and beyond.
For many Charles and Ray Eames are associated with their iconic furniture. Yet for them, ‘design was not simply a professional skill, it was a life skill – more than that, it was an essential attribute of life itself,’ says Eames Demetrios, director of the Eames Office.
The couple thus moved fluidly between the mass-production of objects for everyday use and the transmission of ideas through exhibition, film or installation. Much like the European Bauhaus contemporaries (many of whom had moved to the US after the war) their concern were to connect art, science and technology, to educate society, and to utilise good design as way of improving life.
It really is fascinating navigating these rooms, browsing through endless documents and videos, listening to ideas on the future, how to integrate craft and technology, embrace the coming global ‘information age’. Some of the concerns and ideas expressed here remain valid today.
Charles and Ray established their studio against the backdrop of the Second World War. One of their first mass-produced products was an emergency transport splint in moulded plywood and shaped to the human form. The project helped the team to find ways to mass-produce the moulded-plywood furniture Charles and his friend, the designer Eero Saarinen had been experimenting with the previous year, and it enabled the couple to open the Eames Office on 901 Washington Boulevard, Venice, and Los Angeles, California, where it remained throughout its history.
We particularly like these notes, featured in the accompanying catalogue, and drafted by Charles in January 1949 to advice students. They describe the workings of the Eames Office beautifully:
Make a list of books
Develop a curiosity
Look at things as though for the first time
Think of things in relation to each other
Always think of the next larger thing
Avoid the ‘pat’ answer – the formula
Avoid the preconceived idea
Study well objects made past recent and ancient but never without the technological and social conditions responsible
Prepare yourself to search out the true need – physical, psychological
Prepare yourself to intelligently fill that need
The art is not something you apply to your world
The art is the way you do your work, a result of your attitude towards it
Charles and Ray Eames collaborated and associated with the leading artistic figures of the 20th century and their immediate circle included Buckminster Fuller, Alexander Girard, George Nelson, Isamu Noguchi, Eero Saarinen, Saul Steinberg, and Billy Wilder. And the 380 works displayed in the concrete halls of the Barbican are a legacy of post-war modernism.
The exhibition addresses the Eameses impact on concepts of modern living – the couple’s editorial eye and mastery of form and material yielded some of the most iconic designs of all time, not least their own home completed in 1949. Here modernist furniture live with old battered books, paintings, oriental rugs, antiques and effigies. This is a home that is as much about aesthetics as creating a warm, loving, liveable environment to encourage productivity, growth, pioneering thought.
The Eameses were forever challenging themselves to improve on their work. And they seemed to be having so much fun! Archive photographs depict this handsome couple smiling, laughing, interacting with their team at the Eames Office. This was a partnership in life, work and ideology… and it is hugely inspiring.
This is the first major UK exhibition of the work of Charles and Ray Eames in over 15 years, and it is not to be missed.
The World of Charles and Ray Eames will be at the Barbican Art Gallery until 14 February 2016.
The accompanying catalogue is edited by Catherine Ince and Lotte Johnson and published by the Barbican and Thames & Hudson.