The World of Charles and Ray Eames

For designers context is destiny, writes Sam Jacobs half way through The World of Charles and Ray Eames. The time and place in which the designer happens to emerge is decisive in shaping their world, he argues. And in this context Charles and Ray Eames are intimately connected with mid-century California. It would be impossible to consider one without the other.

Post war, California embodied the New World – the west coast became synonymous with a new kind of modernism. This particular interpretation of the movement had at its centre a sunnier thinking, an optimism lacking in Europe at the aftermath of two major world wars. It also benefited hugely from its geographical distance from Old World modernism, and perhaps the climate and vast beautiful coastline helped shape a very different mind-set.

Californian modernism rejected some of the more rigid dogmas whilst maintaining the core values of the movement, and arguably directing it towards modern life so that ideologies like social improvement married new sensibilities of popular culture.

Here film, music, magazines, mass-produced products joined art, architecture and design as tools for shaping our lives. Californian modernism embraced free thinking; it had a direct connection with lifestyle. It took design out of the strict codes set by the European avant-garde and set it free.

And Charles and Ray truly embodied Californian modernism. You cannot help but smile at image after image of this handsome and healthy couple working alongside other equally sunny faced artists and designers in their Eames Office. Here they collectively experimented with new material, finding new solutions for sustainable products, creating movies, stills and architectural models for living. Their energy is intoxicating, almost bouncing off the pages of this book.

European and east coast intellectuals looked over in awe, too. Jacobs writes: ‘The Eamses were ‘natives of a world that could only be glimpsed through the keyhole of media.’

The World of Charles and Ray Eames is a highly informative and visually engaging book published to accompany the exhibition held at the Barbican in London, and on until 14 February. Together they succeed in celebrating the inspiring and prolific world of this husband and wife team.

Chapters are divided into ‘life in work’, ‘at home with the Eamses’, ‘art of living’, ‘celebration of human need’ and so on to reveal their broad reach. Over 300 pages are dedicated to photographs, sketches, letters, original text and film stills, and it includes insightful text by Eames Demetrios, the couple’s grandson, art and design academics.

We also love the fact the book design also reflects the Eames workings whereby cropping, framing, design and presentation of image became central to their work, here captured through the very present grid, essential also in handling the large body of work presented.

Charles and Ray worked with product design, filmmaking, advertising; they explored folk art and an assortment of non-design objects to see how they can help shape our lives. Their multi-media architecture led them toward film and photography as tools for modelling ideas.

In Powers of Ten, a film made for IBM, for instance, they explore the relationship between design and the universe, as the film shows how nature, people, objects, books, and life can fit into a wider context.

Their design world was a collaborative one. Their ‘laboratory’ as the studio was referred to – active for four decades during the post-war period – involved such a wide selection of designers, architects, artists and engineers.

Charles and Ray took the principles of early modernism, the expressive visions of early Bauhaus, transported it to sunny California and moved it forward to be relevant for the new age. And what is most fascinating is just how relevant their work remains today. We are continuing this discourse.

Commissioned by the Indian government, they submitted their India Report in 1958 in response to the challenge the country was facing in the light of western design and philosophy. The recommendation was for a new educational model that would bridge tradition and modernity.

It begins with a ‘sample lesson’ and a quote that we feel captures the essence of the Eames philosophy. It is borrowed from the Bhagavad Gita, the 700-verse Sanskrit scripture of the Hindu epic Mahabharata:

‘You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only; you have no rights to the fruits of work. Desires for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working.’ This simple quote beautifully underlines Charles and Ray’s curiosity with process, which remained at the very heart of their lifelong work.

Nargess Banks

The World of Charles and Ray Eames is edited by Catherine Ince and Lotte Johnson and published by Thames & Hudson for the Barbican.

Read The World of Charles and Ray Eames exhibition review here.

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Alice Neel: Saving portraiture

The summer saw one of the first major exhibitions of influential American 20th century painter Alice Neel (1900-1984) at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. At a time when Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Pop Art were all the rage amongst contemporary artists in New York, Neel painted portraits.

Alice Neel, portrait of Andy Warhol 1970 oil on canvas, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, gift of Timothy Collins

She painted New York’s celebrated artists and writers including Andy Warhol, Frank O’Hara, Meyer Shapiro and Linda Nochlin. She also painted her friends, and family and her neighbours in Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem. Penetrating and exposing their personalities, she often referred to herself as the ‘collector of souls’, yet she never sentimentalised.

Neel’s turbulent personal life that included a year of hospitalisation following a nervous breakdown, and the destruction in 1934 of over 250 paintings and drawings, meant that only in her later years did she deserved recognition.

Alice Neel, self portrait 1980 oil on canvas, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC

The Whitechapel curators assembled 60 major work spanning seven decades of her career. Criticisms? Perhaps that there was only one self portrait. The collection reveals – to paraphrase Mark Twain – that reports of the death of the portrait is somewhat exaggerated.

Where else can you see an old lady looking you straight in the eye, naked, sagging, 83? Her look carrying a similar directness and penetration as the work of Expressionists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner or Egon Schiele, but with an added twinkle of humour unique to Neel.

Alice Neel, portrait of Sam, oil on canvas, from the Estate of Alice Neel

This is the same sharp eye that sees the admix of fatigue and love in the portrait of her daughter-in-law Maria holding her grandchild. The same pierce look that can show the smug smirk of Algis, in shirt, trousers and socks possessively cuddling Julie, naked, heavily into pregnancy and anxious. Did she want this baby?

Alice Neel, portrait of Nnacy and the Twins (five months) 1971, oil on canvas from the Estate of Alice Neel

When did you ever see Warhol with his corset and scar, eyes closed, in all his vulnerability? And the New York theatre critique Shapiro with nicotine stained teeth, clearly happy with himself, and so he should be – he’s been immortalised, even reborn under the sharp brush of Neel. Or the picture of Gould, looking pleased with himself, stripped naked twice, both defrocked and sexually castrated with his drooping penis protruding from his navel and chair.

Alice Neel: Painted Truths shows us that portraiture is very much alive.

‘Alice Neel: Painted Truths’ exhibited at Whitechapel Gallery from 8 July until 17 September 2010. For more on Alice Neel.

Guest blogger Mohsen Shahmanesh

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | | | Published by Banksthomas

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Book review: Different Sames

Contemporary Iranian artists reflect the complexities of this ancient land

Iran has a rich artistic and cultural narrative fused with a turbulent political history past and present. It is therefore not surprising that contemporary Iranian artists are eager to form their own visual language.

Thanks to recent exhibitions held in London, New York and the UAE, an array of publications and a thriving market for Iranian art, contemporary artists in and outside of the country are gaining much exposure.

‘Different Sames: New Perspectives in Contemporary Iranian Art’, edited by Hossein Amirsadeghi, is a comprehensive documentation of the movement, past and present.

Read the full book report we wrote for Wallpaper*.

‘Different Sames: New Perspectives in Contemporary Iranian Art’ is published by Thames & Hudson and TransGlobe Publishing. Order a copy here.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK | | Bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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