The World of Charles & Ray Eames

I visited this exhibition at the Barbican last month and I’d really recommend it – it’s on until 14 February. It’s a big show across two floors so worth allowing a couple of hours at least. These were some of my highlights.

Charles and Ray Eames

Charles and Ray Eames were American designers working from the 1930s to the 1980s. Most people with an interest in design, and Modernist design especially, will have heard of the Eameses’ eponymous chair designs, and I also knew of their domestic architecture. What I hadn’t realised before was quite how varied their careers had been. (I had also never seen a photo of the couple until I visited the show – I’d always envisaged them as somehow both looking a bit like Le Corbusier but I was wrong apart from perhaps the fondness for bow-ties.) The exhibition gave a good impression of their personal and professional relationship with each other.

The exhibition was a wide-ranging one, reflecting the length and diversity of their careers. The Eames Office also has a website, the Eames Official Site, that showcases their designs in the many categories they worked in.

Splints to chairs

Battlefield splints

What seems to be their breakthrough product was something I found unexpected – leg splints for soldiers during World War II, produced by bonding and curving wood veneers using resin glue, heat and pressure. The exhibition explained this completely new design was more effective at holding and protecting the limb and therefore allowing it to heal – very much the definition of design as a solution to a problem rather than purely an aesthetic. Having found an effective solution, the armed forces ordered more splints in huge volumes and this appeared to really kickstart the Eameses’ career. And the production method would also be applied to some of their signature chair designs.

Eames chairs

Unsurprisingly a few rooms of the exhibition are given over to the designers’ chairs and other furniture. So many of the chairs are genuine design icons and it’s unsurprising they (and their derivatives) became ubiquitous in offices, schools and public buildings, considering their simplicity, modernity, strength and relative ease of mass-manufacture. Some of the chairs and lounge furniture did include more padding, more leather and more bulk but the simpler mass-market chairs were among their most accessible designs. In the room showcasing a wide range of chairs there’s a quote from the architect Alison Smithson, who said the Eameses’ DKR wire chair of 1951 was “a message of hope from another planet”.

Case Study House no. 8 (Eames House) & Case Study House no. 9 (Entenza House)

The Case Study Houses were designs for post-war residential architecture, commissioned from leading contemporary architects by ‘Arts & Architecture’ magazine in the US as model designs for modern houses. Not all of the designs were built, but two that were are designed by Charles Eames – the first (no. 8) with Ray Eames, and the second (no. 9) with Eero Saarinen – both built in 1949.

Eames House, 1949

Case Study House no. 8 was designed by the Eameses, they moved in as soon as it was built and they lived there all their lives. Alison and Peter Smithson said the Eames House “is architecture as a direct result of a way of life” and it does reflect a way of living embodied by its designers themselves. The Wikipedia entry for the Eames House sums it up:

“Unusual for such an avant-garde design, the Eames Case Study No. 8 house was a thoroughly lived-in, usable, and well-loved home. Many icons of the modern movement are depicted as stark, barren spaces devoid of human use, but photographs and motion pictures of the Eames house reveal a richly decorated, almost cluttered space full of thousands of books, art objects, artifacts, and charming knick-knacks as well as dozens of projects in various states of completion. The Eames’ gracious live-work lifestyle continues to be an influential model.”

This kind of Modernism is the antithesis to the stark, minimal box and in its lightness, texture and more industrial qualities I also see it prefiguring some of the High-Tech Modernism of the second half of the 20th Century.

The Eameses were said to have fallen for the location, in the Pacific Palisades district of Los Angeles, California, when the Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen originally accepted the commission for the eighth Case Study House. The site is where a copse of trees ends in a line before dipping down to a meadow, and the architects’ abandoned first design was for a ‘bridge house’ that projected out from the tree line over the meadow.

When instead Ray and Charles designed what would become their own home, one of the key changes was moving the whole house up and just behind the line of trees, softening its impact on the site, leaving the meadow untouched and the house enveloped in greenery. It’s a brilliant solution and one of my favourite house designs.

Entenza House, 1949

Before this exhibition I hadn’t realised the Eameses had designed a second Case Study House, no. 9 – this one was for the publisher of ‘Arts and Architecture’ magazine, John Entenza. It was interesting to see how they responded to a completely different brief for what was a neighbouring house built in the same year.

Here the house was designed to be more private, on one storey instead of two and with the steel frame concealed behind wall panels instead of expressed. The design is inward-focused, with a layout encircling a central study that has no external windows, in contrast to the Eames House which opens itself up to its surroundings and welcomes in the light and the experience of the surroundings.

IBM Pavilion,  New York World’s Fair, 1964

It seems amazing to think this piece of expo architecture and design is over 50 years old now. The brief from IBM was to show how computers could be used for all kinds of problem solving and to try to relate this to everyday life rather than making computing seem like something remote, removed or even scary.

This was achieved by what must at the time have been a breathtaking visitor experience housed inside an ovoid pavilion on legs, featuring interactive exhibitions below the egg-shaped theatre – the centrepiece was an audio-visual performance in the theatre where the ‘People Wall’ seating grandstand lifted you up into position in the auditorium above, like a kind of fairground ride. The design also featured language, signage and other design elements borrowed from fairgrounds and carnivals to try to put the cutting-edge concepts in a more familiar context but also to express the wonder, optimism and delight of what was being shared.

Other highlights

Musical Tower

This tower was a design they made for their office – essentially a vertical glockenspiel, with keys like rungs of a ladder set at angles within a column several metres high – dropping a ball in through the top would send it zigzagging down within and creating a tune as it went. The Eameses sometimes asked new employees to rearrange the keys to make a new tune, as a kind of gentle initiation rite.

It is mentioned in Michael Neault’s 2008 blog post on the Eameses, reproduced on the Eames Office website:

“Charles was once asked by the Royal College of Art in London to create a documentary about 901 Washington Boulevard — the headquarters and workshop of the Eames Office. Within the workshop was an integrated space that had darkrooms, cutting rooms, a theatre, a kitchen and a woodshop — basically everything the Eames’ needed to work self-sufficiently. It was also outfitted with an unusual musical invention. Charles & Ray crafted a musical tower made from metal tone bars, not unlike those you might find on a glockenspiel. They assembled the bars vertically, braced by a chute, so that when you dropped a ball into the tower, it would play a music-box-like melody. It was a fitting musical accompaniment for the space.”

Revell Toy House, 1959

It’s a pity this design and prototype for a toy house by the Eameses never went into production – it could have provided so much fun for some lucky children in the 1960s. I’m a sucker for toys and models of Modernist architecture and it was lovely to see even the Eameses’ furniture designs reproduced faithfully at this small scale.

Design Q&A, 1972

Powers of Ten, 1977


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