Return to Articles


by Marlena Donohue

(Los Angeles County Museum of Art [LACMA], West Hollywood; Art Center College of Design, Pasadena; and Eames Office Gallery, Santa Monica) If you have ever been to an auction of modern design, you know that a molded plywood Eames chair in pristine condition can draw attention and record breaking bids. The famous name was actually a famous couple, Charles and Ray, and they have strong ties to our own neighborhood because they settled in SoCal in 1949, setting up an office in Venice.

Their names have been synonymous with economical and forward thinking design. Their impact and romping artistic energy--besides designing furniture and dwellings, they made films, wrote children's' books, had a hand in everything imaginable --is sampled with thorough insight in LACMA’s The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention.

Do not miss this look at two exponents of a vision that is both refreshingly retro and uncannily futuristic. Included are more than 300 objects-- furniture, production materials, paintings, sculptures and archival documents, plus sample footage from the Eames’ production library of multi-media installations executed for firms like IBM. This show includes an authentic replica of the original Eames-designed working environment as it existed in Venice, complete with desks, chairs, couches and the multi-cultural curios that they gathered in travels, and which must have imbued their sense of shape and use.

At the core of everything you will see here is this philosophy that there is beauty in the simplest of things, that low cost does not have to mitigate good taste, that aesthetics and good design should be available to all, that art is somehow the language able to bind us as a people (if you have ever been to a high price, high intensity auction of vintage modern objects, you will know how utterly idealistic the Eames were, but we can commend them for their hopefulness).

Image Wall from "Mathematica"
installation at Art Center.

Lounge chair and ottoman, 1956.
Photo: Thomas Dix, courtesy
Vitra Design Museum.

Eames House Exterior, 1993.
Photo: Tim Street-Porter.

Crosspatch fabric design
by Ray Eames, 1945.
Photo: Roger Foley.
In these ideas, the Eames sort of anticipated and gave a uniquely Yankee veneer (no pun intended) to German Bauhaus, English Arts and Crafts and Eastern Zen--all commendable and equally utopian worldviews. To this purity of process that you find and feel in everything they conceived, the couple added a totally futuristic and uniquely American embracing of the Age of Technology--even before the Age of Technology existed in any serious terms.

They consulted with IBM beginning in the early ‘50s, made multi-media public information installations that prefigured George Lucas' Surround Sound and the Imax 3-D films. These extravaganzas touted the application of science not to war but to the unilateral betterment of all. The Eames had designed splints and other war-time objects, and seemed after that committed to using modern materials for strictly peaceful use. The other fact that comes through the show is that the Eames were pivotal in bringing awareness of computers to the public long, long before the Web. Way ahead of their time, the couple understood the democratic leveling effect that computers would eventually have in our lives by virtue of providing access to learning and consciousness.

As the show indicates, the Eames enjoyed a fruitful relationship with IBM, consulting on design issues with the high tech pioneer, and in turn being privy to cutting edge techno advances. The Eames' multi-screen, multi-media installation Glimpses of the USA was aired in 1959 in Moscow to give Russians a view of life here. The installation featured one of the first IBM computers able to answer questions about America. This amazing installation is referenced in the show.

Charles came from Missouri, Ray from Sacramento, they met up at the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art, where Charles became Dean. They collaborated on the Museum of Modern Art's Organic Furniture Competition, which was the first exposure of the now famous Eames molded plywood designs. Also featured in this show, the Eames' molded wood, fiber glass and plastic chairs have become part of our design vernacular.

The Eames were an integral part of the post-war prosperity zeitgeist, paticipating during the ‘40s in the Los Angeles Case Study Program, sponsored by Arts and Architecture Magazine. This competition sought to inspire low cost, aesthetic building design to accommodate returning GIs and their families. Cutting edge designers were invited to make a prototype with a hypothetical client in mind. The Eames designed Case House No. 8 in Pacific Palisades in 1949 using only pre-fabbed materials, simple shapes, and themselves as the hypothetical residents--a working couple, highly artistic, and with growing children--who needed living and studio space. The mixed use design and concept is today shockingly timely. Indeed, the Eames have remained in the residence and office to the present --now viewable from the outside by appointment only.

At Art Center’s Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery Mathematica recreates one of the couple’s most familiar exhibition designs. The series of interactive stations offer introductions to celestial mechanics, the Moebius band, probability, topology, minimal surfaces, projective geometry, and multiplication. In the context of a gallery exhibition it may be tempting to simply enjoy these displays, but the point is more to reflect on the designers’ perspective: The decisions that went into the look of each station together with their accumulated layout.

For the softer side of Ray, you can glimpse her painted canvases at the Eames Office Gallery. To this viewer however, the couple made their most profound mark in real life design. Still, the canvases provide a great little subtext to the larger story.

Ray Eames, Untitled, 1934