Chairpersons: The World of Charles and Ray Eames

The Oakland Museum of California’s exhibit goes deep into the quintessential Modernist designers’ fruitful partnership, mysticism and all.

Installation view of the reconstructed multiscreen presentation Think, produced for the IBM Pavilion, New York World’s Fair, 1964-65. Barbican Art Gallery, London October 21, 2015 – February 14, 2016.

Every now and then, that cultural barometer called The Simpsons parodies the work of Charles and Ray Eames. Take the episode where, as soon as Homer and his family race to their living-room couch, the camera pans out from above their house — going higher and higher until it goes beyond the Milky Way (past funny aliens) and into galaxy-like universes that turn out to be Homer’s DNA. In that scene, Matt Groening is paying homage to the Eameses’ Powers of Ten — the landmark documentary that showed, in 10-second segments, what it’s like to be 10 times farther out from the previous point of view, and then 10 times farther in. Generations of people know Powers of Ten, even if they don’t always know Charles and Ray Eames’ names.

Here’s another reflection of the Eameses’ influence: Google Earth, the 3D satellite perspective that Google first introduced in 2001.

“Google Earth was specifically based on Powers of Ten,” Eames Demetrios, one of the Eameses’ grandchildren and the board chair of the Eames Foundation, tells SF Weekly. “People who were with that project told me that the film very much inspired Google Earth.”

The Eameses had their hands in so many cultural cookie jars — from film to furniture, from toys to architecture — that their work continues to spawn progeny. But the exhibit that’s now at the Oakland Museum of California, “The World of Charles and Ray Eames,” and recent publications that examine the Eameses’ legacy, are also a reminder of a dichotomy that seems old-fashioned in the look-at-me Twitter era: Charles and Ray Eames didn’t create things to be famous. 

“Because of their interest in un-self-conscious design, which happens in traditional culture all the time, they were quite comfortable with the fact that they were doing good but weren’t necessarily getting credit for it,” Demetrios says. “What they cared about is if things were done well. Now, we’re used to the rock-star designer.”

The Eameses were treated like rock stars. Their plywood chairs in the 1940s — stylish, comfortable, and designed for maximum support — were an industry and art-world phenomenon, and turned the couple into international celebrities, even if it was Charles who often got the lion’s share of attention. The Oakland exhibit features video of a 1956 national TV segment in which NBC host Arlene Francis (famous in her own right for being a regular on What’s My Line) credited the chairs’ “revolutionary” designs almost entirely to Charles Eames, who she said “has become almost a household word.”

Woman watching a film at “The World of Charles and Ray Eames.” Photo by Jonathan Curiel

Ray also appeared with Charles on Francis’ show, where the host lauded their Pacific Palisades house (now a National Historic Landmark) and their polymathic way with design.

In the 1940s, the Eameses made a new kind of leg splint that the U.S. military used during World War II to save soldiers’ legs and lives. In the early ’50s, Anheuser-Busch approached the Eameses to redesign Budweiser’s logo. The potential commission was lucrative, and would have given the Eameses an even bigger foothold in American pop culture. An artist like Andy Warhol would have lobbied for the job and bathed in its commission. The Eameses turned down Anheuser-Busch because they thought the current logo was fine.

“They believed that, as designers, they had a real responsibility to the client,” says Demetrios, who also helps run Eames Office, the organization that oversees the Eameses’ work. “The fact that the best result for the client was not to change the logo — and that they wouldn’t make any money — was their problem, not the client’s.”

In 1957, around the same time the Eameses said no to Budweiser, they accepted an offer that spoke to their commitment to combine design with social service. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, asked the Eameses to visit India and assess how the country could navigate the impact of Western design and technology. India had been independent for just 10 years, and it didn’t want to succumb to a new kind of colonialism, even if the impact was limited to its folk arts-and-crafts sector.

Charles and Ray Eames wrote an influential 1958 analysis that looked at the bigger picture, saying the impact of design and technology was really about the impact of communication. And it wasn’t just affecting India; it was affecting the entire world. The Eameses said the communication revolution — TV was just becoming a global phenomenon — wasn’t rooted in the West, although that’s where it was centered in the mid-’50s, so it would be a mistake to think of the problem as the “influence of the West on the East. The phenomenon of communication is something that affects a world, not a country.”

The Eameses recommended that India create a national institute of design (which it did in 1961) that would draw from all disciplines, and that India should take inspiration from its cultural strengths, which were evident in the lota, the water vessel that generations of people shaped through hands-on design and function. In essence, the Eameses said, the lota was beautifully crowd-sourced — tempered through the wisdom and “tremendous service, dignity, and love” of men and women who had a practical use for it. The Eameses’ belief in the wisdom of anonymous crowds to enact change and counterbalance cultural forces was a radical idea in 1958. Not anymore. It’s no wonder that many people in India saw Charles and Ray Eames almost as mystics. The prominent Indian writer Pupul Jayakar called Charles Eames “a creative genius and philosopher.”

Jayakar shared that view with filmmaker and screenwriter Paul Schrader, who wrote a review for Film Quarterly in 1970 that riffed off of Powers of Ten, Eames’ other documentaries, and his multimedia works — including a 1964 piece called Think at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York. (The piece lauds Ray Eames, too.) Shrader, who would go on to write Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, said that Charles Eames’ cerebral, ego-less approach to filmmaking had given the art form “what it needs most: a new way of perceiving ideas.” In the same issue, Schrader said that Eames “challenges the hegemony of pessimism in the contemporary arts.”

It’s true. A through-line for all the work in “The World of Charles and Ray Eames” is a kind of hopefulness, and a belief that anyone who encountered their work would participate in it and experience something visceral. The chairs were an obvious hands-on item. So were the sets of playing cards that the Eameses’ developed. And the spinning tops that they spotlighted. But so, too, were their multimedia works like Think and Powers of Ten, which ask viewers to process fast-moving images and high-minded concepts. Think, which used slides and movies on multiple screens, is about how computers and people solve problems in similar ways, and its juxtaposition in one place of so many screens — and so many images — was Instagram before Instagram. But unlike Instagram, Think and Powers of Ten are really meant to be seen in a three-dimensional space — which is to say, at an exhibit like “The World of Charles and Ray Eames,” where the projections are on walls or surfaces that resemble those of a real movie theater. The show originated in 2015 at London’s Barbican Centre, which curated it, and the Oakland iteration is the last leg in the exhibit’s four-year, seven-venue run that included stops in Brussels, Lisbon, and Basel, Switzerland.

Charles Eames died in 1978, Ray in 1988. Their organizations are still going strong (thanks partly to Eames Demetrios). Tens of thousands of people visit the Eames House every year, some of them renting it out to get married. If the standard of any great work is that it seems fresh to succeeding generations, then many of Charles and Ray Eames’ creations meet that standard. Their work was of its time but also beyond its time. That’s why Matt Groening riffed on Powers of Ten. And that’s why Charles and Ray Eames didn’t try to categorize their creations. They worked across many media and looked to many disciplines — Charles Eames trained as an architect, Ray Eames as a painter — for inspiration.

“We don’t do ‘art’ – we solve problems,” Charles Eames once said. In his phone interview with SF Weekly, Eames Demetrios says the couple’s philosophy is also applicable to new generations of creatives, another example of the Eameses’ legacy. “They saw the richness of the world, and they saw beauty in many different places,” he says, speaking from Nepal, where he was working on his own project. “And there are many ways to experience that without traveling — by curiosity, by wanting to understand things and see connections between things. In their own creative work, they were always on a journey of discovery, and they went where I always refer to it as surrendering to the journey. They went where the journey took them — whether it was designing objects or a system or an exhibit. A lot of companies [today] that say they want to be design-driven often aren’t in that sense. They’re more style-driven.”

“The World of Charles and Ray Eames,” through Feb. 17, 2019, at the Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland. $6.95-$15.95; 510-318-8400 or museumca.org

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