The Eames’ chairs have become so familiar that it’s easy to forget how revolutionary each of them was when first introduced about a half century ago. And the Eames’ fame overshadows their passion to communicate, as manifested in films, exhibitions, photography, and a score of related initiatives. The exhibition Eames Words, at LA’s A+D Museum, distills the essence of Charles and Ray, and their complementary skills. His pithy comments on the design process provide the text; her gift for color and arrangement breathe life into every corner of the room. The overriding theme is announced on the side of the building: “the uncommon beauty of common things.”
Those mundane objects ranged from artisanal bread to a tumbleweed they brought back from a trip to the desert. In his Harvard lectures of 1971, Charles spoke with a sense of wonder about cords of logs, kegs of nails, hanks of wool, and reams of paper. In India, the couple delighted in the indigenous culture while writing reports for the new government, and they extolled the lota (a brass water pot used by peasants) as a triumph of poetry and practicality. They shared an enthusiasm for toys, collecting vintage examples of painted tin and wood and incorporating them into several of their short films. “Toys are not really as innocent as they look,” said Charles. “Toys and games are preludes to serious ideas.” Philip Morrison, an astrophysicist who narrated the Eames’ masterpiece, Powers of Ten, would show their film of hypnotically spinning tops to his graduate students at MIT as a release after two hours of mind-bending equations.
Deborah Sussman (who was a close associate of the Eameses and has made a brilliant career in environmental graphics with her husband, rocket scientist Paul Prejza) curated the exhibition with graphics designer Andrew Byrom. Another Eames alumna, Tina Beebe, recreated Ray’s breakfast table, to which a fortunate few were invited for good food and stimulating conversation. The interior of the Eames’ iconic house (minus the kitchen) has been recreated as part of the exhibition, Living in a Modern Way, across the street at LACMA. The bricolage of varied objects has been meticulously installed, but they’ve faded from sixty years of direct sun, and the spirit that animated them has largely fled. But at the A+D show, Sussman and Beebe, who helped create that vanished world, have restaged fragments of the originals with new materials as Ray would have done. As a result, the replica feels fresher and more authentic than the historic relics.
There’s another telling comparison between the two shows. At LACMA, the star vehicles are the streamlined Airstream trailer and Raymond Loewy’s impossibly sleek Studebaker Avanti. Both are triumphs of styling, expressive of their eras. In contrast, A+D displays an authentic WWII jeep. “Now that’s an automobile America should be proud of,” said Charles, who once wrote Henry Ford II urging him to make a plain black car as an alternative to two-tone dreamboats. “What I really want is a black car with feeling,” he added.
That same urge towards the simple and timeless is expressed in the juxtaposition of two classic modern chairs with Charles’ sharp comment that Rietveld subordinated reality to an intellectual concept, since Charles and his associates preferred to create a comfortable place to sit. In fact, the Eameses triumphed on both planes: their best work is inventive and practical and, like the humble objects they so admired, it’s infused with a timeless beauty. “What works is better than what looks good,” Charles insisted. “The ‘looks good’ can change, but what works, works.”