Arts & Culture » Art

Wonderful world of Charles & Ray Eames

by Sura Wood

Molded fiberglass chairs were an innovative design by the Eameses, including one (right) with a drawing by illustrator Saul Steinberg, a friend of the couple. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Molded fiberglass chairs were an innovative design by the Eameses, including one (right) with a drawing by illustrator Saul Steinberg, a friend of the couple. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

"Take your pleasure seriously" was the core philosophy of 20th-century designers extraordinaire Charles and Ray Eames. Just how much rigor and imagination went into realizing that snappy idea is amply evident in a comprehensive, wide-ranging touring exhibition at OMCA that surveys the careers and multidimensional practice of the influential, Southern California-based, husband-and-wife design team, who formed their crucial lifelong partnership in 1941. If you haven't felt the exquisite pleasure of surrendering to the embrace of a leather Eames lounge chair and resting your feet on the matching ottoman (both produced by Herman Miller), well, my friend, you haven't really lived.

Those who've missed out on the experience will get a chance to lounge as much as they desire at this capacious show. It includes a bevy of those classic chairs that Charles hoped would have the "warm, receptive look of a well-used first baseman's mitt" in which they can relax while watching the Eameses' "Glimpses of the U.S.A," a newly restored, multi-screen presentation incorporating 2,000 images of a day in the life of America. The project was commissioned in 1959 by the U.S. Information Agency.

The exhibition features a narrow, leather-upholstered chaise lounge originally created to cater to the nap-taking needs of their friend and sometime collaborator, director Billy Wilder; a prototype of an austere three-legged chair; another chair graced with a sly drawing by Saul Steinberg; and examples of the curved, molded plywood techniques that the Eames pioneered, integrated into their furniture production, and led to revolutionary leg splints and an adorable elephant sculpture displayed here. The show goes well beyond their iconic furniture designs, in some cases recreating their ventures into multimedia exhibition installations for corporate and government clients like the futuristic environment they conceived for the carnival-like IBM Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair in New York, where a ringmaster rose up on a mobile podium above the crowd. Among the cache of materials are numerous photographs and a selection of short, investigatory films — they made over 100 — such as "Powers of Ten," addressing no less than "the relative size of things in the universe," and "Kaleidoscope Shop" (1959), a cavalcade of kaleidoscopic visuals of the Eames workshop accompanied by calliope music from the merry-go-round at Santa Monica pier. "Tops" (1969), an exploration of primitive children's toys in motion, can be viewed sitting or whirling in colorful, amusement park-inspired, Herman Miller Magis Spun chairs. One of these items could set you back a cool $800, but can be taken for a ride free of charge at the museum. Bring the Dramamine.


Perhaps the most recognizable design by Charles and Ray Eames is their Lounge Chair and Ottoman (left) from 1956. Other furniture designs are also included in the exhibit at OMCA. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

This is foremost an admirably detailed, somewhat esoteric show about ideas and process and what's entailed in thinking out of the box, while never losing the sense of play integral to their ethos. Their "House of Cards" picture deck, which could be used to build towering if impermanent structures, remains one of their most popular products. "Toys and games are not as innocent as they look, [they're] a prelude to serious ideas," theorized Charles, who studied architecture, and in his early days in California, was employed by the art department at MGM. 1951 saw the arrival of The Toy, a sophisticated erector set consisting of large, geometric, boldly colored plastic panels, coated paper, dowels and wire connectors, components that reinforced the value of play for both teenagers and adults, who could construct fantasy kingdoms or theatre sets.

Asked by the toy manufacturer Revell Company to develop a model house, Ray and her office devised a 3/4-inch-scale prototype kit of injection-molded plastic parts. The structural grids and panels could be configured into several levels and outfitted with miniature Eames furnishings and accessories. The kit's flexible modular system was, in fact, modeled on the Eameses' home in Pacific Palisades, which was part of the Case Study House program, an experiment in modern living commissioned in 1945 by Arts & Architecture magazine. Designed and built with found objects by the Eames in 1949, the project became a laboratory adjunct to their studio offices in Venice Beach; gathering from an array of group photos of staff, it looks like home and work were sites for serious fun.

Throughout their lives, the chemistry between the Eames was key to their success. "Anything I can do, Ray can do better," Charles once said of his wife and collaborator, an acknowledgment that two great innovative minds are better than one. After Charles died on August 21, 1978, Ray dutifully noted the day in her Hermes diary with his initials and inscriptions each year, until she passed away on the same day a decade later.

Through Feb. 17. www.museumca.org


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