Mention the Eames chair and most non-designers will know what you are talking about. If you ask why it’s called ‘Eames’, the response is often a little more cautious. It is the name of the chair’s designer they will reply, but offer little more.
A new show at the Barbican seeks to address this knowledge gap by opening up the world of designers Ray and Charles Eames. The exhibition draws on the archives of the Eames Office in Los Angeles, and has acquired never before displayed exhibits from public and private collections worldwide. It is an informative and insightful overview of the designers’ lives and work.
The most striking thing about the furniture exhibits is how ordinary everything looks. Then, the penny drops. The things we take as every day were obviously designed by somebody. That ‘somebody’ was the Eameses.
In the 1940s Charles Eames and wife, Ray-Bernice Alexander, opened a design studio at 901 Washington Boulevard, Sacramento. From this office, the pair developed a design philosophy that led them to work on a range of projects including architecture, product design, furniture, film, paint, photography, sculpture and multi-media installations. The exhibition draws on all these different aspects to explore the Eames’s design principles.
As you enter the exhibition, there is a mesmerising film of studio 901. The Eameses were asked to create a film of their studio and the response was this hypnotic kaleidoscope of close-up images from the studio. Brief fulfilled, without sacrificing their privacy.
This theme continues throughout the exhibition. Exhibits of the couple’s work is complemented by personal letters and photographs that give you an insight into them as people. There is a sense of the fun they had and the passion that drove their thinking. There is also an historical context for their work.
The exploration of the Case Study houses is particularly relevant today. Part of a project with Art and Architecture magazine, the Case Study houses looked at whether housing could be mass manufactured quickly and cheaply. An issue that continues to challenge policy-makers and architects.
A number of films, some recently restored by the Library of Congress, are included in the exhibition. ‘Banana Leaf’ is amusing while the multi-screen ‘Think’ film, made for the New York World Fair, 1964-1965, is astonishing. The marine life film is captivating. Just grab one of the Eames chairs provided and enjoy.
The exhibition does an excellent job of opening up the world of Eames. At times it is hard to understand how revolutionary the designs and methods were because they have become such an everyday part of our lives. Nonetheless, for anyone interested in design it is an engaging and thought provoking look at the art, skill and philosphy of design.
Our Exhibition Highlights
- moulded plywood nose cone for military aircraft from The Museum of Modern Art, New York
- a range of prototype furniture from the museums around the world
- 1:50 scale models of Case Study House #8 and #9
- films: Think, Banana Leaf, Marine Life, Moulded Chair manufacture
- prototypes for paramedic backboards and splints
Don’t miss the whale!
Feature Image Credit: The World of Charles and Ray Eames Installation view Barbican Art Gallery, © Tristan Fewings/ Getty Images