The World of Charles and Ray Eames 25.11.15

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This ambitious exhibition at the Barbican in London reminds us that the celebrated American designers were making films to shed light on their thinking process long before it was commonplace – with greater depth and insight than many doing the same today, says Peter Maxwell

It would be safe to speculate that the trade in reproduction or copycat furniture relies by an overwhelming percentage on the work of one duo: Charles and Ray Eames. This is, beyond any academic canonising or magazine taste-making, the ultimate mark of their success – that derivatives of their products, whether labelled as such or not, remain objects that people aspire to place in their homes, a synonym for good taste over half a century after their conception.

By extension, the Eameses are perhaps the only design practitioners whose portfolio the public are likely to know, if not by name, then by sight – the short backrest slowly developing into the generous cupped seat that forms their 1948 fiberglass-reinforced plastic chair has become an almost universal motif.

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Arts & Architecture magazine covers designed by Ray Eames

This hazy awareness presents a unique set of problems and opportunities for the curators of The World of Charles and Ray Eames, currently on show at London’s Barbican Centre, as they look to make the most of hosting the first major Eames retrospective in the UK for 15 years. The show needs to offer an introduction to the Eameses’ work for a lay audience, as well as adding a unique perspective for those familiar with the couple’s story. This is accomplished by condensing the most expected material as a primer, front-loading the exhibition with the tale of Charles and Ray’s early experiments in plywood, a display of prototype and production models of their first chairs (with a brief but fascinating segueing into Ray’s publishing designs), a stopover at their Case Study House 8, and an explication of the development of the now-ubiquitous moulded plastic chairs.



Peter Maxwell


The World of Charles and Ray Eames
21 October 2015 – 14 February 2016
Barbican Art Gallery, London


Images: Tristan Fewings/ Getty Images

quotes story

They are not really films at all, just ways to get across an idea

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The Eameses ubiquitous experimental moulded plywood chairs

While all expertly handled, these initial episodes feel like their inclusion was sanctioned in exchange for the exhibition’s main conceit: an exploration of the Eames less-recognised work as communication designers, chiefly in film. Moving image first enters the show covertly, as an addendum to some of the physical exhibits, before occupying most of the second half of the display, with a series of screenings arranged around the upper gallery. Its first introduction is with House After Five Years of Living – projected above the display detailing the building of CSH 8 – which, through a series of jump-cuts between static shots of interior and exterior details, shows how the Eameses’ home bedded into the landscape, and they into the home. It’s a poetic (occasionally trite) piece of filmography, but also an incisive form of self-appraisal.

The next film, The Fiberglass Chairs: How They Get The Way They Are, is in a basic sense the antithesis of the former, being both pre-production and essentially a straight information piece. However the Eameses’ auteurship enters here, too, in the tempo of the shots, the framing of material details and actions, such as the bright unction of plastic being delivered to the fiberglass substrate; the message seems to be that these largely unseen activities are not merely incidental to the product, but a concomitant part of a story that starts with the designer and ends with the user. It was these narratives that the Eameses were really interested in propagating, rather than the mere fact of chairs, tables and sideboards. As Charles once commented: “They are not really films at all, just ways to get across an idea.”

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A series of film screenings accompany the physical exhibits

This is the point about becoming a “classic”, I suppose – the appellation is meant to indicate that you somehow always remain relevant. Thus an Eames’ Lounger sits comfortably in even the most contemporary of interiors and the Eameses’ creative development always seems useful for analysing more current events. This exhibition is particularly fascinating when considered next to the recent surge in designers using video, usually disseminated via the web, as a primary medium. The Eameses’ first attempt at such a feat, Travelling Boy, was made in 1950. There would be 124 more during their career. Over the past five years, practitioners such as Adam Buick, Studio Glithero, Alida Sayer and Marloes ten Bhömer have developed a similar side to their portfolio: moving image pieces that either expand upon, or entirely compose, the projects of craft and design professionals who ostensibly work in physical media.

But while these studies tend to be informative on a particular process, or aesthetically absorbing in their own right, they never quite have the depth the Eameses’ work does. This may be because, at base, they are not interested in expressing a larger “idea” about their maker’s practice so much as creating individuated, shareable artefacts or accommodating concepts that would not be commercially viable as products. Not that either of those things are deplorable, but as their grandson, the artist and curator Eames Demetrios, has commented, that overarching connection between all the pair’s projects “is really key to understanding [Charles and Ray’s] design process. The Eameses created a fractal world of their own, and very often the films themselves were the mechanism of sticking such domains together.”

What The World of Charles and Ray Eames perhaps proves is that, if you really want to lay claim to understanding the duo, it is their films more than their furniture that are the essential viewing.


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Aluminium Group chair, 1958

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