An exciting new exhibition at London’s Barbican surveys the work of this groundbreaking design duo, showcasing their well-known furniture pieces alongside their lesser-known sculpture, paintings, and visual communications
Charles and Ray Eames are among the most important, and influential, designers of the 20th century. And as a new exhibition, running until February 14, 2016 at the Barbican arts center in the City of London, shows, their work not only included now-iconic furniture, but also paintings, magazines, sculpture, multimedia design, and more.
Most of us know the Eames for their furniture design. The Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman are two of the most easily recognized (and copied) pieces of furniture ever produced, and several early prototypes of the lounger are showcased at the Barbican’s extensive new show. The exhibition, however, begins with early experiments in moulded plywood objects, such as the nose of a “Flying FlatCar” glider created for Evans Products Company in 1943. Other surprising objects on display include a leg splint the couple designed for the Second World War—150,000 of them were eventually manufactured.
The World of Charles and Ray Eames exhibition brings together 380 works from the professional archive of the Eames Office, as well as artifacts from the couples’ personal collection. Of the many letters on display, one touching personal note from Charles Eames to the then Ray Kaiser says, “I’m broke, but would like to marry you very soon.” Throughout their career, Charles Eames (1907-1978) and Ray Eames (1912-1988) worked with some of the leading artistic figures of the 20th century, including Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Girard, and Eero Saarinen. The exhibition is structured thematically, allowing visitors to “walk through” the Eames’s world.
One room is devoted to the couple’s work on the famous Case Study houses. These were experiments in residential architecture commissioned by Arts and Architecture magazine editor John Entenza, intended to create inexpensive but efficient model homes to cater for the post-war housing boom in the US. Architectural plans and moodboards give an insight into the thinking behind Case Study house no. 8, which the Eameses built to be their home and studio. They also worked with Eero Saarinen on Case Study house no. 9, and both houses are showcased in the exhibition via drawings, mock-ups, and photographs.
the late 1950s, Eames Office designed the Revell Toy House, a model in miniature, furnished with tiny replicas of Eames furniture and accessories. The various prototypes never made it into production.
One home that never made it off the drawing board, however, was the one the Eameses worked on for film director Billy Wilder and his wife Audrey: rarely seen drawings of a Case Study-style, single-story structure feature in the exhibition. (Interestingly, Charles Eames designed the first incarnation of his Lounge Chair for the director, who famously took naps between film takes; the chair was designed to be thin enough that anyone having a snooze would hit the side before falling into a deep sleep.
Another area of the exhibition is dedicated to the Eames’s mass-produced fiberglass chair. It is interesting to trace the development of the now-iconic piece of furniture—early versions include a prototype seat atop what looks like a trash can. There are also versions featuring illustrations by Saul Steinberg, as well as prototypes of the Eames Rocking Chair.
In their own words, the aim of designing the Eames’s fiberglass chairs was: "Getting the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least." Their side chair and armchair were to become the first ever mass-produced plastic chairs in the history of furniture
In 1950, while on a tour of the Eames’s studio, artist Saul Steinberg (known for his work in The New Yorker) picked up a brush and painted on some of the chairs and walls. Two of the chairs featuring his illustrations are on show at the exhibition.
The exhibition closes with the set the Eames produced for the 1949 Exhibition for Modern Living, organized by Alexander Girard and WD Laurie Jr at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The furniture here perfectly showcases the timelessness of their pieces. The World of Charles and Ray Eames is testimony to the staying power of good design and an eye-opening record of a creative team for whom, as director of the Eames Office and the Eames’s grandson Eames Demetrio puts it, “Design was not simply a professional skill, it was a life skill—more than that, it was an essential attribute of life itself.”