Charles and Ray Eames’ holistic approach to design was rooted in their interest in addressing and resolving the needs of any given problem; be that executive seating, the welfare of sea creatures, plywood leg splints or their pre-eminent vision of the “information age.” Established in Los Angeles in the 1940s, their studio’s initial experiments were in devising a way to mass-produce the moulded-plywood furniture Charles had previously designed for a MoMA brief with architect Eero Saarinen. Through a process of trial and error, they soon came across a way to apply their experiments to the war effort in the form of emergency transport splints and stretchers. This led to the establishment of the Eames Office as a business and was the beginning of the studio renowned for its expansive work and collaborations, “provide the best for the most for the least.”
The Barbican exhibition The World of Charles and Ray Eames , designed by 6a Architects, surveys the work of the couple and their Office. It encompasses their architecture, furniture, graphic and product design, painting, drawing, film, sculpture, photography, multimedia installations and new models for education. Their prolific output is difficult to summarise but the show succeeds in guiding viewers through the Eames’ approach to the business of life. Their disciplined visual communication and consistency with materials prevents the show from feeling like a whirlwind of scale and context as it shifts with ease due to the clarity in their intentions and process.
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue designed by John Morgan studio, with a series of essays, stills slideshows and chapters on their home life, research and major projects on “celebration as a human need” and the “information age.” The Barbican has also worked with the Eames Office on a selection of products based on Eames textile patterns and materials, including their dot pattern and scale models of their fibreglass chairs.
Structured thematically, the ground floor of the exhibition introduces the “parts” making up their set of tools: experiments in plywood, film, graphic design, textiles and architecture. The first two galleries show their abstract, painted covers for the magazine Art & Architecture , large-scale structures for aeroplanes and miniature furniture for children that includes plywood elephants and tiny tables. In an anti-clockwise progression, the next rooms give an impression of the extensive research involved in their work; with rough and perspective drawings for the Eames house, and letters between Charles and Ray concerning its development as well as films by architectural historian Reyner Banham on his thoughts on the architecture of their adopted home, Los Angeles. In the final section of the ground floor we see examples such as their film Tanks , on the health of marine life and a model of an Eames living room, giving a sense of their vibrant colour palettes and attitude towards their work in space.
As the exhibition progresses, the upper floor seems to take on these parts and develop physical or theoretical “total environments” that employ the Eames Office skill-set. Early on is their exhibition design for The World of Franklin & Jefferson , for which the Eames’ applied their unflinching approach that an exhibition should communicate the understanding of a subject by exhibition designers and curators, “limited though it may be, in such a way that it has meaning for a non-specialist but isn’t trivial or embarrassing for the person who knows most about the subject.” Their design had an array of information presented in multiple mediums and took on decorative elements according to the season, such as potted plants in spring. The section for their suggested design education curriculum in The India Report included a miniature school-like set up and showed their film Banana Leaf: Something about Transformations and Rediscovery , which explores the cyclical life of the banana leaf in Indian culture including its use as a tool for eating. In one of the final sections, the Eames’ film Powers of Ten is screened, surrounded by a selection of stills and development research. Concerned with communicating the relative size of things in the universe, the film links microcosm to macrocosm, and in perhaps the most famous scene zooms out from a family picnic to a view of the park, the city, the state, the country and through to a view of Earth from outer space.
Perhaps one of the most renowned projects, and one that communicates both the design approach of the Eames’ and the Barbican exhibition, is the IBM Pavilion. Described as “not a building but a grove”, the pavilion was “part garden of delights, part vision of the future” with an oval theatre that hosted the Eames’ multimedia experience, the “information Machine.” The design was welcoming and carnival-like, allowing IBM to introduce their automated technologies to the public in a relaxed atmosphere, one that emphasised advances in technology as a force for positive change.
The show could easily have been overwhelming, but due to the straightforward, un-intrusive exhibition design and the nature of the Eames’ work, rather than feeling exhausted by the breadth and quantity, as a viewer you are left only wanting more. To know more and see more perhaps in the hope that you’ll be able to pick up some of their ability and drive. The exhibition is much more than a survey of Charles & Ray Eames’ work, it’s a record of public life in the latter half of the 20th Century, somewhat localised but reflective of the trauma and progress happening worldwide.