Thursday night at the Barbican is late night opening for their art gallery. I find it a good time to visit, enjoy an overpriced mocha and a lemon drizzle cake, and take in whatever they've got on.
Tonight it was The World of Charles and Ray Eames. A look back at the life and works of two of the most famous designers of the last century. American designers for an American century.
Charles Eames was born in St.Louis in 1907 and Bernice Alexander 'Ray' Kaiser in 1912 in Sacramento. They met in 1940 at Cranbrook Academy in Michigan and fell in love. Charles was already married but he divorced his first wife and married Ray in 1941. They didn't waste much time. Maybe the war raging across the Atlantic made them realise how short life could be.
The US's later participation in that war affected the nature of their initial work together. They designed plywood glider noses and stretchers and as America was coming out of the great depression budgetary requirements became a consideration in their work. Something that remained with them as hardships were gradually lifted.
You can see it in their early designs for chairs. It's chairs they're most famous for and, man, are there a lot of them in this exhibition? Leather ones, plywood ones, fibreglass ones, kids ones, bloody loads of them. Enough for a school assembly. They didn't all look particularly comfy but they did, mostly, look stylish. Certainly dapper enough for film director Billy Wilder (The Spirit of St.Louis, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity) to appear in a 1950 copy of Life magazine relaxing into one.
After Ray had designed some memorable covers for Art & Architecture magazine, lovingly displayed in the first room, the couple moved into architecture combining their studies of the Arts and Crafts movement and the Bauhaus with the influence of Eero Saarinen (Gateway Arch, St.Louis - again), Buckminster Fuller (he of the geodesic domes) and Mies Van Der Rohe (Barcelona pavilion, Farnsworth House & the IBM plaza in Chicago) whose aphorisms included 'less is more' and 'God is in the details'.
Case Study Houses 8 & 9, the former of which Charles and Ray would live in, resembled three dimensional Mondrians and were both beautiful and functional and allowed generous amounts of southern Californian sunshine into their Los Angeles settings.
The mid-sixties saw the IBM pavilion at New York's World Fair - an intentionally friendly building aiming to cool fear about the dawning of a scary new computer age. Inside the pavilion visitors were introduced to such concepts as algorithms and multi-media presentations. Stuff we take for granted now but there's a great room showing how they looked then. The banks of screens are something like The Grid would've used for a Megadog gig in 1995.
At the same time the Eames's were popularising maths and science with major shows inspired by Isaac Newton, probability machines, Mobius bands and multiplication cubes. Other installations focused on Copernicus and Fibonacci. There were also histories of Jefferson and Franklin for the American Revolution Bicentennial and photographic projects just in case they got bored.
They worked on the National Fisheries Center and Aquarium in Washington DC. They made toys that could be adapted throughout a child's life so that infant and toy would grow together. They saw celebration as a basic human need and, as such, collected masks, kites, toy boats etc; from around the world and incorporated them into the films they made.
One was about a sumo wrestler preparing his hair for a bout. Another saw a mechanical boy on a journey through circus related environments. There was even an educational short about the cyclical nature of the banana leaf in Indian culture.
Though they seemed to lead classic American lives they were internationalists too. They played a role in the formation of India's National Institute of Design, commissioned by Indira Gandhi, in the Gujarat city of Ahmedabad. A quote from the Bhagavad Gita, 'You are only entitled to the action, never to its fruits. Do not let the
fruits of action be your motive' echoed their own belief that 'process is everything'. The NID remains one of the foremost schools of design today.
The exhibition is fleshed out with personal artefacts:- love letters between the two, correspondence with their friend Tony Benn, playing cards, and more films than your average visitor has time to watch and wouldn't be able to hear properly anyway. A small complaint in an otherwise excellently curated and enlightening retrospective. I'd have liked a few more architectural models too - but then I always do.
Charles died in 1978 and Ray 10 years later. In their lives they'd brought luxury design closer to the masses, blessed the modern age with a friendlier face, and made learning more fun. They'd jumped from one discipline to another in the style of Renaissance greats and given beauty to functional products. That they'd done it all as a married couple kind of makes it that little bit sweeter. Ain't love grand?