Few designers have commanded in life and retained posthumously the universal respect and admiration garnered by the husband and wife team of Charles and Ray Eames. Their talents were so prodigious and unconstrained by traditional boundaries that consideration of their work defies today’s methodological tendency to ignore the work on individuals in favour of seeking explanation and interpretation in context or process alone.
Working from the 1940s until Charles’s death in 1978, this duo created a remarkable portfolio of furniture, interiors, graphic design, photography, film, exhibition and multimedia design, as well as one of the major icons of mid-century architecture, their own house in Pacific Palisades, California. Their life and work (which were inseparable) radiated a uniquely American sense of optimism, faith in technology, an evangelical belief in design not merely as a process but as a vital part of daily life, as well as an assumption that the goals of major corporations and individuals could be shared. While today these beliefs seem charmingly naive, it is difficult to feel cynical about the Eames enterprise.
During his lifetime work was always credited to “Charles Eames.” Ray’s role as a professional designer and partner began to be credited in museum exhibitions in the 1980s (notably, the “Cranbrook vision” show at Detroit and the Met in 1983). This subject of Ray’s contribution was only tackled head-on following her death (1988) in the introduction to the indispensable catalogue raisonné by John and Marilyn Neuhart, Eames design: the work of the office of Charles and Ray Eames. Ray’s particular contributions were also highlighted in Pat Kirkham’s excellent interpretive monograph of 1995. It is unlikely that any revisionism will ever again result in this omission.
The current publication is a book of varied essays, but no catalogue, accompanying a large travelling exhibition of the Eames’s work which took place at the Vitra Design Museum in Germany last year and which opens at London’s Design Museum in September before an American tour. The show and much of the book are based on the Eames papers owned by the Library of Congress in America and the Eames’s own collection of their furniture (prototypes and production models) which was, incredibly, purchased by the then nascent Vitra Museum near Basel in 1988, rather than by an American institution.
The essays are varied and relatively brief, some frustratingly so. Donald Albrecht offers an intelligent and contextualised overview of the Eames’s work. Joseph Giovanni covers Ray’s work in some detail, continuing the work of the Neuharts and Kirkham while making good use of the previously inaccessible Eames papers. However, his ironic essay title “The office of Charles Eames and Ray Kaiser” (her maiden name, never used in this context) is bound to confuse. A “photographic essay” on the furniture based on the Vitra collection is enjoyable but highlights the lack of a proper catalogue within the book. Philip and Phyllis Morrison cover the Eames’s teaching of science through film making, writing as former collaborators (they are scientist and teacher, respectively) in an affectionate memoir. Alan Lightman (also a scientist) offers an informally written appreciation of their approach to science. Beatriz Colomina discusses the Eames’s own house, placing it in the context of their work, although it only barely fulfils its claim to placing the house “within the context of the American and European architectural avant-garde.” Hçläne Lipstadt’s essay on the Eames’s work for the US government is notable for its attempt to explain the failure of their design for the exhibition “The world of Franklin and Jefferson” (1975-76) in terms of the Eames’s strong personal identification with Franklin and Jefferson. This resulted in their using the exhibition as a forum to offer a critique the counterculture of the period and offer their vision of a proper civic society. She refers to it as “a sermon built on words and ‘stuff’.” The book concludes with “appreciations” by a variety of the Eames’s admirers (designers, architects, historians) which seems oddly inappropriate in a book of this type.
The work of Charles and Ray Eames offers new perspectives but hardly fundamental reinterpretation. Those who want complete coverage and voluminous illustrations will still choose the Neuhart book. Those interested in denser and more academic interpretation will read Kirkham. This leaves the current volume as enjoyable, particularly for the general reader, but not indispensable for specialists. Perhaps there should be a moratorium on Eames publications until a new generation finds it possible to reappraise their work.
Donald Albrecht, et al., The work of Charles and Ray Eames: a legacy of invention (Harry N. Abrams in association with the Library of Congress and the Vitra Design Museum, New York, 1997), 205 pp, 50 b/w ills, 150 col. ills, $49.50 ISBN 0810917998
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'American dream team'