Sharing a life by design

Aaron Shaw still remembers the day in 1961 that his father's car, with an Eames lounge chair and matching ottoman strapped to its roof, glided to a stop in front of the family's San Francisco home. He was entranced.

Both his parents were interested in design, he says, but this chair was clearly something special: welcoming black leather cushions on a gracefully molded, rosewood-veneered plywood body that was itself supported by a spider-like spread of gleaming metal legs.

"It was very functional, [but] there was ... beauty and a sense of whimsy, a playfulness I really liked," recalls Mr. Shaw, a musician.

Today the chair, a recent wedding present and housewarming gift from his father, takes pride of place as a treasured heirloom in Shaw's Los Angeles living room. Yet, as with all Eames designs, it remains as freshly contemporary as when it was introduced nearly a half-century ago.

Like a legion of enthusiasts worldwide, Shaw has an abiding interest in the work of the late Charles and Ray Eames, the groundbreaking husband-and-wife team whose names have become synonymous with some of the best of mid-20th-century American design.

Considered classics of their kind are such items as their plywood dining chairs of the mid-1940s, the fiberglass stacking chairs of the 1950s (a ubiquitous feature of school auditoriums, convention centers, and church-basement meeting rooms across the country), and Tandem Sling airport seating units designed for new terminals such as Washington's Dulles and Chicago's O'Hare in the 1960s.

Beyond attractiveness to the eye - or comfort for the bottom - there is something about Eames furniture that inspires a deep sense of loyalty, says Ray Kennedy. He is director of Herman Miller for the Home, a division of the Zeeland, Mich., company that has manufactured Eames designs from the beginning.

"We have a lot of people we affectionately call Herman Miller groupies," says Mr. Kennedy, whose firm also makes furniture by other well-known midcentury designers like George Nelson and Alexander Girard. "But most of them are Eames groupies.... They call us and tell us all these wonderful stories about how their [parents] or grandparents owned [a particular piece], or they'll ask about how to make a repair. Sometimes they just talk."

Said one Miller customer-service representative, "It's as though they are talking about a relative or a very close friend."

At first glance, the Eames phenomenon might appear only another variation on baby boomers' continuing scramble to buy back the cowboy, chrome, and tail-fin trinkets of their childhood.

Older Eames pieces made in the 1940s, '50s, '60s, and '70s fetch high prices at auction houses and on the Internet, but the market for newly manufactured furniture is strong and growing stronger, says Kennedy.

The lounge chair/ottoman combination, for example, sold originally for about $600. Today, the price is around $3,600, and Miller easily sells a hundred or more a month.

But there's more to it than a gush of well-heeled, middle-aged nostalgia.

"The coolest thing about the Eames stuff is that you see the philosophy of the designers in the work,".says Ben Zelle, a television commercial-art director in Los Angeles who owns several Eames tables, chairs, and other items, and uses Eames furniture to decorate sets whenever he can. "It's evident they wanted people to have fun with their home furnishings.... You appreciate the integrity.... You sit down and thank them. It's such a rare thing. These people went to such great lengths to make sure their stuff would last."

As thousands who attended the recent Eames exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art learned, the couple's accomplishments extended far beyond cheerful and comfy things to sit on.

Charles Eames (1907-1978) trained as an architect in his native St. Louis. As a 30-something instructor of design at Michigan's prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art, he met and, in 1941, married Bernice Alexandra (Ray) Kaiser (1912-1988). A Cranbrook student, she was already a talented painter and a former pupil of the legendary abstract expressionist Hans Hoffman.

A shared love of modern design, an intense desire to humanize it, and especially the need to go beyond the tight, European-influenced boundaries of their respective fields brought them to Los Angeles. There, says Craig Hodgetts, a Culver City, Calif., architect and the designer (with his wife and partner, Hsian-Ming Fung) of the Eames exhibition, they were free to "invent themselves."

Arriving just as the American war effort was gearing up, the Eameses' first project was a lightweight, molded plywood leg splint for the US Navy. (Surviving examples are displayed by collectors as fine sculpture.) Later they turned their attention to molded plywood aircraft parts.

By the time the United States emerged from World War II, they had established the Office of Charles and Ray Eames, which for four decades would become home to a steady stream of some of the nation's cleverest designers and craftspersons.

The Eameses believed that quality and integrity would always have appeal. Also that Americans, who had suffered the privations of the Great Depression and the sacrifices of a global war, deserved not only the best design, but the affordable prices made possible by the nation's vast manufacturing and distribution systems.

The Eameses turned their hands to anything that interested them - and almost everything did - architecture, textiles, toys, furniture, still photography, motion pictures, fabric design, graphics, slide and multimedia presentations, industrial exhibition (which they refined and perfected for clients like IBM and the Polaroid Corp.).

"Today," says Mr. Hodgetts, "you're not considered radical if you work in graphics, architecture, industrial presentation, and so on, but at that time, they were the only people on earth with that overarching view of design."

And Charles, he notes - though the firm's philosopher-spokesman and the more publicly visible of the two - was always quick to remind anyone that Ray played a full and equal part in the their activities and success.

Their careers, Hodgetts says, paved the way for workplace gender equality and future husband-and-wife design teams like his own.

He believes the Eames Office's work environment - part cutting-edge design studio, part playpen - prefigured the recognition by every Silicon Valley firm with a basketball hoop in its conference room that play unleashes creativity.

Ingenuity, too, the Eames Office had in abundance. If they didn't have the tool they needed, they made it - from the "Kazam" machine of their early plywood-molding experiments (which used an inner tube inflated by a bicycle pump to force the wood against a heated plaster mold) to the first computer-controlled camera in Hollywood.

Simplicity was also an Eames watchword.

"It appears to be something anybody could do," says Patricia Belton-Oliver, chair of the environmental design department of Pasadena's Art Center College of Design. "But it's not true. It took a lot to get to that simple state. They did exhaustive tests and research."

Like the original Volkswagen Beetle, adds Hodgetts, Eames designs weren't lesser pieces of engineering because they were created for the mass market.

"What's left out [of Eames designs]," he notes, "is just as [crucial]: the pomposity, hierarchy, stodginess associated with 'important' stuff."

Then there is the matter of personal style. Charles Eames didn't think much of it, and Eames Office pieces don't fit into a tight, stylistic niche.

According to his grandson Eames Demetrios, the director of the current Eames Office, he once told a group of designers, "The extent to which you have a personal design style is the extent to which you have not solved the design problem."

Instead, Charles Eames believed the solution to any design problem would be found where the needs of the client, society, and the designer intersected.

Neither did he recognize compromise.

Instead, the Eameses preferred the term "constraint," and considered such seeming limitations as production costs a stimulus to help focus and clarify their work.

Their home overlooking the Pacific Ocean, which Charles designed as part of the Case Study project of the late 1940s and early 1950s, is a classic example of this kind of thinking. To keep costs as low as possible, the house was planned from the outset to be built using inexpensive off-the-shelf industrial materials.

The result, says Hodgetts, was an influential classic of modern architecture and interior design. And the house's architectural "design vocabulary" is reflected in such monumental projects as France's Pompidou Center.

The Eameses' lifestyle was consistent with their design philosophy, say Demetrios and others, and they took delight in the richness and humor to be found in the simplest of things.

As one patron of the L.A. exhibit was overheard to remark, "How can you look at anything they did and not smile?"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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