|In February of 2010, Smart Furniture hosted the Gifted Eye of Charles Eames - an event celebrating the work and legacy of Charles and Ray Eames. Presenting the event was Eames Demetrios, the grandson of Charles and Ray Eames and the Director of the Eames Office. The exhibit featured photography taken by Charles throughout his life, but more importantly, educated design enthusiasts about the Eames' unique approach to design that has had a lasting impact on how we approach areas including art, manufacturing, and the creative process in general.
Karen Liwanpo, the Creative Director at Smart Furniture, got the chance to sit down and chat with Eames about his current work and his experiences with his grandparents.
Karen: What do you remember of Charles and Ray?
Eames: Charles and Ray were my grandparents and they were really wonderful grandparents to spend time with. We would visit their house. Of course, the Eames house is a landmark of modern architecture, but for us it was just our grandparents’ house. It had a great connection with the landscape and we would go out in the meadow and photograph spider webs and run around and do all sorts of cool stuff. It was also an adventure visiting their office because of the beautiful projects they were working on and there was also something cool going on. They loved toys, which is a nice feature in grandparents. They brought one of the first super balls to our house and my brother actually broke the third-story window almost immediately, which Charles thought was a great proof of concept. My mom was not nearly as thrilled. We spent a lot of time with them and they were great to be with.
Karen: Charles and Ray worked in many mediums with several different corporate and academic partners, but their furniture, along with certain films like Powers of Ten, seems to be where they made the most impact. Why do you think that is?
Eames: Well, I think for Charles and Ray, they always had a very holistic vision of design and, with all of these different areas they explored, they never felt like they were straying from their original intent. There was always this vision and way of looking at the world. It just seems logical that some would be more widely known than others. I think the furniture world was the one where people first encountered them, generally, because it really changed the whole game of furniture. They were the first to mold plywood into compound curves, the first to use plastic – all these things that we totally take for granted. I think what is actually more amazing is that, when you think about all the designers, architects or creators, there are not that many who made such amazing impacts in so many different media. Like you said, Powers of Ten is one of the most famous films anywhere in the world. So many people have seen it. With furniture, as somebody said, Charles and Ray changed the way the world sat down. But, they also did an exhibition, Mathmatica, which is still sort of the high-water mark of a certain kind of interactive exhibition design. They did a toy, the House of Cards, which is still in production after 50 years, same with their graphics. Also, their contribution to architecture with the Eames House. I mean to make major impacts in so many different fields is pretty amazing. It was just that, in the furniture, I think that they developed a lot of hands-on experience and they were able to keep on diving into that issue again and again.
Karen: Charles and Ray often talked about the guest/host relationship in design and how a piece that accommodated both would be ideal. Was that the secret to their furniture?
Eames: I think that in everything they did, this idea of the guest/host relationship (that term comes from something that Charles said, which is that the role of the designer is essentially that of a good host anticipating the needs of the guest.) So, what they were trying to do was really think about the work that they did as much as possible from the standpoint of the person who was going to use it. I think, therefore that guest/host relationship is a big idea – it's the comfort of it, it’s the look of it, it's the price of it, it’s the value of it, it’s how long it lasts. It's all these different things. So, when you design with that sort of as your universal precept that is going to mean that you will stay in line with the customer for a pretty long time. I think that is why it is so successful. They understood ideas like "less is more" and "form follows function" and all these kinds of things, but the guest/host relationship actually puts the person at the center of all of it. I think this is one of the reasons their work is so successful cross-culturally. I mean it sells around the world, in western cultures, non-western cultures, and all sorts of different places, because there is this sort of deep connection. I mean, there is no culture in the world that doesn’t have an idea of the host being responsible for the guest.
Karen: What is your interpretation of the Banana Leaf Parable that Charles told in his lectures at Harvard?
Eames: I think we should explain that the Banana Leaf Parable is that when they were working on the India report, they encountered this phenomenon, which is that really poor people in India would eat off of a banana leaf. It was least expensive, they were completely simple. The person who was a little wealthier would eat of a clay thing called a thali, and then there were bronze thalis, and silver, and, as Charles would say, probably some lunatic who made a gold thali. He said that the people who were very wealthy, but not just wealthy, but were sophisticated and had a certain amount of wisdom, they went to the next step and ate off of the banana leaf. So there is a kind of cycle in that, obviously, and a continuity. I think the big idea there for us today is that I think that a lot of what is going on with sustainability, is to go back to these simple, but completely satisfactory solutions. I think you see it in the way people are organizing their lives and I think it is happening in furniture and design and everywhere. I think a lot of the sustainability movement, some of it is a lot of sophistication when it comes to materials, but also sometimes it is really just going back to wood as a solution, or ceramics, or whatever.
Karen: If you could distill the Eames legacy into one idea, one concept, what do you think it would be?
Eames: If you wanted to put one umbrella idea around it, I think it is really that they had this willingness to surrender to the design journey and to let that guide what they did, both in business and in work and the work that they created. I think it is this deep understanding of design. I mean in this day and age people use the words design and style kind of synonymously, and actually design, as Charles and Ray practiced it, was a much deeper and bigger idea. I think that is a common thread in everything they did.
Karen: I would like to ask you a little bit about Eames office. Tell me about the modern Eames office. Is it much different from the office of Charles and Ray Eames and what do you think it means today?
Eames: In the Eames office today, our mission statement is "Communicating, preserving, and extending the work of Charles and Ray Eames." So you could say that, since when Charles and Ray were running it that is what they were doing, things haven’t changed. What has changed is that we are really focused on Charles and Ray’s work and the ideas there and extending them and helping people see the big concepts behind their work. We don’t do that much, you might say, new work. We don’t take on clients in that sense that much. We have done some exhibitions. Most of our new work is in the area of education and trying to use Charles and Ray's work to do that. We made a decision as a family, even though there are a lot of creative people in our family, that we care so much about authenticity and really communicating to people what it means to have an authentic Eames chair or authentic Eames product, and it would only confuse things if we started doing our own work through the office. So we all do our own thing and we all kind of come together to make sure that the Eames office expresses what Charles and Ray were about in a beautiful way. One example is that this year is 2010 and on 10/10/10, we will have a Powers of Ten day which is going to be, on one level, really simple, but I think in another way very rich and robust. We want people to watch Powers of Ten and help them get an understanding of scale in whatever way they can and then there are other activities we can suggest for people who really want to go on. You know, they can do little exhibits; they can do activities with the community. I think it is going to be really fun. So, there is something where the core idea came from the Eames film, Powers of Ten, but a lot of the educational precepts that we will be using around it are ones that we have developed recently.
Karen: Do you have any major projects going on right now?
Eames: At the Eames office, our biggest projects right now are getting ready for Powers of Ten day. We are doing a big exhibition in our own gallery/showroom space about Powers of Ten. We are working with a number of different partners to make a really rich experience, of which I can't go into the details, but there are going to be some web aspects that I think will be really great and will use the Powers of Ten to help underscore ideas around sustainability. We are also working on restoring some of the Eames films. Also, in about a month, we are going to come out with an Eames font, based on some of their ideas and their work. There is a book we are working on right now, which is the Norton Lectures that Charles gave a Harvard, which had some really beautiful ideas and are a really great summary of what they were about. So these are the kind of projects we are working on.
Karen: And tell me about your personal projects.
Eames: My personal project is that, in the other part of my life, you might say, I do a lot of film-making. I am doing a film that has to do with the home that Garcia Lorca, the great Spanish poet and playwright, lived in. I have an alternative universe project that I will be talking about here in Chattanooga tomorrow at Rock Point Books, which is a global work of three-dimensional storytelling. So, the idea is that it is basically like a novel with every page in a different place. It kind of gives you a very reorienting way to look at the world and it is a lot of fun, too.
Karen: Smart Furniture thinks customer interaction is key. For instance, our Smart Designer tool allows users to customize their chairs online before they buy. How is the Eames office reaching out to a high-tech world?
Eames: In terms of the high-tech world, again, most of our work is in the education arena. Like I said, for the Powers of Ten Day, one of the features I can mention is that we encourage people around the world to draw things and take pictures of things that relate to the Powers of Ten in a certain way. Then, what we will do is create a whole system of things on Flickr and things like that to let people tag in and have it all displayed on the Powers of Ten site. So it will be like this global gallery exploring scale. We have done a little bit with some of the social networking things. This has been a little more help actually with the Eames Foundation, which is a related, but different entity which takes care of the Eames House. We are also trying to use some of those new technologies to help us really preserve the Eames house for as long as possible. What is kind of neat is that we don't really worry that much about updating for its own sake. We just feel like the ideas are so strong that we are always seeking new and more wonderful ways to manifest them. So, what is interesting is that you take an idea like Powers of Ten and then you look at Google Earth and it is clearly and admittedly inspired by Powers of Ten. So it is really more about getting these ideas out there, some in ways that we are fully responsible for and some in ways that we just provide inspiration to make the world better. One project they worked on was a solar do-nothing machine. So, that is something we are looking into in connection with the whole renewed interest in solar energy.
Karen: Tell us about this exhibition.
Eames: The exhibition that is here and installed at Smart Furniture, and very well installed I might add, is an exhibition of 100 photos that were selected by me, actually, from our collection. It kind of goes along with your first question, which sort of led to a conversation about the holistic vision of design that Charles and Ray had. So, when most people think of the Eames work, they think furniture and then maybe Powers of Ten or House of Cards or the Eames House. But, there are actually so many other things that they did that were all products of how they approached the world and one of them was photography. When Ray died, we donated 850,000 photographs to the Library of Congress. That is 5 percent of the prints and photographs division of that collection, which is the largest in the world. And so, photography was obviously important to them, and yet when people see the Eames photography, it is almost always in the context of wanting a picture of a lounge chair because you are trying to illustrate this aspect of Charles and Ray's work. It is not so much to look at the picture itself. So, we thought it was time to change that, so we did this portfolio. There are some furniture shots and there are some shots of the Eames house, but there are some other ones besides. There are 100 fantastic photos, but we didn’t even go into it with an idea of these are the best or these are the most important ones. It was more a thought of "let’s take a look at this work and make it a collection of photographs that work well together." When you guys took on the exhibit, we actually went out of our way not to tell you which order to hang them in, because I think what is nice is that it has been all around the world and each curator or community or whatever has put together their own way to relate the images and each one is different. It has been very nice that way.
Karen: What do you want the current Eames office to be known for years from now?
Eames: I would like the Eames office of today to be known for helping people see the big ideas behind the work and to see that there are certain things that have to be protected, like the authenticity of the designs, but there are other things like certain big ideas that are so current that we really hope they provide inspiration. I want people to think we did a good job of getting those big ideas out into the world.
Karen: The Eames Lounge Chair, available now from Smart Furniture, has been described as iconic, of course. Why do you think the chair has become so popular and so important to modern design?
Eames: It is funny that the Eames Lounge Chair is the chair that a lot of people think of when they think of Eames furniture. In some ways, it is a bit anomalous. It is not even a system of furniture, really. Even like with the molded plywood chairs, there is a group of them. With the plastic chairs, there is a group. But this chair was just kind of a singular expression. First of all, there is the part where all the elements come together in just the right way at just the right time. But I think, beyond that, if you think about Charles and Ray and the guest/host relationship, the Eames Lounge Chair is one of the more extreme examples of the guest/host relationship. I think that one of the challenges for that chair is that it took about two years to design; to the point that Herman Miller wasn’t even sure that there would be an Eames Lounge Chair. One of the challenges for that chair was that one of their important design precepts was the concept of constraints and that constraints actually liberate you to find the right design. With of their other designs, there was a constraint of price, like with the plastic chairs which are still very much a low-cost solution, and there were constraints of the wood or material. With the lounge chair, they were trying to make the modern version of the Old English club chair. Ray once said that their intention was this, "One hand fits into the other," which is sort of the way you sit in it, but also the way the leather and the wood work together. Also, they knew it would probably be an expensive chair. So, in some ways there were so many constraints to remove that they really had to focus hard on getting to the essence of what comfort was about. Like I said, it took two years for the office to make that chair. But, I think that when they did, by really focusing on the only constraint being comfort they actually delivered. Actually, when it came out, it was so unclear that there was going to be a market for it, that the first 250 were hand assembled because they didn’t want to necessarily go through all the different tooling that you might normally have. They are still hand assembled, but there are certain kinds of tooling that they didn’t even make that they had to craft each piece and, of course, it took off immediately.
Karen: And the molded plywood that is used in the chair has quite a history, doesn’t it?
Eames: Yes, the molded plywood was part of this whole journey that began with the Kleinhans chair and then the Organic chair that Charles did with Eero Saarinen before he met Ray. Then he met Ray, and they continued those experiments out in California. Although, interestingly, the molded plywood that is in the Lounge Chair is only a two-dimensional curve. It is not a three-dimensional curve like the LCW and the DCM.
Karen: Your grandfather said the chair was inspired by an old catcher’s mitt he had when he was a kid. How do you think the Lounge Chair translates that idea?
Eames: Well, I think the Lounge Chair doesn’t really look exactly the way it should until you own it for a year, because you have to kind of beat up the leather and punch down the cushions and all of that. It has always been that way. I think that that well-used catcher's mitt feeling comes across there. They believed that when something was really well-designed, the idea of it being designed shouldn’t come up at all. You know, they called it "way it should be-ness." I think that old catcher’s mitt has that "way it should be-ness" feeling.
Karen: Smart Furniture is offering several pieces built and designed by your grandparents. Is there one that stands out to you as unique or particularly special?
Eames: At different times, different chairs are my favorites. Since I am sitting in this one, the aluminum group, I'll say one of the things that is really great about this chair is that you could only design it if you knew how you were going to make it, which when you think about it is sort of an unusual thing. I mean, when you think about even like the Eames plastic chair, you would sort of know basically you were going to put a base and you were basically going to have a plastic piece to sit in. There is a sort of needing to know how make it in one sense. But, in this one, the way it works is that the metal beams here, the fabric is essentially screwed to that, and then worker has to twist it and thereby provide the tension that you are sitting in. So, you couldn't just say I’m going to make something that has fabric stretched across. They had to know what the worker tomorrow, 30 years after Charles died, exactly what his hands were going to be doing to design this chair, which is pretty cool. It suggests that there is a whole aspect of furniture design that is really about systems and not just objects.
Karen: How does the Lounge Chair measure up to the guest/host test that your grandparents lived by?
Eames: I think it passes with flying colors.
Karen: Talk about the Eames desk. It has become an iconic piece of work and storage furniture. It has a very distinctive look. What inspired your grandparents to build it in the way they did?
Eames: I think they were always interested in systems and the idea that you could make something that, you know, what are the aesthetics that come out of things that you can assemble and prefabricate and things like that. So, even though it has always been shipped fully assembled, there is a part of it that really comes from this prefab kind of attitude, mentality, and approach. They certainly explored that a lot in the design of the Eames House. Not so much that they were imitating the house, but more that they were sort of in this mode of thinking and it seemed logical to apply it to furniture.
Karen: Of course, Smart Furniture is also carrying the legendary Eames Molded Plywood Chair, a chair that is sort of neck-and-neck with the Lounge Chair and Ottoman among enthusiasts. Can you tell us a little of the history behind that chair?
Eames: Well, the cool thing about the molded plywood chairs is that the experiments that they did when they were working on that chair all happened in this little apartment they had in Westwood near where UCLA is. They had this great machine called the Kazam machine, which is where they did the first three-dimensional curves. Charles would actually have to climb a power pole to steal some power because they did have enough. This would sort of heat up the coils and heat the glue and the veneer and all that. He always seemed like he was still nervous when he told us about that, but it was a little petrifying. So then those experiments eventually lead them to try to do the splints. They about 150,000 splints during World War II and those splints taught them a lot about mass production and then they kind of went back to the problem and eventually designed the LCW.
Karen: Thank you for allowing us to interview you. It is an honor to have you here.
Eames: No problem. Glad to be here.