The world of Charles and Ray Eames

Barbican 21 October 2015 - 14 February 2016 [caption id="attachment_3031" align="alignleft" width="600"]

Ray and Charles Eames examining the sling locations to be covered by fabric lapping in a prototype of the Aluminum Group Lounge Chair, 1957, as seen in Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey‚Äôs documentary EAMES: The Architect and the Painter. ¬© 2011 Eames Office, LLC.[/caption]   There are two problems with any exhibition about Charles and Ray Eames. One is that it relies on sponsorship from the two licensed makers of their furniture; Herman Miller and Vitra. The other that it relies on the cooperation of their descendants to access exhibits, making any exhibition highly sanitised. The exhibition at the Barbican doesn’t suffer from the first problem – there are no logos or branding - but it does suffer from the second problem in that anything that falls outside the narrative of the golden couple is left out. We learn that Charles practiced as an architect during the 1930s and 1940s before he met Ray, yet there is no information about what he built or images of what it looked like. Charles met Alexandra "Ray" Kaiser at Cranbrook while he was a teacher and she was a student; she assisted him and Eero Saarinen with the Organic Design in Home Furnishings exhibition at MoMA in 1940. Charles was already married, yet his first wife Catherine Woermann and their daughter Lucia Jenkins are both written out of the story. Towards the end of their lives, Charles and Ray’s relationship was not good, and when Charles died in 1978 she was not by his side. Having said that, she famously died to the day ten years later and was buried next to him. But her solo work for the last ten years of her life is not covered in the exhibition.

This blockbuster exhibition shows the power of Eames as a brand, which is still incredibly strong considering that they are chiefly remembered as furniture designers, not the most usual profession leading to mainstream stardom. The Eames’s were extraordinary talented in building the image of the perfect designer couple, an image the USA was happy to use during the Cold War to show the world what a modern, capitalist superpower could achieve. Charles Eames even has a star in the St. Louis Walk of Fame next to Chuck Berry and Charles Lindbergh.

The best part of the extensive exhibition is to experience the sheer width of their creative output, where furniture design was only one part. The Eames’s made short films, exhibition stands, graphic design, audio products, toys, interior architecture and textiles, even if the latter is not covered much. IBM was a major customer for many years. Some great plywood objects are on display, both furniture, art works and airplane parts. During the war, Los Angeles was home to major airplane manufacturers such as Douglas, Lockheed and Vultee. Charles and Ray constructed a variety of moulded plywood aircraft parts for the US Navy. They took advice on plywood manufacturing from Alvar Aalto during his stay in the USA in the 1940s, and they developed plywood splints for US soldiers, which were manufactured in very large numbers. One of the most interesting works shown is a travelling remembrance exhibition about Jawaharlal Nehru that was commissioned by his daughter Indira Gandhi in 1964, shortly after his assassination. The Eames’s had met Nehru when they travelled in India in 1957 for a study of Indian design commissioned by the Nehru government. On the basis of their report, India founded the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad in 1961. The exhibition is certainly a must-see, but it seems more time will need to pass before we get to experience the full story of Charles and Ray Eames, including their lives before and after they lived and worked together.

by Magnus Englund Co-founder of Skandium Trustee of Isokon Gallery Trust