Eames Demetrios recently visited Australia to perform what can only be described as a public service – providing those interested in design with a personal insight into the world of his grandparents, the American mid-century designers, Charles and Ray Eames. Not that this is the first time Demetrios has been to Australia. He is in fact a regular visitor for his own Kcymaerxthaere project and for various events for Herman Miller, the manufacturer of his grandparent’s furniture designs.
This time however, it was in conjunction with the Sydney Film Festival and was a presentation of a small selection of some of the 100 films created by Charles and Ray over their lifetime. The event called ‘Eames on Eames’ featured ten short films from the 50’s through to the 70’s that covered topics as diverse as toy trains to jellyfish. Interspersed with anecdotes and quotes from Demetrios, the films showed a side of the designers that is often overlooked. While they lived in close proximity to Hollywood and were friends with the likes of Billy Wilder and Gregory Peck, the Eames’ avoided much direct involvement in feature films preferring to use the medium to educate and inspire through short films instead.
What you discover by watching these films is that Charles and Ray were a rarity in the design world. They were capable of absorbing a huge variety of influences that went beyond any normal research, devoting their lives to creating design in all its forms – from furniture pieces for Herman Miller (and the European manufacturer, Vitra) to architecture, exhibition and showroom design, graphics along with films on the natural world, cultural events and science.
Large and small projects motivated them equally. What was important was not the scale, the profitability or recognition they may receive but whether they felt there was the prospect of pleasure in solving the problem. As Charles once said, “We work because it’s a chain reaction, each subject leads to the next”. They craved the stimulation of ideas and were constantly pushing the boundaries of not only what was possible in terms of materials and technology but also ways in which the message could be translated most successfully to the end user.
Communication was always the key driver, whether it was how materials conveyed a furniture design’s function or how a film could illustrate a complex concept in the most succinct way. Their film Symmetry (1961) for example, uses an animated cartoon to explain symmetry in terms of boxes, while their well-known ‘Powers of Ten’ film takes a much more visual approach. Both have an uncanny ability to cut through mathematical jargon and difficult concepts to provide the viewer with genuine insight in a very short space of time.
Demetrios, who is one of five grandchildren that form the board of the Eames Foundation, explains Charles and Ray’s approach this way: “They were very careful and considered about things and yet they were always having fun – in the deepest sense of the word. You could see that they valued playing with an idea. I call it ‘surrendering to the journey’ – they probably called it something different but that is what has inspired me the most – this ability to constantly evolve as the project unfolded”.
Beyond the devotion and insatiable curiosity applied to the intellectual aspects thrown up by each project, the Eames’ valued the emotive side of design too. They were avid collectors of art – both contemporary and folk art (Ray was an artist studying under Hans Hofman before she met Charles) and this interest permeated into everything they did. Culture, whether it be American or from any other part of the world was another important aspect of their work and they enthusiastically absorbed it in their travels through the Indian sub-continent, Mexico and Russia.
They collected objects – masks, bowls, fabrics, toys and tools – everywhere they went and as a result amassed a huge collection. In many ways it was this cultural richness that makes their house so completely different from all the other houses in the Case Study Program instigated by Arts & Architecture Magazine (theirs was Case Study House #8). While each house is unique in appearance, they all tended to follow a similar modernist template and make use of newly developed methods and materials. The houses were clean, bright and intensely modern, with plenty of glass, steel and plastic laminate but little in the way of decorative personality. By contrast the Eames House and the Eames Office were stuffed to the gills with collected and found objects including circus paraphernalia, nature specimens and traditional folk arts and crafts. The Eames environment felt full of life and encapsulated a beautiful spirit of exploration and adventure.
When Ray Eames died in August 1988 (ten years to the day after Charles), it was decided to close down the Eames Office at 901 Washington Boulevard, Venice Beach and complete the vast task of cataloguing everything within it. Ray had started the daunting task five years earlier but much still remained unfinished. Demetrios immediately saw the need to document the space before all the objects were shipped off to the various institutions and museums that were to become the recipients of the Eames Studio objects. 750,000 slides and stills were given to the Library of Congress, prototypes to the Vitra Design Museum and The Museum of Modern Art. A lifetime’s work was being spread across the world. Never again would all these pieces reside in the one place. In his evocative film 901: After 45 years of making, Demetrios captures the beauty, and some of strangeness of the Eames Office. It was a creative wonderland.
It’s this interest in a world outside the immediate and obvious that is the basis of Demetrios’ Kcymaerxthaere project. “I’m not sure that this alternative universe that I have created with my Kcymaerxthaere project is going to pan out but on the other hand what does ‘pan out’ actually mean?, says Demetrios. ‘I’ve been doing it for 11 years and have visited 22 countries and placed 99 plaques across these places and had amazing experiences. For some people the term ‘pan out’ might mean to make a lot of money but that’s not what either Charles or Ray were motivated by and neither am I”.
Lucia Eames, the daughter of Charles and Ray and mother of Eames Demetrios died in April of 2014 after spending much of the last 25 years maintaining the Eames House and setting up the Eames Office and Eames Foundation. Through these various organisations the family hope not only to maintain the legacy of Charles and Ray but keep it abreast with the times.
In mid-2013 it was announced that the Plastic Shell Group chairs from 1950 would be reissued (the design had been discontinued by Herman Miller in 1989 for environmental reasons). After four years of research and development into new bio resins and automated production methods, the current Eames Office has achieved the first real milestone in its quest for implementing improvements to the work of Charles and Ray as new materials become available.
The new chairs are being offered in the original colours and while extremely close to the originals in terms of surface texture and shape, Demetrios as the director of the Eames Office was at pains to ensure that the design moved forward. “We are doing a lot of work on bringing back finishes and fabrics to create very authentic Eames products but to be true to Charles and Ray’s spirit, you can’t always just be looking backwards. It’s not just an exercise in historical accuracy. Whether it’s moving materials forward or by utilizing some of Charles and Ray’s educational concepts in new ways. I think in the future we are going to have an exciting and important role in making people reconnect with making. There is a hunger for the real experience whether it’s being involved in extreme sports, visiting farmer’s markets or makers spaces. I’m not quite sure how yet, but I think the Eames Office can bring meaning to how things are made”, says Demetrios.
In addition to working on ensuring the authenticity and improving the environmental credentials of the Eames furniture products, the Eames family is also in the process of creating a detailed guideline on the maintenance of the Eames House to ensure that the best decisions are made in the future.
“When the new incarnation of the Eames Office started out it was mostly me working with my mum”, says Demetrios, “but things have got bigger and bigger and I asked my other siblings to get more involved. We are at a point now where all five brothers and sisters work in some capacity in the Eames Office or with the legacy in some way. My sister Lucia is really focused on the Eames House. We all love it and want it to be maintained properly but she is the main driving force. Currently we are writing the 250 years project – a document that you could pick up and read in 250 years’ time if you were in charge of the Eames House. It’s a great thought experiment but it will eventually also make it easier to do very real things to maintain the house and to clarify its importance in the decades to come”.
What is clear, is that Demetrios and the rest of Charles and Ray’s grandchildren are fully committed to maintaining the Eames legacy in a way that their grandparents would approve of – applying intellectual rigor but also joy.