Eames exhibition at Barbican: design superstars Charles and Ray Eames are celebrated at new exhibition

Think of a chair that epitomises design sophistication and it is likely to be the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman designed in 1956 by Charles and Ray Eames.
The husband-and-wife team are more famous now than when they were alive, their work the ultimate examples of mid-century style. But Catherine Ince, curator of a retrospective show at the Barbican, says there is more to the Eameses than interior design.
 
“A mid-century lifestyle choice is not what they were,” she says. “Their pioneering and influential work was about much more. It covered not only furniture, product design, architecture, exhibition and interior design, but graphics, photography, film, multi-media installations, new models of education and a whole way of seeing the world.”
 
Ince has spent much of the past three years studying archives that cover 750,000 photographs, drawings and papers, including personal and business correspondence. The search revealed the way the couple thought about design, expressed in the pithy maxims they so loved — “to provide the best for most, for the least”, resulting in “way-it-should-be-ness”.
 
Take a tour of some of Eames most iconic designs:


Ince says: “Their approach was about satisfying the needs of the user. They aimed to produce designs that were better to use, which took account of spiritual and emotional needs.
 
“For them, design was the expression of an objective and a process of action — a problem to be solved by applying a curious intellect and engaging with the surrounding technologies and social conditions.”
 
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Design pioneers: the couple, who met at Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1940, select slides for a project
 
Charles trained as an architect and Ray as an artist. They met at Cranbook Academy of Art in Detroit in 1940, married in 1941 and moved to Ray’s native California.
 
Charles collaborated with Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen on a chair for the Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition held by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. This led to Ray and Charles developing the use of laminated ply, firstly to make an aircraft nose cone, then to make new lightweight splints for the military and ultimately a ply-laminated chair in 1946 — all are on show at the Barbican.
 
They were invited in 1948 to enter the MoMA Low-Cost Furniture Competition. Their design, La Chaise — inspired by Gaston Lachaise’s 1927 sculpture Reclining Nude and nicknamed after the artist — was rejected by judges because it was considered too “specialised in use” and too expensive to make. However, they admired its “striking, good-looking and inventive” moulded construction. La Chaise finally went into production in 1950 and is now one of the couple’s signature works.
 
In 1945, the pair began designing Case Study House No 8 — now the Eames House — on a wooded bluff overlooking the Pacific in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles. Construction began in 1948. Made of prefabricated panels and glass, the couple lived there and entertained many leading contemporary designers, architects and film-makers. It became a place of pilgrimage for generations of architects and design enthusiasts and is still influencing ideas of modern living nearly 70 years on.
 
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Box of delights: the Eames House in Los Angeles, where the couple lived until their deaths, has become a place of pilgrimage for architects and design enthusiasts

The Eameses, led by Ray, created a dynamic theatre of household objects curated with the utmost care, regularly changing them and their locations as a backdrop to family life.
 
They were influenced by their appreciation of other cultures and simple objects they found in everyday use in places such as Mexico and India. They afforded equal importance to folk objects, pieces of the natural world — such as pebbles or dried seed heads — their own radical new furniture designs and Ray’s colourful fabrics. This attention to detail included the carefully planned table settings for their “informal” entertaining.
 
In 1943, they set up their design practice, the Eames Office. Their furniture designs were manufactured by Herman Miller, for whom they developed the fibreglass chair — the first one-shell moulded chair — in 1949, followed by other enduring designs such as the aforementioned Lounge Chair and Ottoman in moulded ply and leather, and the Aluminium Group (1958).
 
Their furniture took centre stage in a number of mould-breaking exhibitions. Their iconic room set, For Modern Living, featured in a show in Detroit and included objects from their own home — this has been recreated for the Barbican retrospective.
 
The couple designed numerous exhibitions for IBM, including its pavilion at the New York World’s Fair (1964-5). For the American government, they created Glimpses of the USA (1959) in Moscow, while Indira Gandhi commissioned them for the 1965 exhibition, Nehru: His Life and his India.
 
A major element of their work was both their photography and their films. They carefully photographed all kinds of seemingly mundane objects in detail. They developed the idea of the multi-screen, producing 125 short films of incredible beauty and diversity such as Powers of Ten, which depicts the relative scale of the universe.
 
“Communication of ideas was central to everything they did — a transition from object to idea, a journey of perpetual discovery,” says Ince.
 
To most people, the Eameses’ films, photography and educational ideas are far less well-known than their furniture, but the exhibition will provide a crash course not only in the proactive view of designing, but also in the visual world of the couple who lived by the mantra: “Look at things as though for the first time.”
 
  • The World of Charles & Ray Eames, Barbican Art Gallery, EC1, starts on October 21 and runs until February 14. Tickets: £14.50 (adults); £12 (OAPs and unemployed); £10 (students); £8 (ages 14-17); £5 (Young Barbican members); free to under-14s (excludes tickets bought online).

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