By CRAIG D'OOGE
A major exhibition of the work of American designers Charles and Ray Eames opens at the Library of Congress on May 20 with a "Kazam!" View the exhibition online.
That's the name the husband-and-wife design team gave to an apparatus they built out of scrap wood and a bicycle pump to mold plywood into chairs. The "Kazam!" machine will sit outside the entrance to the exhibition "The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention" in the Library's Great Hall, a fitting symbol for the spirit of playful innovation that infused the Eameses' life and work.
Charles (1907-1978) and Ray (1912-1988) Eames had a profound influence on design in the latter half of the 20th century, both in the United States and throughout the world. Taking as their motto "the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least," they are perhaps best known for the form-fitting chairs that were produced in the 1940s and 1950s using the mass production techniques they invented. But they also designed and created buildings, toys, films, multimedia presentations, exhibits and books, including more than 50 projects for their major client, IBM, such as the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 New York World's Fair.
The Eameses' influence on American style and taste is so profound as to be almost indiscernible. But every time we pick up a Pottery Barn catalog, snap together a shelf from Ikea, or spread out a rug from Pier 1, Charles and Ray Eames are not far away. In part, this is because of their design philosophy, which was founded on finding lasting solutions to fundamental needs, but also because they worked closely with large corporate and government entities to expose their design solutions to as many people as possible. The Library's exhibition, organized in partnership with the Vitra Design Museum, in Weil am Rhein, Germany, is the first posthumous retrospective of their work. The Library acquired the contents of the Eames Office in Los Angeles in 1988, shortly after Ray died.
More than 500 items have been selected for the exhibition. The materials come primarily from three sources: photographs, drawings and documents from the Library's collection of more than 1 million items donated by Ray; furniture from the collections of the Vitra Design Museum and many personal items on temporary loan from Lucia Eames, daughter of Charles, and from the Eames Office, which continues to function today under the direction of their grandson, Eames Demetrios.
The design of the exhibition by Hodgetts + Fung Design Associates can only be described as "Eamesian": light, modular panels with exposed structural elements, accented with bright blocks of color and a profusion of objects, images and audiovisual displays that playfully undercut conventional notions of scale, harmony and linear exposition. After all, the Eameses were the people who created one of the first multiscreen films: "Glimpses of the U.S.A.," a seven-screen extravaganza commissioned by the U.S. Information Agency in 1959 for an exhibition in Moscow. The innovative work practically buried Russian audiences under some 2,200 images of a day in the life of the United States, both in slide and film. Russians lined up for blocks to get in and reportedly left in tears after seeing the sheer scope of what capitalism provided. For the Library's exhibition, "Glimpses" has been adapted to an array of seven television monitors.
The exhibition is organized into five sections -- "Furniture," "Space," "Beauty," "Culture" and "Science," with a sixth section devoted to the personal stories of Charles and Ray Eames -- and it integrates artifacts, photographs, films and video interviews in a comprehensive examination of the design team's intellectual foundations and creative evolution.
Charles and Ray Eames witnessed firsthand many of the momentous events of the 20th century, such as the Depression and World War II. Their lives and work encompassed some of the country's defining social movements: the emerging importance of America's West Coast, the rise of corporate and industrial America and the global expansion of American culture. Providing the basic human needs of shelter, comfort and knowledge was at the core of the Eameses' philosophy of design. As noted by Donald Albrecht, the exhibition's director and catalog editor, the Eameses were partners with the federal government and the country's top businesses in a rare era when they all shared the same objectives in leading the charge to modernize postwar America.
To understand the processes that led to the Eameses' achievements, the exhibition focuses on the challenges that were posed to them by clients such as Herman Miller Inc., IBM, Westinghouse, Boeing and Polaroid, as well as problems they posed to themselves, such as how to produce affordable, high-quality furniture; how to build economical, well-designed space for living and working; how to help people see beauty in the everyday; how to help Americans and other cultures understand each other; and how to make fundamental scientific principles accessible to the public.
The section of the exhibition devoted to "Furniture" features prototypes, experiments and promotional graphics, as well as examples of the four types of chairs that the Eameses designed for Herman Miller: molded plywood, fiberglass-reinforced plastic, bent and welded-wire mesh and cast aluminum. This section also includes advertisements, comics and other ephemera that trace the visual history of the chairs as they echoed through popular culture, from Dick Tracy to ads for detergent. A 6-foot-high wooden drum sits in the middle of the exhibition. It was used in the landmark exhibit "New Furniture Designed by Charles Eames" at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946 to dramatize the durability of one of the Eameses' plywood chairs. It is an extremely simple, but powerful demonstration: as the drum rotates, the chair within tumbles endlessly.
The "Space" section examines the Eameses' contribution to America's postwar need for mass-produced housing, including their own steel-and-glass home in Los Angeles and the office they created in a converted garage. The steel frame house was assembled on the site in 1949 out of industrial components, in answer to a challenge for affordable "case study" housing ideas posed by a magazine. A 7-foot-long model of the house, a filmed walk-through and decorative objects collected by the Eameses during their world travels are featured in the exhibition.
The Eameses' ability to recognize beauty in the everyday stands out in the section titled "Beauty." Here the Eameses' films are shown, as well as Ray's sculptures. The film "Blacktop" will be projected on the floor: nothing more than soapsuds on asphalt, but Charles added the music of Bach, creating a poetic effect.
Ray also was a master at transforming the ordinary, as witnessed by the elegant sculptures she fashioned that were inspired by the undulating curves of a leg splint that the couple manufactured for the Navy. A large light table is strewn with hundreds of slides of abstract images, only a small sample of the thousands the Eameses took to provide themselves with visual stimulation. Visitors are invited to pull out drawers that contain samples of Ray's "collections": ornaments, old paint tubes, dolls, fabric samples, whatever caught her fancy and provided inspiration.
The "Culture" section features "Glimpses of the U.S.A." as well as images and objects collected during their travels, especially in India and Mexico. The Eames eye picked out objects they encountered that exemplified fundamental principles of design, such as the traditional Indian water jug, the lota, in which they recognized the culmination of a set of complex factors that form all good design solutions.
"Science" focuses on the films on various subjects that they produced. The films are screened within a small theater constructed in the Northwest Pavilion of the Jefferson Building and furnished with the chairs they designed for Washington Dulles Airport, among other places. The production panels that were laboriously created by hand for their famous film "Powers of Ten" encircle the theater, with the film itself projected on a screen overhead. Research notes, correspondence, animation cells and other production materials document the extensive creative process that lies behind this simple, basic demonstration of the concept of scale.
In addition to the films, the exhibition also will feature video oral histories with friends, family and colleagues, all of whom informed or benefited from their vision. The media components are produced by Eames Demetrios, Charles's grandson, who currently heads the Eames Office.
Funding for the exhibition was provided by IBM, Herman Miller Inc. and Vitra AG. Additional support was provided by CCI Inc. and the Eames Office, which also contributed ideas, expertise and creativity. The Library's installation was made possible by additional support from Herman Miller Inc.
The accompanying catalog, published in English by Harry N. Abrams, N.Y., and in German by Ernst & Sohn, Berlin, has won four awards, including one from the Society of Architectural Historians. Essays were contributed by Donald Albrecht, Beatriz Colomina, Joseph Giovannini, Alan Lightman, Helene Lipstadt and Philip and Phylis Morrison. Responsibility for concept development of the exhibition was shared by Donald Albrecht and Hodgetts + Fung Design Associates, in collaboration with the organizing institutions. For the Library Congress, the exhibition was developed by the Interpretive Programs Office, headed by Irene Chambers, with Giulia Adelfio as exhibit coordinator. After the exhibition opens, an electronic version will be available on the Library's Web site. The exhibit closes on Sept. 4, after which it will travel to the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in New York (Oct. 12, 1999 - Jan. 9, 2000), the St. Louis Art Museum (Feb. 9 - May 14, 2000) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (June 25 - Sept. 11, 2000). It has already been to Germany, Denmark and London.
Mr. D'Ooge is media director in the Public Affairs Office.