By GAIL FINEBERG
Entering the Jefferson Building's second-floor Northwest Gallery, one can imagine stepping into the Eames Office, 901 Washington Blvd., Venice, Calif., some 50 years ago. One can practically sniff the woodsy scent of fresh plywood or the acrid odor of torched metal, hot plastic or fiberglass.
And that is just what more than 700 guests did to mark the opening of the "Work of Charles and Ray Eames" exhibition on the evening of May 19. They stepped from the splendor of the Great Hall into a modern museum exhibition devoted to the husband-and-wife design team of Charles and Ray Eames.
Assembling the show inside the Jefferson Building "was like installing this exhibition inside a Faberge egg," commented Charles Eames's daughter, Lucia.
After World War II, the Eameses designed houses, furnishings and toys that could be inexpensively mass-produced, that were affordable and durable yet beautiful, and that met 20th century demands for informal, flexible living. Later, pairing with government and corporate clients, they focused on communications systems -- exhibitions, books and films -- that embodied the nation's postindustrial shift to an information-based economy.
The exhibition includes prototypes of furnishings the Eameses designed during the 1940s and '50s as well as drawings, photos, films, miniature models and other materials. Donald Albrecht, the exhibition's director and editor of the show's companion catalog, said the purpose of this traveling exhibition, with seven venues in Europe and the United States, is to show not only the Eameses' creativity but also their importance as entrepreneurs.
"They believed the purpose of design was to improve the quality of everyday lives ... by making a comfortable chair, by creating beautiful buildings and houses, by helping people understand the world around them and their culture," he said.
This exhibition was produced as a collaborative effort of the Library and the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, where the show had its premiere before traveling to Kolding, Denmark, London, and on to Washington, D.C. The Vitra Design Museum contributed the original furniture prototypes and other products the Eameses invented. The Eames family added several items dealing with the Eameses' personal lives, and the Library contributed more than 500 items from its Eames archives. On view only at the Library are Library holdings relating to two Eames projects -- exhibition designs for the American Revolution Bicentennial in 1976 and an IBM exhibition explaining the computer for the 1964 New York World's Fair.
The challenge to exhibition designers Hsin-Ming Fung and Craig Hodgetts of the California firm Hodgetts+Fung Design Associates, was to create an exhibition showcase that not only could travel from city to city but one that told the story of the Eameses and their impact on 20th century America. "The thing we were trying to do was to capture the spirit of the Eameses. They worked in all media. Whether they were creating furniture or a film, everything weaves together," Ms. Fung said.
Eames Demetrios, the Eameses' grandson and now head of the Eames Office, reconstructed slide, film and video productions for the Library exhibition. Several of their educational films have taught science and mathematical concepts to generations of American schoolchildren and exhibition visitors. For example, the Eameses created images with photographs and paintings to show the exponential progression in the film "Powers of Ten," which runs at the back of the pavilion near an exhibit of images used to make the film.
Demonstrating ascending powers of 10, one sequence opens with a close-up shot of a couple on a picnic blanket, followed by frames portraying ever greater distances from the subject -- from far above the subject, above Chicago, above Lake Michigan, above the Earth, beyond the galaxy and out into space. To demonstrate descending powers of 10, image sequences begin with a close-up of a man's hand and progress to ever smaller particles within cells and molecules.
Though their products have appeared in upscale showrooms, museums, and galleries throughout the world, anyone who has waited for a plane at Dulles International Airport has sat on an Eames chair. Those who attended school in classrooms furnished during the 1950s and '60s may well have written essays on plywood desktops designed by the Eameses, or squirmed in molded aqua blue or coral fiberglass seats of their creation. An office executive who has leaned back in a molded plywood chair padded with black leather may well have relaxed in a form created by the Eameses.
C. Ford Peatross, curator of the Library's architecture, design and engineering collections in the Prints and Photographs Division, noted that the Eames Office was "incredibly successful in making solutions to problems." He said the Eameses found joy in everyday objects, which they celebrated in visual creations. "They harnessed the child in us; they knew how to keep the child in us alive."
Ms. Fineberg is editor of the Library's staff newspaper, The Gazette.