PRINT February 2016


“The World of Charles and Ray Eames”

Ray Eames, study for “An Exhibition for Modern Living,” 1949, graphite, paper, and photocollage on paper, 8 1/4 × 11 3/4". © Eames Office, LLC.

BEGINNING WITH the acclaimed 1999–2002 traveling exhibition “The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention,” organized by the US Library of Congress in collaboration with the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, the twenty-first century has seen a renewed academic and institutional interest in the Eameses’ work, even as the public’s intellectual curiosity in the couple has only continued to grow. Yet the Barbican Art Gallery’s current retrospective, “The World of Charles and Ray Eames,” curated by Catherine Ince, has still managed to present an unusually rich grouping of firsts: unexpected chair prototypes; a new replica of one of the couple’s more remarkable inventions—a fifteen-foot-tall gravity-powered xylophone titled Musical Tower from the mid-1950s—whereby a small ball strikes a series of colored metal keys as it makes its way down the instrument’s vertical, wood-and-Plexiglas shaft from the second-floor galleries; a personal collection of indigenous masks and cultural artifacts from Mexico and Japan never before exhibited alongside their own work; as well as the first re-creation of a room set designed for the 1949 show “An Exhibition for Modern Living,” held at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The Barbican exhibition showcases the heterogeneous output of this prolific couple, emphasizing that the Eameses were not just designers but also makers and tinkerers of extraordinary range, consummately engaged with visuality, interface, and interaction. Almost all of their projects were conceived with the understanding that their work was a medium of communication, mobilizing a curious model of experimentation within postwar American modernism. But given that their most productive years spanned the height of the Cold War, this dimension of their work—as the architectural historian Beatriz Colomina has pointed out—was inevitably political. Glimpses of the USA, 1959, for example, a large-scale multichannel installation of thousands of 35-mm slides projected onto seven massive screens inside one of American architect and designer Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, was commissioned by the United States Information Agency for the US–USSR national exchange of exhibitions. From images of idyllic, agrarian life in the American Midwest to urban skyscrapers and major highways, it offered a vision of a nation’s unquestionably robust economic and social growth to the millions of exhibition visitors in Moscow.

And yet what prevails in Glimpses, and in the Barbican exhibition more generally, is the Eameses’ inquiry into the shape, nature, and comportment of information, a preoccupation that evolved over decades. It began with simple gestures, such as the photographs found in their series “House of Cards,” 1952—specially designed for the assembly of three-dimensional structures—which attenuate the material world into elementary patterns, systems, and sequences of similarity and dissonance; then the tendency became more overt in films, such as A Communications Primer (1953), which elucidates American mathematician and electrical engineer Claude E. Shannon’s development of information theory, and The Information Machine, or Creative Man and the Data Processor (1957), on computing, produced for the IBM Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Tellingly, the Eameses also referred to the multiscreen Think installation—developed for the IBM Pavilion at the 1964–65 New York World’s Fair and presented at the Barbican as a scale replica—as an “information machine,” reflecting their inclination toward the rationalization and control of atomized bodies and particularized things. By turns, both Glimpses and Think—with the dizzying array of synchronized images of mechanical devices, ranging from typewriters to communication systems, factories, railways, and cars—would seem to celebrate urban planner Robert Moses’s cult of the automobile, on the one hand, and justify architectural critic Lewis Mumford’s antagonism toward capitalist production and its embrace of the proliferation and preordained obsolescence of consumer objects, on the other.

However, even when such politics shift into the foreground, knowledge production remains the gravitational force in the Eameses’ work. These installations demonstrate that they were among the first to advance exhibition design as an epistemological project in itself. In their first permanent exhibition, “Mathematica: A World of Numbers . . . and Beyond,” initially commissioned by IBM in 1961 for the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles, an array of variables and ideas—everything from probability and topology to celestial mechanics—are unified into elegant, regularized systems of metal, rubber, and glass that both inform and instruct. Five years later, the Eameses began conceptualizing visitor experiences at the National Fisheries Center and Aquarium—an unrealized initiative of the US Department of the Interior in Washington, DC—by installing large saltwater tanks rife with fauna in their studio. Short films produced as part of this research, such as A Small Hydromedusan: Polyorchis Haplus (1970), which tracks the movement of a bell-shaped jellyfish, and a three-channel slide show, Tanks, ca. 1966–69, capturing various sea creatures in dazzling color, revitalize the legacy of French scientists Étienne-Jules Marey and Jean Painlevé (with his partner, Geneviève Hamon), who captured the mobile behaviors of octopuses, sea horses, and microorganisms in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, respectively, with their penetrating lenses. But while Marey sought to wed visual analysis to scientific method, the Eameses, similar to Painlevé, emphasized aesthetics and form. Mirroring the exegetical transparency of the glass walls of the couple’s interactive exhibits and the skeletal armature of their furniture designs, the jellyfish’s thin, translucent skin—revealing all of the working organs necessary for life—precisely embodies the Eameses’ ethos that to see is to understand.

The linchpin of all this invention and creation—and the core of what the Eameses referred to as their unfolding “life in work”—was the Eames Office, which the couple simply called “901” after its street address on Washington Boulevard in Venice, California. 901 was part business headquarters, part factory, part film-production set, part laboratory. It was there that the Eameses worked with a fluctuating creative team of photographers, furniture and graphic designers, architects, artists, and carpenters and realized such films as the 1977 Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero, which takes a surprising materialist turn in the Barbican through the presentation of several mixed-media photographic collages, liberally retouched and painted by hand for the camera. Charles once ruminated that a chair is effectively “architecture . . . on a human scale,” and these modified images, bringing to light a curious new haptic dimension of the film’s production, remind us that the human body—and its sensorium—persists at the center of his and Ray’s work.

“The World of Charles and Ray Eames” is on view at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, through Feb. 14; travels to the Bildmuseet, Umeå, Sweden, Apr. 17–Sept. 4; Museu de Arte, Arquitetura e Tecnologia, Lisbon, Oct. 6, 2016–Jan. 8, 2017.

Alena J. Williams is an assistant professor in the department of visual arts at University of California, San Diego.