Es­sen­tial Eames

Charles and Ray Eames were the pow­er­house de­sign duo of the 20th cen­tury.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By MENG YEW CHOONG star2@thes­tar.com.my

CAN play­ful­ness do the world any good? In the case of the late Charles Eames (1907–1978), tak­ing fun se­ri­ously cer­tainly did the de­sign world – not to men­tion our rear ends! – a lot of good be­cause his “play­time” cre­ated one of the 20th cen­tury’s most iconic chairs as well as other trea­sured ob­jects for liv­ing that have made a great deal of dif­fer­ence over many decades.

The in­ter­play be­tween play­ful­ness and thought­ful­ness is well ex­plored in the Es­sen­tial Eames: A Her­man Miller Ex­hi­bi­tion cur­rently on at the Ma­rina Bay Sands’ ArtS­cience Mu­seum in Sin­ga­pore.

The ex­hi­bi­tion cap­tures the phi­los­o­phy adopted by what is ar­guably the most fa­mous cou­ple in de­sign, Charles and his wife, Ray (1912-1988).

Based on a book by the Eame­ses’ grand­son Eames Demetrios called An Eames Primer, the ex­hi­bi­tion traces the life and work of this Amer­i­can cou­ple credited with “chang­ing the way the 20th cen­tury sat down” ( The

Wash­ing­ton Post).

Co-pre­sented by the ArtS­cience Mu­seum and Her­man Miller in col­lab­o­ra­tion with

Eames Of­fice, Es­sen­tial Eames show­cases rare if not never-be­fore-seen works from the Eames’ fam­ily col­lec­tion, the Eames Of­fice brand, and Her­man Miller archives. The Eame­ses worked with Her­man Miller, an Amer­i­can fur­ni­ture man­u­fac­turer es­tab­lished at the turn of the last cen­tury, from the 1940s on­wards.

Early ad­ver­sity

Charles Eames was born in St Louis, Missouri. He showed an in­ter­est in and ap­ti­tude for ar­chi­tec­ture and engineering early on and en­rolled in Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity in St Louis. He was said to have been in awe of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), an at­ti­tude that led to Charles’ ex­pul­sion from the univer­sity af­ter two years, sup­pos­edly for be­ing overly ag­gres­sive in cham­pi­oning the viewpoint of the (then) con­tro­ver­sial ar­chi­tect. To add in­sult to in­jury, Charles was also deemed to be “too mod­ern” in his out­look!

Un­de­terred, Charles then be­gan work­ing on his own, de­vel­op­ing con­cepts that laid the foun­da­tion for his unique brand of fur­ni­ture in the fu­ture. He was just 23 when he opened his own de­sign of­fice.

Apart from Lloyd Wright, another great in­flu­ence on Charles was Fin­nish ar­chi­tect Eliel Saari­nen. It was due to Saari­nen’s in­vi­ta­tion that he moved in 1938 to Cran­brook, Michi­gan, to fur­ther study ar­chi­tec­ture and de­sign at the Cran­brook Academy of Art where the Fin was teach­ing.

Charles ended up be­com­ing a teacher and head of the in­dus­trial de­sign depart­ment.

It was here that he be­gan demon­strat­ing his prow­ess by tak­ing first prize (along with col­league Eero, Saari­nen’s son) at the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art’s Or­ganic Fur­ni­ture Com­pe­ti­tion.

Their work dis­played the new tech­nique of wood mould­ing, which Charles fur­ther de­vel­oped with many moulded ply­wood prod­ucts. Other than chairs and other fur­ni­ture, he de­vel­oped splints and stretch­ers for the US Navy dur­ing World War II.

At the end of the war, Charles’ moulded ply­wood chairs be­gan to be man­u­fac­tured by a com­pany called Evans Prod­ucts, and their in­flu­ence and pop­u­lar­ity ex­ploded, with some crit­ics even re­fer­ring to them as the “chair of the cen­tury”.

When Charles met Ray

Charles met Ray Kaiser in 1940 when she was a new stu­dent at Cran­brook and they mar­ried the next year af­ter a brief courtship. The union turned out to be wildly syn­er­gis­tic – and so be­gan the odyssey of one of the most fruit­ful col­lab­o­ra­tions in art and de­sign his­tory. As de­sign­ers, the Eame­ses kept ex­per­i­ment­ing with ma­te­ri­als that were con­sid­ered rad­i­cal at that time, in­clud­ing plas­tic, wire, fi­bre­glass, and alu­minium.

Other than fur­ni­ture, the Eame­ses also turned their vi­sion­ary eye to ar­chi­tec­ture, photography, film­mak­ing, toy­mak­ing, and ex­hi­bi­tion de­sign; they came to un­der­stand that there is re­ally “no di­vi­sion be­tween de­sign and sci­ence, or be­tween ed­u­ca­tion and the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence.”

A man of wide in­ter­ests, in­tel­lec­tual cu­rios­ity and daz­zling tal­ent, Charles left an in­deli­ble mark on fur­ni­ture de­sign and film­mak­ing, as well as cre­at­ing ex­hi­bi­tions. His in­ter­est in photography de­vel­oped into a se­ries of fas­ci­nat­ing short films, and even IBM com­mis­sioned him to do ed­u­ca­tional films.

The Eame­ses also con­ceived and de­signed a num­ber of land­mark sci­en­tific and ed­u­ca­tional ex­hi­bi­tions. The first of th­ese, Math­e­mat­ica, A World of Num­bers And Be­yond (1961), is still con­sid­ered a model for ex­hi­bi­tions that want to pop­u­larise sci­ence among the masses.

But it has been said that most peo­ple “en­ter the world of Charles and Ray through the door of fur­ni­ture”, and rightly so, for the cou­ple is credited with some of high-end fur­ni­ture man­u­fac­turer Her­man Miller’s most en­dur­ing de­signs.

In this re­gard, this ex­hi­bi­tion shows how the Eame­ses de­fied con­ven­tional wis­dom, and freely ex­per­i­mented with novel ma­te­ri­als in their quest to cre­ate ob­jects or fur­ni­ture that are not only good look­ing but also highly func­tional and er­gonomic.

They de­signed their fur­ni­ture based on the be­lief that some of the nat­u­ral beauty of the earth should be re­flected in ev­ery piece.

One of their most fa­mous cre­ations, the Eames Chair, is a curvy and del­i­cately-con­toured side chair that comes in nat­u­ral earth or wood tones, made from a then

un­heard of ma­te­rial called ply­wood, which at the time was viewed with sus­pi­cion but has now be­come a sta­ple of mod­ern de­sign thanks to the Eames’ tech­nique of mould­ing.

For any­one who ap­pre­ci­ates beauty

Eames fur­ni­ture is about “com­pli­men­tary con­tra­dic­tion, mod­ern de­sign, and great pieces”.

Proof that their de­signs have with­stood the test of time and the va­garies of fickle con­sumer tastes can be seen in how the iconic Eames Lounge Chair and Ot­toman, or even their sim­ple moulded plas­tic chairs, can be so stylish, func­tional and com­fort­able at the same time – and still keep sell­ing af­ter decades.

On dis­play at the ex­hi­bi­tion is a leather chair de­signed for Pope John Paul II, as well as sig­na­ture cre­ations like the fi­bre­glass Eames Shell Chairs, the La Chaise Lounge, the Time Life Chair and Stool, the Draft­ing Chair, and the In­ter­me­di­ate Desk Chair.

The Eame­ses were hired by Her­man Miller af­ter Ge­orge Nel­son was made di­rec­tor of de­sign at the com­pany in 1945. Nel­son saw what the Eame­ses could do with moulded ply­wood and in­sisted that they be hired by telling the head of Her­man Miller at the time that “this is the fu­ture of your com­pany”.

More im­por­tantly, the ex­hi­bi­tion af­fords view­ers that pre­cious op­por­tu­nity to delve into the minds of Amer­ica’s most im­por­tant de­sign cou­ple of all time. As such, you don’t even have to be a fan of be­at­i­ful fur­ni­ture to visit. As long as you ap­pre­ci­ate good de­sign and out-of-the-box ap­proaches to cre­ativ­ity, you should en­joy Es­sen­tial Eames, as it dis­plays the vast range and va­ri­ety of the cou­ple’s un­matched cre­ative out­put.

Per­son­ally, I walked out with a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of why Her­man Miller chairs are so ex­alted for both their com­fort and func­tion­al­ity. It was in­deed a fruit­ful af­ter­noon, and en­thu­si­asts can eas­ily spend a cou­ple of hours in­side this very well-cu­rated ex­hi­bi­tion. Maybe it’s time I pay a visit to a Her­man Miller store as well....

The Es­sen­tial Eames Ex­hi­bi­tion is on in Sin­ga­pore, at the Ma­rina Bay Sands’ ArtS­cience Mu­seum, un­til Jan 5, 2014; there is a lucky draw for visi­tors that of­fers a Her­man Miller chair as a prize, among oth­ers. For de­tails, visit marin­abaysands.com/ArtS­cienceMu­seum. More in­for­ma­tion on Eames de­sign can be found at eame­sof­fice.com.

Dy­namic duo: The late charles and ray (right) eames are con­sid­ered one of amer­ica’s most im­por­tant de­sign­ers.

TheHouse­of­cards, that was made by the eame­ses for their grand­chil­dren, is one of many in­trigu­ing ex­hibits at es­sen­tialeames. For charles, there was no such thing as a ‘use­less’ toy, as toys could be ‘pre­cur­sors to se­ri­ous ideas’.

– Her­man miller

The iconic curvy eames moulded Ply­wood chair.

The leg­endary eames Lounge chair and Ot­toman is shown here bro­ken down into its in­di­vid­ual com­po­nents at the ex­hi­bi­tion. This de­sign has been in con­tin­u­ous pro­duc­tion by Her­man miller since 1956 and is the first chair charles and ray de­signed for the high-end mar­ket; it is also part of the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion at new york’s mu­seum of mod­ern art. Inset, above: The writer took the op­por­tu­nity to try out the leg­endary chair. The verdict? comfy!

among the sci­en­tific ob­jects charles cre­ated is this mo­bius band on a grand scale that helps the layper­son ap­pre­ci­ate how the math­e­mat­i­cal con­struct works.

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