A Backdrop for Life: An Iconic Home's Lesson in Architectural Humility

By Katherine Salant
Saturday, March 22, 2008

Last month I visited a renowned house, the home of Charles and Ray Eames, in Pacific Palisades, Calif.

The Eameses, the most celebrated husband-and-wife design team of the 20th century, are recognized for their furniture, movies and exhibitions, but their house, which created a sensation when it was built in 1949, is not well known outside the design professions.

Architects love the house because it was a radical departure from conventional residential design and because it transformed the ordinary into something extraordinary. Most houses of similar iconic status are custom-built with rich materials by a crew of highly skilled craftsmen for wealthy owners. This one was built with off-the-shelf materials used for commercial and light industrial buildings and today's big-box retail stores, including steel framing, steel roof decking and metal casement windows.

For the non-architect, the house conveys a simple message that is often lost when planning a house or a major remodel: A house is merely a backdrop for your life. It becomes your home when you surround yourself with things you love.

The house and adjoining studio are two light-filled boxes separated by a courtyard. As with everything the couple designed, it appears to be a simple idea that was effortlessly executed, but the background is more complicated.

A prefabricated steel-frame house was unusual in 1949. The Eameses chose it because Arts and Architecture magazine editor John Entenza commissioned them, along with seven other teams, to design houses that would showcase both mass-produced, industrialized housing and modern, open floor plans to a public eager to buy almost anything when World War II rationing ended. Unlike the other teams, the Eameses planned to live in the house they designed. They built it on a three-acre meadow that overlooks the Pacific Ocean.

The steel framing led naturally to the boxy shape of the house and studio, and to large spaces with high ceilings where this professional couple could, as Charles Eames described it, "both work and play."

Another advantage of the steel framing was the degree of artistic freedom it afforded in designing the exterior walls. Because the framing supported the roof, the walls needed only to enclose the space. In the mild climate of Southern California, they could be glass.

They are not like any you have ever seen. There is no obvious, repeated pattern; there is endlessly interesting theme and variation.

The windows are of differing sizes and groupings, each one highlighted by the bold dark lines of the painted frames. To add some counterpoint to the mix, solid panels painted white, black, gray, and brilliant blue, red and yellow are interspersed among the windows. The overall effect is akin to a Mondrian painting.

Inside, the first surprise is the size -- it's modest, 1,500 square feet. The second is the large, two-story living room.

The living room is close in size and volume to that of the two-story family rooms that have been popular for the past 20 years, but this is a different experience. In 1949, it must have been breathtaking.

There is no fireplace or massive stone chimney around which furniture is arranged. Instead there are two 17-foot-high adjoining window walls that overlook mature eucalyptus trees, the meadow and, in the distance, the Pacific Ocean. A third wall is finished with birch siding because Charles Eames said he needed a material he could nail into. There is no fourth wall; this edge of the space flows into a seating alcove tucked under a sleeping balcony that overlooks the big space and into the entry hallway, which in turn looks through the kitchen to the courtyard and the studio beyond.

The character of this space lies not in the design but in the furnishings. There are, as you would expect, an Eames sofa, an Eames lounge chair and ottoman, and a few of their other chairs. But the real stars are their enormous collection of folk art and multi-colored, multi-patterned textiles, acquired from work and travel around the world. While their own designs exhibit a degree of perfection that can be achieved only with machines, they clearly celebrated the imperfection of the hand-crafted object.

The Eameses added a few things here and there over a long period. The arrangement on display was eight years in the making, according to their grandson Eames Demetrios.

By modern standards, most visitors will find the Eameses' eat-in kitchen too small, but their second-floor bedroom area, about the same size as master suites today, offers some ideas. Instead of the cavernous bedroom, master bath and huge walk-in closet that becomes a disorganized mess, the space here is compartmentalized. There are separate bathrooms and dressing areas, which probably reduced irritation between spouses. The dressing areas have closets instead of open clothes racks, which forces a certain degree of order. The sleeping area is modest and surprisingly devoid of artifacts. A sliding panel closes off an adjacent area with a table for working on midnight inspirations and a bed for grandchildren who visit.

From the Eameses' double bed, you see the leaves of the eucalyptus trees brushing against the windows, which makes you feel as though you're in a tree house. Looking straight ahead through the two-story living room, you can see the Pacific Ocean. What a way to start your day!

Although the house was intended to be a prototype, it was never replicated because builders did not adopt steel framing. Even using traditional wood framing, it was not a look other architects embraced despite their admiration of the Eameses.

But the spirit of Charles and Ray Eames lives on in every new house when the owners set aside their concerns for resale and the opinions of family and friends, and instead choose options that they want for themselves and slowly furnish rooms with things that will bring them pleasure everyday they live there.

The grounds of the Eames house in Pacific Palisades are open by appointment. For more information, see http://www.eamesfoundation.org.

Katherine Salant can be contacted via her Web site, www.katherinesalant.com.

Copyright 2008 Katherine Salant

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