OUR POWERFUL information carriers are short on substantial, nourishing content; and treasures of knowledge, on every level, are locked up in forms where only a minority will ever come upon them, or recognize them as alive." - From the Double day lecture by Charles Eames, at the Smithsonian Museum of History and Technology, March 16, 1977.
Charles Eames, designer of the molded plywood "potato chip" chair, the ubiquitous molded plastic chair, and the $2,000 leather-and-plywood lounge chair; inventor, professor of "found education," moviemaker, frontman, photographer, exhibits designer, architect, lecturer, philosopher, poet, husband, myth.
Ray Eams, co-designer and inventor of the chairs and their methodology, exhibits designer, painter, sculptor, shop foreman, office manager, mover, shaker, joint venturer, equal parther, soother of ruffled feathers, wife.
The thoughts of Charles Eames are deep and lonely. It is as if he thought in a different language from yours and mine. He could have invented the saying, "If you don't know, I can't tell you." When you talk with him, there is an overpowering desire for a blueprint to show you the right button to push to make him speak.
It is not that he is shy, or rude or secretive. When the Eameses were here not too long ago, during and squeezed it and looked directly into her eyes, as if he hoped she woul rescue him from having to answer the question. But she couldn't help.
For all of his 70 years, Eames seems to have sought a way of bringing knowledge back fromthat land of the far future where his thoughts dwell. Only Ray Eames, who married hin in 1941, seems to be able to reach him in that distant place, and watching the two, you gather that their communication is not with words.
Though only the Eameses really know, you might suspect that he, and likely she, thinks not in words but in pictographs. They use a camera the way Thomas Jefferson (a hero of theirs) used a pen, or perhaps the way Socrates used the tongue. Some people, when you ask them a question, tell you a story. The Eameses show you a picture. Clients who ask for a proposal receive a movie. After the Eamese shake hands with you, they take your picture. Somehow, it seems as if they use a camera as a pair of magic eyeglasses to bring the world into focus.
(He, by the way, hates to have his picture taken. He says he "mugs" when he talks, even though he tries to keep a straight face. He needn't worry - he has a 1940s collegiatetype of good looks, which he emphasizes witht British-tailored tweed suits and bandana kerchiefs. Ray Eames, who floats rather than walks, a souvenir of dancing lessons with Martha Graham, has a 1940s high school style of her own, which suits her well: black jumpers with soft blouses and a butterfly pin, velvet bows in her full black hair to show off her heartshaped face.)
Their archives contain an uncountable number of photographs of everything from toy boats to computers. Their work and their pleasure are meticulously recorded on film. Eames started taking pictures as a boy after his father died, leaving him a cache of equipment. He's fond of saying that it was years before he realized roll film had been invented and he didn't need to use wet emulsion anymore. He also likes to say he started making movie in the late '50s because a friend left a movie projector with the couple when he went on vacation, and they wanted something to show in it. One of their old friends, Corita Kent (formerly Sister Corita), once said that to be an artist "you must become as a little child." The Eames movies have all the simplicity and complexity of childhood. Film critic and screenwriter Paul Schrader divdes them into "toy" and "idea" films.
"Toccata for Toy Train" (1957), for instance, their first big hit, was a short art film entirely devoted to toy trains going around on tracks as sort of a "dance" to the ocmmissioned musical score.
"Powers of Ten," probably their bestknown movie, is a short film whose real title is long: "A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing With the Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe," It begin s with a closeup of a man aslee in a park and zooms to the outer edge of space, still using the man as the nucleus with a digital clock ticking off "10 to the umpteenth," and then zooms back to the nucleus of a carbon atom inside him. (The Eameses are big on numbers ticking away on the screen.) The film, originally made for the Commission on College Physics, is being reshot in Chicago. It is shown everyday at the Smithsonian Museum of Air and Space here.
Most recently, the Eameses made the film and exhibition. "The World of Frankin & Jefferson," shown all over the world as a governmentsponsored explanation of our Bicentennial. In 1975, an Eames film, "A Metropolitan Overview," was a proposal for a central guide to the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Eameses are also pioneers, with George Nelson, on the use of multiscreen slide projections as a way to speed up the transfer of information. It might be described as the three-ring circus theory of education.
It is not that Charles Eames is not able to use words - one of his assistants, a writer, passionately protests that he taught her more about the precise use of the English language than she ever knew. But Eames applies to words the same spared-lined dictim that he does to design. It is rather as if he designed his conversation in the International or Cranbrook style of "less is more." His interviews have that much in common with Alexander Calder, another famous person who communicated through his art not through his conversation.
It is an oft-told story that when the Eameses designed and made the famous lounge chair and ottoman, a sort of modernized barber's chair, as a gift to a movie director Bill Wilder (who had given them a rare early modern chair), at the moment of presentation Eames said simply: "Take chair." And to meandering conversation he has said, "The question?"
The country's curiosity about the Eameses is immense, because today Eames has become one of those larger-than-life cult figures about whom a mythology develops. At least every two years, it seems, some major museum or someone in the media says, "Say, I've got a great idea, let's do a piece on Eames."
In 1973, there was the New York Museum of Modern Art's "Furniture by Charles Eames." In 1975, there was the Walker Art Center show in Minneapolis, "Nelson/Eames/Girad/Propst: The Design Process at Herman Miller" and the PBS-TV special, "An Eames Celebration: Several Worlds of Charles and Ray Eames." "Connections: The Work of Charles and Ray Eames" has just closed at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The careful reader will note the difference between 1973 and 1977: Before, most credit went to Charles, with Rayas a footnote. But times change, and, as Hap Johnson, a longtime employee, said the other day: "I suppose a lot of us, myself included, realized that we hadn't been giving her credit. She isn't doing any more than she's always done - she's always been the partner, here every day. But she's never been one to demand credit. He hasn't minimized what she does; he always credits her. It's just that there was a habit of overlooking her, like a lot of women. She has always put herself down. He was always the one on the committees and giving the speeches."
Ray Eames herself, in the interview, said, "It isn't the same when I talk. Charles has a way of putting things which people pay attention to."
Eames is a member of the Library of Congress task force advisory committee on science and technology - a group formed by Daniel Boorstin to consider ways to make the library's vast holdings retrievable. His six-year term on the National Endowment for the Arts recently ended.He accepts only a few of the many lectures he is asked to give: the Doubleday/Smithsonian speech that brought him to Washington recently (to be included in a book) and his lectures as UCLA Regents' professor are this season's choices. Recently, Ray Eames at last accepted a committee appointment herself; she is now a member of the American Council for the Arts in Education.
Ralph Caplan, an old friend who wrote the "Connections" catalog, explained: They are husband and wife and they are full collaborators . . . This in itself is hardly remarkable: Design is rarely a solitary activity, and husband and wife teams are not uncommon. But the collaborative nature of the Eames work is easily obscured by the enormous public recognition of Charles as an individual designer and thinker. While he and Ray have justly shared many honors, many others have justly come to him alone. He is the spokesman for the two, the public figure, and that fact dictates the use of masculine singular pronouns at times. Ray Eames, however, plays a personal and essential role in every design decision. They design together, and with their staff."
When you ask them who does what and when, they have no answer, though Ray Eames admits that a friend once said, "I put things in and Charles takes them out." Other people say she's also good at stripping down nonessentials. They seem as unable to explain how they work as other people are unable to explain how they breathe. And you gather they are a little afraid to think about it too much, lest they be unable to do it anymore - like the man who stayed awake wondering if he slept with his beard in or out of the covers.
Theu admit, separately and together, that work starts about 9:30 or 10 a.m. after breakfast in their magnificient home on a cliff overlooking the ocean in Santa Monica, Calif. He designed the house in 1949 from industrial component parts (like a giant erector set), and it has strongly influenced domestic architecture ever since.
Morning is about the only time they can enjoy the house, because they eat lunch and dinner at their workshop, a converted garage about 10 miles away. They are there every day, Saturday and Sunday included, at least 12 hours. The staff keeps similar hours when they have a project. The basic staff has been with thema long time. But for extra projects it might expand to 20 or 30, including just one or two lowpaid apprentices who are there to learn.
Though it is a fast operation, it isn't grim, because the Eameses have a great fascination for fantasy and for play, as in the films. There are those count as one of their great designs the 1952 House of Cards decks whose faces are ordinary objects transformed by the way they are photographed (with a micro lens) into art pictures.
The cards, like "The Toy," another Eames invention of triangular frames and canvas, are designed (like packaged food mixes) so the player has to add the principal ingredient: his own imagination. Both toys are the sort that the parent finds more fun than the children. In 1957 they designed a Solar Energy DoNothing Machine, an advertising device for Alcoa. The Eames workshop is full of what they call "props" for their projects - currently it is hundreds of toy boats. When they were designing an aquarium for Washington (unfortunately never built), the place was covered with tanks and fish.
Charles and Ray Eames met at Cranbrook (III) Academy of Art in 1906. He had been asked to teach there by Ehei Saarinen. Charles Eames was an architect, by education - though he was asked to leave the Univeristy of St. Louis at the end of his second year, because, it is said, of his defense of Frank Lloyd Wright's revolutionary theories . And it is true that all his life his work has been more in the romantice camp than in the classic.
Ray Kaiser was a sculptor and painter. The couple worked together with Eero (Ehel's son) to develop a socalled "organic design" for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1941, Charles Eames was divorced from his first wife. He and Ray married and moved to California, where they worked together on prosthetic devices, splints and molded parts for the Navy's war wounded. The work helped them solve the molded chair techniques.
During much of that time, he worked as a movie set designer, while she worked at home onthe molding problems.Their workshop was their small apartment. They smuggled wood up and used the oven of the stove to cure the rubber shock mounts for the wood. At least once there was an explosion. "Worst of all was the two hour stretches using the bicycle pump as a compressor," Eames said.
For a while, they produced the Eames chair themselves in their own workshop. In 1946 George Nelson talked the Herman Miller Co. into hiring them and producing and marketing their furniture. Later came: the 1956 lounge chair, the 1958 aluminum furniture, the 1960 Time/Life lobby chairs and the furniture for La Fonda in New York, the 1962 tandem seating for Dulles and O Hare airports, and upholstery and other variations on the chairs.
A question that struck him speechless was: "What projects are you currently working on?" His mind that day was even more than ordinarily distant because of the pressure of the speech to be given that night. He is a man who gives all his attention to the task at hand. Finally, he said, "I'm sorry, but when you say work, I think immediately of all the work I left back in California, piles of it, and the speech I have to write for tonight, and I just can't sort out an answer."
Actually, Charles and Ray Eames are as active as ever in their design firm, with a total gross estimated at roughly a $1 million a year - collected and spent on the Robin Hood theory: The business clients pay for the work the Eameses want to do for themselves.
Currently, their major commissions are the exhibit center for IBM's new building at 590 Madison Ave. in New York: films for Poloraid; variations on the chairs for Herman Miller. In between are their pet projects, usually films, including the revision of "The Powers of Ten." According to Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, the Eameses have been acting as consultants on a proposed Public Broadcasting System series on the Smithsonian.
"I don't know what people's idea of a 'design office' is normally, we think of ourselves as tradesmen. Mostly a kind of custom trade - people come to us for things. And mostly, what they come to us for are models, in one sense or another," Eames said in the Smithsonian speech.
"In considering a client and a task, then, the question is always this: Is there a real and workable overlap of interest between the client's interests, our own and our view of the interests of the community at large? If there is - then in this dynamic area of overlap we can work comfortably."
Eames says he is on "firmer ground with the business clients than . . . with the keepers of the sacred flame of education."
In recent years, the office has changed its emphasis from products to concepts, especially educational materials produced for business, teaching institutions and "the category of institutions which are not committed to teaching, but whose stock in trade is a great amount of cogent information and whose customers are the public at large." For these, Eames behaves in what he calls "found education": one that is come upon, not prescribed.
When he tries to explain it in more detail, Eames trials off, on his way again to those far-flown reaches of the imagination where few can follow - except of course Ray, who may well be one and the same as be.