The Works of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention

St. Louis Art Museum

The Eameses' architecture follows this pattern as well. Prominently featured in this exhibition are a model and videos of the Eameses' house in Pacific Palisades, Calif. It was designed by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen as a Case Study house, part of a 1945 program promoted by Arts & Architecture magazine, which sponsored the design and construction of low-cost single-family prototype houses for the middle class. The Eameses' house was built as if from an Erector Set, its components all mass-produced and metallic. The boxy structure is true to the sleek International Style aesthetic. It is a model of clean, economical design. As an approach to mass housing, it never caught on.

None of this is meant to diminish the Eameses' accomplishments in the field of design, which are tremendous. Instead, these observations should serve to illuminate a pattern that characterizes the history of design, particularly in this country, in the 20th century. To the exhibition's credit, the corporatization of the Eames aesthetic is made eminently clear. In all, the exhibition is to be lauded for presenting an historically balanced, comprehensive portrait of the Eameses and their achievements.

The Eameses themselves were genuine humanists, enthusiastic champions of common people. They spent a good deal of their time trying to translate their enthusiasm for science, mathematics and beautiful form into a purely accessible language. Their furniture designs accomplished this, to a degree. But in terms of visual enjoyment, the Eameses films take the prize. They're dated, yes, but they're wonderful. One of the best aspects of this exhibition is the inclusion of several of the Eameses' films. They represent, better than anything else in the exhibition, the couple's boundless curiosity and childlike wonder at the world.

Charles and Ray Eames' signature plastic chairs are instantly recognizable, familiar and somehow comforting.
Charles and Ray Eames' signature plastic chairs are instantly recognizable, familiar and somehow comforting.

The Eames filmic repertoire includes works like "Bread," described as "a visual essay on the different qualities of 'bread-ness,'" and "Do-Nothing Machine," which consists of footage of their solar machine, a toy developed for Alcoa. In the exhibition, "Blacktop: A Story of the Washing of a School Play Yard" is projected on the gallery floor, and "Powers of Ten," the well-known 1977 film dealing with relative sizes in the universe, receives a room of its own. The films in this exhibition allow viewers to see the Eameses as more than just designers of fabulous chairs.

The center point of the exhibition is a rarely seen presentation of "Glimpses of the U.S.A.," the seven-screen film originally shown at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959. The film was designed to present an image of life in the U.S. for citizens of the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. The multiple color-saturated images are mesmerizing, splashing over the viewer in a proto-postmodernist fashion.

In the film, America is alive -- industrious, egalitarian, busy and uniformly happy. As a reflection of American society at the time, it's a fiction, certainly. But there is another kind of truth to it: It accurately reflects the Eameses' boundless optimism and enthusiasm for their country and for the world. They wanted to design things that would change the world. They created great designs. They didn't change the world. They tried. Maybe that's enough.

The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention continues at the St. Louis Art Museum through May 14.

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