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

St. Louis Art Museum

A very revealing image is included in the catalog of the Charles and Ray Eames exhibition, now at the St. Louis Art Museum. It is a mock-serious chart defining good taste as defined by the highbrow, the middlebrow and the lowbrow sectors of society. Originally published in Russell Lynes' 1949 book The Tastemakers, the chart was reprinted in the April 1949 issue of Life magazine. According to the chart, the furniture of choice among the highbrow set is an Eames plywood chair.

The claim that designs by Eames appealed to an elite sensibility seems somewhat perplexing at first. For throughout their extensive careers, the husband-and-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames remained devoted to the practice of design as a method of social improvement. They made furniture to fit the human body and experimented with materials and designs that could be easily and economically mass-produced -- and made available to the masses.

One of their designs in particular became an institutional staple: stackable fiberglass-reinforced plastic chairs, which came in a variety of colors and were mass-produced and marketed through Herman Miller from 1950-1989. These chairs, on view in the exhibition, are instantly recognizable, familiar and somehow comforting. They represent the realization of the Eameses' goals as designers.

But other designs in The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention may only be familiar to viewers from magazines, catalogs or histories of design. Granted, some of them are still in production and available -- for a price. A molded-plywood chair, designed in 1946 and recently named "Best Design of the Century" by Time magazine, is still available through Herman Miller -- for $716. (That's the price per chair, mind you.) Uni-shell wire-mesh chairs, designed in 1951, are today produced by the haughty European concern Vitra AG. (The current exhibition was organized by the Library of Congress in partnership with the Vitra Design Museum, which owns a major segment of the Eames estate.)

The apotheosis of these Eames designs ensures their immortality. But it also seems contrary to the original spirit in which the couple worked -- the egalitarian, optimistic, socially responsible spirit, which nowadays seems quaintly outdated among designers, sweetly utopian. It bears keeping in mind, however, that in the 1940s and 1950s, the field of design appeared to be driven by that spirit. This is nowhere better illustrated than in the series of competitions staged by New York's Museum of Modern Art, which invited designers to collaborate with manufacturers to create mass-produceable furniture affordable to middle-income families. In 1940, Charles Eames, along with Eero Saarinen, designed chairs for MoMA's "Organic Design in Home Furnishings" competition; the Eames Office participated in MoMA's "International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design" in 1948; and so on.

Somehow, though, the Eames designs never made it far from the lofty heights of MoMA. And somehow that makes sense. This is partly a result of the fact that Eames furniture designs are intricately, complexly intertwined with the history of modern art in this country, particularly the gestural works of midcentury Abstract Expressionists. The curvilinear form of the white Eames chaise, designed in 1948, ultimately derives from the organic shapes inhabiting European surrealist art by Jean Arp or Joan Miró -- and these same bloblike liquid forms were absorbed by Jackson Pollock and other American abstract artists in the production of their own expressive vocabularies.

The Eameses were friends of Pollock and his wife, the artist Lee Krasner. Ray Eames, née Kaiser, was a trained painter and member of the American Abstract Artists, the group that was the incubator for the Abstract Expressionists. Eames: A Legacy of Invention includes paintings and sculptures by Ray from the 1930s and '40s that connect seamlessly with the experiments of the abstract artists who were her contemporaries in New York City.

Eames designs have more than just a stylistic affinity with abstract art. Like the Abstract Expressionist paintings championed by the Museum of Modern Art at midcentury, Eames designs, when they left the museum, felt (and still feel) most at home in the corporate milieu. The furniture tends to confer on the owner or user an undeniable air of status and prestige. As proof of this, one need only look at the ways in which Eames designs have been featured in popular culture over the years. Their chairs, stools and chaises have been used to signal both luxury and financial power in everything from Heineken ads to the covers of Business Week to the pages of Vogue and U.S. News and World Report. (Some of these examples are featured in the current exhibition; the exhibition catalog is a more complete source for this information.)

The journey taken by Eames furniture designs -- from socially conscious experiments in mass-produceability to elitist, corporate icons -- parallels the history of the International Style itself. Rooted in the socialist sensibilities of the German Bauhaus, the International Style didn't become a "style" until Henry Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson deemed it one, when they produced the International Style exhibition in 1932 at -- you guessed it -- the Museum of Modern Art. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe solidified the aesthetic of the International Style with his corporate designs, most notably the sleek, steel-and-glass 1950s Seagrams Building in New York. (Incidentally, Mies van der Rohe designed furniture as well; it is sometimes mistaken for Eames furniture, and vice versa.)

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.

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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