It's all about Eames at the Vitra Design Museum: Exhibition room in the museum's Frank Gehry building

Ala Kazam!

Material and magic: Vitra Design Museum in Weil is celebrating the outstanding designer duo of Charles and Ray Eames not just with one, but with no less than four exhibitions.
by Thomas Wagner | 10/5/2017

In an article Ray Eames wrote in 1948 for “Mademoiselle’s Living”, she said: “The apartment we live in is the direct result of a pattern of living established by our individual requirements. A beautifully clean and simple shell was provided by architect Richard Neutra, who designed this group of apartments. His long-developed architectural simplicities impose no style on the tenants, but leave them free to create their own surroundings through color, texture, use of area and objects and equipment needed for everyday life and activities. In such a shell each family creates its environment without forced direction through architectural details.”

The very first room at Vitra Design Museum shows you what this leisurely openness of new living looked like, by means of a reconstruction installation that the Eames developed in 1949 for the “For Modern Living” exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
When, in 1956, British artist Richard Hamilton designed his famous collage with the strange title of “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?” as a poster for the exhibition he essentially co-created, “This is tomorrow”, the Eames had already studied many of the changes that had affected art, living, design, technology, and communication in the post-War period. Everyday life had changed from the ground up, socially, aesthetically and in terms of the media. From now on, furniture, objects and media co-existed: be it sofas, vacuum cleaners or painting, comics, newspapers, the movie theater, TV and tape recorders. The open space that Hamilton conjures up before our eyes has wide windows and above the open ceiling of the backdrop floats Planet Earth out in space. “I was,” Hamilton said, “determined to let all those objects and thoughts that concern our post-War mindset enter the narrow confines of a living room.” 

Charles and Ray Eames not only followed the departure into a new age, they shaped it. No wonder, then, that one exhibition alone does not suffice to grasp the numerous facets of the Eames universe. Since the last Eames show at Vitra Design Museum is now 20 years in the past, there is a lot to display, and the exhibition entitled “An Eames Celebration” frames no less than four shows: In the Gehry building, you can view the exhibition on “The Power of Design” originally organized by London’s Barbican Centre; “Play Parade” in the adjacent Vitra Design Museum Gallery is an “Eames exhibition for kids”; the Schaudepot presented “Kazam!”, with prototypes and furniture experiments; and anyone who has the time can then head for the former Fire Dept. building and watch 60 Eames films with a total length of more than eight hours and glean any amount of “Ideas and Information”.

Plywood variations: From the beginning of their career on the Eames explored the qualities of the material.

Despite or because of the wealth of items on display (ranging from ad clips to prototypes, from ads and early drawings by Ray to multimedia shows and collected objects), the focus of the “Celebration” is more clearly on the design process than on the finished products. After all, the Eames not only designed things but above all production processes, meaning the way things were manufactured. Charles Eames jotted down in 1964: “The idea that design is the development of a series of progressive sketches is Romantic and misses the mark.” And he added: “Once the concept has been elaborated on, it comprises about five percent of the design work– the remaining 95 percent of the work is needed to prevent the concept falling apart.”

The 1940s were already astonishingly open and permeable when it came to the lines dividing art and design. When, having married in June 1941, Charles and Ray headed for Los Angeles without many possessions, and pondered their professional partnership, they discussed, as Eames Demetrios reports, “concerning themselves with design, film and all manner of things.” Initially, Charles built film sets for MGM studios. At the same time, the two started their own experiments in an improvised studio in their apartment. In 1942, Ray (who had studied Painting under Hans Hofmann) created her first sculpture from 3D-molded plywood; parallel to this, Charles was busy working on leg splints, likewise made of molded plywood, which he presented to the Medical Department at the US Naval Air Station; in November the latter commissioned the “Plyformed Wood Company” that he had founded with some partners to produce 5,000 units. 

Things moved ahead in leaps and bounds after the War. America and optimism are synonyms – and the Eames, as playful as ever, were in the midst of things, as they believed that you learn best by experiencing things directly for yourself. If you see something with your own eyes then you can form your own opinion on it, and exactly that is what they set out to achieve with their films and exhibitions. “The function of a jukebox,” Charles Eames once quipped, “is to get nickels and play the music…. It would be a bad jukebox design if it disappeared into the surroundings.”

Prototype of a seating shell
Single copy from the Eames studio
Prototype of a chair

From then on, rooms and furniture were formed along with the changed needs – organically, freshly, technically and yet with great artistry, in Ray’s sculptures or in the cloud-like “La Chaise”, but also precisely in every seating shell made of molded plywood or fiberglass-reinforced plastic. In 1964, the Eames devised the IBM Pavilion for the World Expo in New York City, cast a glance at the computer and with their Multiscreen installation paid homage to a new perceptual logic. The view widened ever further, penetrated even the smallest details, and on the other side emerges into interplanetary space. Buckminster Fuller was at the time thinking about the instructions needed for “Spaceship Earth” and in 1977 the Eames explored the fascinating dimensions of life on Earth in a series of consistent steps in their marvelous film “Powers of Ten”.

Seen in this regard, it is nothing more than a commonplace to say that Charles and Ray Eames defined modern furniture design like no other designers – including the Italians and Scandinavians. And what this really means is something you can also find out in Weil: The Eames opened design to the mass market with a mixture of rationalism and cultural crossover and developed typologies that succeeded in the market and remain valid to this day. Which by no means is only the result of a clever response to changing tastes. The precision and versatility of the Eames’ design work is the product of their multi-faceted methodological approach. Its potentials blossomed in the open/experimental West Coast mood and were soon welcomed in the swiftly expanding US market.  

The fundamental change also went hand in glove with organically malleable materials such as molded plywood and fiberglass-reinforced plastic, and the Eames’ typical interior collages were not least the result of their skill in leisurely including a variety of cultures in a new form of openness. “Love investigations” is what Charles Eames termed the interaction of dedication and passion that led not only to good design, but also to its successful production. Thus, Vitra itself, and this is no secret, would not have become the company it is if it had not come across Charles and Ray Eames. Many have said that at Vitra, whenever far-reaching decisions had to be taken, people liked to ask: What would Charles say? 

Is this still the case today? What is certain is that many aspects of the mobile and now global style of life today are already to be found in the Eames’ oeuvre – starting with the flexible, affordable and yet high-standard interior and ending with the permeability of life and work. If young designers simply consider the Eames’ designs historical, since they are fairly ubiquitous, and reject their influence, they will still hardly be able to sidestep the Eames’ methodology and skill.

In the Schaudepot, for example, you can see how the Eames found firm answers to actual questions during the design and development process: in the vivid form of one, two and three-part seating shells made of plywood, aluminum and fiberglass, with various frames of wire or aluminum, tools and prototypes. It swiftly becomes clear how many development steps are necessary to move a design to the point when it can go into mass production. In the Schaudepot you can also admire the hot press the couple built in their L.A. apartment in 1941 in order to mold plywood across three dimensions. What looks at first sight like a trivial frame made of slats had a quite magical impact, which is why the Eames described it as follows: “Ala Kazam! like magic.”


An Eames Celebration

Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein
Thru February 25, 2018
Daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Numerous workshops and lectures are taking place to coincide with the exhibition.


Eames Furniture Sourcebook

Ed. Mateo Kries & Jolanthe Kugler
336 pages., hard cover, approx. 350 ills
ISBN 978-3-945852-19-4
EUR 49.90 

Where whales fly: Several models of Charles and Ray Eames' "Case Study House"
In the Vitra Design Museum's "Schaudepot" the development processes of Charles and Ray Eames' furniture is shown.