Eames Demetrios stands in the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, looking at his grandparents’ chairs.
They belong in a museum – Time magazine named one “The Best Design of the 20th Century,” and you’ve seen others in everything from “Mad Men” to “Iron Man.” But here’s how good they really are: You’ve almost undoubtedly sat in versions of them – at the airport, in your office, at the food court in the mall.
Design so good, so functional and practical, it’s for everyone. That’s what Charles and Ray Eames, called “design’s most illustrious couple,” pursued, says Demetrios.
He grew up with them, visiting the home they built beside a California meadow, and the office packed with prototypes and toys – not to mention an octopus in an aquarium. (Did he misremember that the animal could actually recognize his grandfather? No, Gregory Peck told him later. Peck had narrated a film there for the Eameses, and that octopus did know Charles on sight.)
Demetrios now heads the Eames Office and gives TED Talks, among other efforts to extend his grandparents’ work, and he’s about to give us a personal tour of the Bechtler’s latest exhibition, “The House That Modernism Built.”
We’ll add bonus stops from curator Jennifer Sudul Edwards. She chose these pieces – pairing furniture from the Eameses and other notables with art and ceramics – to help put Modernism in perspective: Here’s what brilliant designers were doing then. Here’s what they and artists, from Victor Vasarely and his beguiling patterns to Alberto Giacometti and his impossibly thin sculptural figures, were thinking.
And what were they thinking?
“That anything could be used to solve a problem,” says Edwards – new technologies, industrial materials, ideas from anywhere, even countries we’d been at war with. What mattered was a solution that worked.
“I’ve had a lot of people say to me, ‘I got this coffee maker. It didn’t work. It was too ‘design-y,’” says Demetrios. “And I always think, ‘If it didn’t work, it wasn’t design-y enough, right?’”
First stop: The Eames leg splint
This was their break. In 1941, as World War II accelerated, the Eameses heard from a doctor friend that metal splints were tearing open soldiers’ wounds – they vibrated too much when carried on metal stretchers. “So they said, ‘Well, we’re experimenting with wood,’ ” says Demetrios. By 1942, they’d figured out a way to bond veneers and curve them into the shape of a leg (Charles’, to be specific), creating a splint that solved the problem.
“Any person who’s made their own clothing will recognize (this): You cut something flat to make it wrap around the human form. That’s what they did. ... Some of the first workers on this were people they knew from the MGM costume department.”
The Navy ordered 5,000, then 150,000.
The Eameses had worked out this idea in time that Charles called “the margin,” says Demetrios. That’s time outside of work or other obligations, time in which “you can do things you don’t feel you’re able to elsewhere.” Everyone has it, Charles insisted, whether an hour a week or all day Saturday, and people should “guard it carefully.”
The splint led to this, the 1946 Lounge Chair Wood. “If you look at these two objects,” says Demetrios, “both are trying to make a three-dimensional curve in plywood. ... They realized they had to separate the seat and back to make a chair. They can’t actually make a single-piece chair – but that’s on the path. But this becomes the Design of the Century.” That path would lead to the shell chair, molded of plastic reinforced with fiberglass; they had the first one made at an auto body place, “which was not a production solution but showed a chair like this could work,” he says. “It was again like the Wright Brothers and flying. ... They showed you could do it. So once you know you can do it, it’s possible to reverse-engineer.”
Oscar-winning movie director and Eames chum Billy Wilder (“Sunset Boulevard,” “Some Like It Hot”) needed a place to nap in his Hollywood office – but it couldn’t be something that could be mistaken for a “casting couch”; in the late ’60s, no one was eager to be accused of sleeping with aspiring actresses. They came up with an 18-inch-wide leather chaise: Lie down, cross your arms and nod off. Fall into deeper sleep and your arms dropped, waking you up – since you shouldn’t be sleeping that long in your office. Perfect. And something so narrow couldn’t be a casting couch, said the pleased Wilder, unless “your girlfriend was built like a Giacometti.”
“That was Billy for ya,” laughs Demetrios.
Disembodied feet, legs, arms, backs, “antlers” and “back spreaders” of the Eames Aluminum Group Chair are lined up, horizontally and vertically. “These are the prototypes they would make in the office, and you can see these are different,” says Demetrios, pointing at arms. “One of these is wood.
“That (first) is basically the arm, but it wouldn’t be a totally comfortable chair. ... They would do these, to visualize it and also to make it more functional.”
He moves to a rack of leather backs. “Look at the edges of these... (The leather) actually gets tucked into a groove. So when you make it, you have to turn it inside-out ... Think about that. That’s the only way to make it, because that tension is a key part of the chair. You could only design this chair if you knew exactly what the worker would be doing.”
A nonstop: The Budweiser logo and ‘Men in Black’
Anheuser Busch asked the Eameses to redesign the beer’s logo in the ’50s. Demetrios says they got the information for what most designers would consider an easy-money assignment, looked it over for six months, then called the company back: “Your logo’s fine,” they’d decided. A couple of decades later, as they continued to play with various fields, they produced a film short: “Powers of Ten.” Remember the end of “Men in Black,” a prolonged zoom-out from street to space to aliens packing up our galaxy into their bag of marbles? It’s a direct descendant, 30 years later. Hollywood still calls similar things a “Powers of Ten shot.” (See also: The Simpsons’ and Sara Bareilles’ homages.)
No beer or aliens are in the exhibition.
Josef Albers’ ‘Interaction of Color’
Demetrios moves to a book by Josef Albers (who taught at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College after fleeing Nazi Germany), encased in glass. “This is really great. See how the browns are different here? They’re not. It’s the same brown – well, whatever it is: gray-ish.” Albers’ book shows how a single color can seem radically different depending on what color(s) it’s next to, and other color theory principles. “I’d love to have those framed on my walls. But they weren’t intended as artworks, they were intended to teach you something practical about how color works. That’s really important. (Modern artist) Max Bill and all these guys were working with color. (Albers) is working with color, but in an analytical framework. ... It’s science, but it also goes back to this idea that aesthetics can be a part of function. Color is part of how you play with space.”
The geodesic dome
This construction, the design of Buckminster Fuller (who also taught at Black Mountain College, and later at N.C. State), squats near the end of the exhibition, its pale skin showing the lightweight skeleton within – and you can go inside, sit down and watch Eames film shorts. “He was a good friend of Charles and Ray,” says Demetrios. “They would often ask themselves, ‘What would Bucky Fuller do?’ ”
For pulling off the dome – which she originally wanted to suspend from the atrium ceiling – Edwards gives a nod to Charlotte architects Murray Whisnant (who told her, “You have to do a Bucky dome!”) and David Wagner, who told her: “That’s an amazing idea. I’ll do it all!” Financial concerns led them to ground it, where visitors have been heard to ask “What is this weird tent?” Says Demetrios, “On one hand, yes, it did not work out (as popular housing). But it’s still a good idea. It was somebody trying.”
Bonus stops from the curator
The Perriand desk
Curator Edwards says that perhaps the hardest thing about this exhibition is keeping people off it. (During the very fast install, even the tired Edwards kept starting to sit down on pieces before someone would yelp “No!”) Still, she was surprised when an early VIP visitor “who should know better!” reached out to stroke the sinuous Charlotte Perriand desk.
She offers in his defense that Perriand, who worked with Corbusier – and originally was rejected by his firm, the story goes, with “We don’t embroider cushions here!” – did say she wanted her wood pieces “soft as a woman’s thighs.”
The cubicle that was supposed to be flexible
Designer Robert Propst, Edwards says, served as a Navy beachmaster in WWII. That meant he stood at the top of a beach and analyzed the invasion: What’s working? What’s not? “What psychological effects could that have had on him?” she asks.
But as an artist, he could quickly identify patterns and create systems, and later used that to tinker with the German idea of office cubicles. He saw the office as “a system based on change and communication” so he put everything on wheels. He made the first standing desk, a sitting one, rolling files and phone tables and – since privacy was huge in this Cold War-conversant time – added ways to quickly close pieces, to hide your work. Voila: The late ’60s’ “Action Office 2.”
Eames quotes as spare and well-designed as their work
▪ Toys are not really as innocent as they look. Toys and games are precursors to serious ideas.
▪ Innovate as a last resort. More horrors are done in the name of innovation than any other.
▪ We wanted to make the best for the most for the least.
▪ Take your pleasure seriously.
▪ You can tell more about a country from its bread and its soup than you can from its museums and concert halls.
▪ The role of the designer is that of a very good, thoughtful host anticipating the needs of his guests.
▪ Beyond the age of information, there is the age of choices.
And from Ray (short for Bernice Alexandra):
▪ What works good is better than what looks good, because what works good lasts.
Photo credits: Splint in use: Eames Office; on display: Grant Young; Eames Office. LCW chair: Grant Young; Eames Office. Eames chaise: Wendy Yang Photography. Ray and Charles Eames: Marvin Rand; Eames Office. Aluminum Group chair: Courtesy of Herman Miller. Josef Albers’ “Interaction of Color”: Plate IV-3; Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society. Geodesic dome, Perriand desk and Propst desks: Wendy Yang Photography.