"California has always attracted people of imagination who felt free to express themselves," said Bill Stern, founder of the California Museum of Design, during a celebration marking the formal dedication of the Eames House as a national historic landmark. "The Eames House eschewed traditional materials like bricks and sticks, and used glass and steel in fresh ways to create a new understanding of how people can live."
Anybody thinking of building a house should "come here and take notes," added film producer and Eames scholar Daniel Ostroff.
"There's a horrible trend in architecture today where the last person that everybody thinks about is the user," he said. "In its concerns for practicality, use, beauty, durability and cost, the Eames House is the most important innovation in home design since the tepee."
Arguably the father of American midcentury modernism, Charles Eames was a design polyglot, fluent in the languages of architecture, industrial engineering, photography, graphic arts and filmmaking. His wife and design partner Ray was a painter who had studied with famed Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann.
As designers, the couple exuded an optimism about new materials and technology. Being newcomers to Los Angeles, they embraced the expansive physical and psychological landscape.
The Eames House referenced Bauhaus design but was a major departure from the austerity of that movement. Composed of dual two-story rectangular boxes bathed in California sunshine, the form followed its intended function: to provide shelter from the elements while living among them.
The western end has a wide overhang to cut down glare and heat, and its southern face, rising on a bank above the long meadow, is a grid of steel, glass doors, windows, brightly colored panels and X-braces.
The interiors echo Frank Lloyd Wright's vision of confined entrances that lead to voluminous areas. The Eames House also takes the concept of open floor plans to new heights with a two-story atrium, a design element now de rigueur in contemporary homes.
A spiral staircase leads to second-floor bedrooms, and in the living room a ladder reaches toward the corrugated steel ceiling. From the top rungs, Charles would rearrange hanging light fixtures and string paintings face down, parallel to the floor.
The house was the direct result of the Eameses' friendship and collaboration with John Entenza, editor of the L.A.-based Arts & Architecture. In 1945, the magazine inaugurated the Case Study program to design cost-effective housing for a booming postwar nation.
Entenza purchased 3 acres on a bluff in Pacific Palisades and commissioned Charles Eames and his friend and colleague, Eero Saarinen, to create two houses — one for Entenza and the other for the Eameses.
As originally conceived by Charles Eames and Saarinen, Case Study No. 8 was a cantilevered structure made from off-the-shelf parts.
"During the war, America had figured out how to build fast," said Eames Demetrios, Charles' grandson. "The idea that my grandfather and Saarinen had was to put prefabricated pieces from industrial catalogs into a new, affordable configuration."
Due to postwar supply shortages, three years passed before all the parts were delivered. "During that time, Charles and Ray would have picnics on the meadow lined with eucalyptus trees," Demetrios said. "They realized that they would be destroying the site with a building."
Charles and Ray ultimately decided to reconfigure the house.
"They were good at solving problems and working within challenging constraints," Demetrios said. "They treated it [the house] like a big pile of Legos."
Though it has been suggested that Charles was responsible for the hard, masculine edges and Ray did the soft interiors, Demetrios said the partnership wasn't that simple.
"Charles was trained as an architect, Ray as a painter, but they had a holistic collaboration, where each was the other's most important sounding board," he said. "Their collaboration was always blurring the line between technology and art, and their designs flowed from an understanding of the materials and the needs of the user."
All during the recent picnic, Charles Eames' only child, Lucia, led visitors young and old through the house. The crowd hung on every word as she pointed out the remnants of a tumbleweed dangling from the ceiling, a souvenir that Charles and Ray had picked up on their move to California 66 years ago.
When grandchildren visited, Lucia said, Charles seemed less than concerned about the mischief the little ones might get into.
"He strung a rope swing from the ceiling and let the kids swing across the living room into a wall he made out of empty cardboard boxes," she said, laughing.
Demetrios recalled the house as "this magic place, this semipermeable membrane you could dip into and out of."
"If you were outside on the meadow or inside drinking hot chocolate," he said, "you were still a part of the experience that had been created: a totally honest steel box that looks completely comfortable with nature."
Walking through the house, which remains exactly as Ray left it when she died in 1988, one realizes that Modern did not mean minimal to the Eameses. Rugs from around the world cover the well-worn, white ceramic tile floor. Colorful textiles are draped on prototypes of the couple's classics.
Tabletops and a towering bookcase in the living room are crammed with windup toys, wooden tops, hand-carved jungle beasts, kachina dolls and American Indian baskets — all vivid reminders of a lifetime of globetrotting.
"It's been said that Charles and Ray introduced the idea of decorating with everything," Demetrios said. "They had a comfort level with all kinds of artifacts and understood the human need to collect things."
It was a vision that connects generations. Artists Jerry and Evelyn Ackerman, who moved to California in the early 1950s, recall seeing the Eames House shortly after its completion.
"It was this wonderful glass house, so simple and contemporary," said Evelyn, who is in her 80s. "After seeing it, we spent our entire wad on an Eames table and dining chairs."
Neal Harrison, a 36-year-old designer for the fashion label Volcom, found his way to the house when a mentor gave him an Eames plastic chair.
"Charles and Ray Eames grew up in a very traditional world and time. Loving this house is easy. We are used to it, and it's become trendy," Harrison said. "For them to remove themselves from the detail-oriented and the ornate and strip things down to an early prefab, Japanese-style, indoor-outdoor box with whimsical colors is completely radical thinking and very inspiring."
Or as Ray famously put it: "What works good is better than what looks good, because what works good lasts."
Adapted from an article originally published June 28, 2007