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New Life for Landmark Fixer-Upper

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Nestled in a hidden grove of majestic eucalyptus trees on a Pacific Palisades hilltop is one of the most famous modern residences in the world. With its exposed black steel frame filled with red, white and blue panels that look like a walk-in version of a Mondrian painting, the brilliant high-tech Eames house is an icon of architectural modernism that has inspired several generations of architects and designers all over the world.

“The Eames house is one of the prime exemplars that have shaped my mind,” said British architect Richard Rogers, who was the co-designer of the Pompidou Center in Paris. “Its amazing simplicity and economy of style, that seems to have sprung fully fledged from Eames’ head, is a model of perfection in modern design.”

An instant landmark as soon as it was completed in 1949, the house served as the home and studio of Charles and Ray Eames, America’s most admired and inventive design couple. But since Ray Eames’ death in 1988, 10 years after her beloved husband and partner, many architectural fans have wondered about the future of this design monument that was honored in 1978 by the American Institute of Architects for its “enduring significance.”

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When Charles and Ray’s only child, Lucia Demetrios, and her sculptor husband, Aristides Demetrios, inherited the place last year, they spent six months repairing the rundown house and landscaping the overgrown grounds. Now that they have restored it to original mint condition, they are opening it, by appointment only, to architects, designers and critics.

The Eames house was the cornerstone of the influential Southern California Case Study House program that included such famous architects as Richard Neutra and Eero Saarinen. Sponsored by John Entenza, editor of Arts & Architecture magazine, the program’s aim was to develop prototypes of modern house designs to serve as models for the post-World War II single-family residence.

In 1945, Entenza purchased five acres in the Palisades to build the Eames house, a Saarinen and Eames-designed home for himself and several others on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Coast Highway. Lucia Demetrios recalls archery contests among the architects and gourmet barbecue cookouts in the open air: “It was amazing, as a young woman, to be part of the incredible excitement of those times, when the world was new and everything seemed possible.”

An exhibition of the Case Study houses opens this November at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The Eames house’s construction was wonderfully simple and yet structurally radical. Eames ordered standard 4-inch H-shaped columns and 12-inch open-web steel joists from building supply catalogues. His use of off-the-shelf industrial components for a family house was unheard of in the 1940s, but Eames’ aim was to develop a simple and inexpensive method of constructing mass market houses as an alternative to the archaic and costly ways common in the building industry.

Engineer Edgardo Contini, who worked with Eames on his design, remembers that his first notion was to build the house as a bridge suspended between two steel trusses. But when the steel was delivered to the site, Eames changed his mind.

Too Much Cleverness

“The steel sat in a pile on the meadow while Charles hastily redesigned the house,” Contini said. “He felt the original notion was too elaborate for the simplicity he desired, involved too much engineering cleverness to serve as a prototype for the Case Study program. So he reassembled the beams and columns like a bunch of play sticks, into two separate boxes sitting on the ground.”

Though the Eames house has a powerful presence in the landscape, Charles left the living room entirely neutral. It was Ray Eames who conjured up the interior coziness by lending the house a charmingly antique air to set off the modernist severity of its structure.

Seated amid the array of fabulous objects the Eameses collected from all over the world, Lucia Demetrios remembers how her mother “made this house an expression of her deep love for everything lively, creative and peaceful.” When Demetrios gestures at the ebony walrus from Alaska, the Moroccan prints, and the African leopard skin covering the couch, her eyes soften with the recollection of her mother’s rare gift for transforming a room into a sanctuary of design. She continually moved objects about to avoid visual boredom and subtly alter the architectural mise en scene. And, Lucia Demetrios remembers, her mother always dressed to match the current interior design.

“I admired my parents tremendously,” Demetrios said, “but they were terribly busy most of the time. Yet whenever my father gave me his attention, it was total and intense, real ‘quality time.’ Whatever Charles and Ray did, whether it was designing furniture, making a movie or talking to me, their concentration was absolute and superb.”

Prolific Partnership

The Office of Charles and Ray Eames, or “The Eamery,” as the famous partnership was fondly called, was extraordinarily prolific. The molded plastic chair that came out of an experiment with limb splints for wounded soldiers during World War II, and the deep-buttoned leather armchair and ottoman that Eames first designed for film director William Wilder, instantly became classics of contemporary design when they were marketed by the Herman Miller Co. in the 1950s.

A series of imaginative films with titles such as “Toccata for Toy Trains” and “Powers of Ten” explored a range of ideas from the playful to the cosmic. Toys such as the “House of Cards"--a deck of 54 decorated plastic-coated cards that slotted together in a variety of shapes--were popular sellers in the 1950s. Eames’ “Sun Machine” was an early homage to solar energy. “If you are really going to involve people,” Charles Eames once remarked, “you must open the door in an intriguing and fascinating way.”

Charles Eames and Ray Kaiser met as students in 1940 at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomington, Ill. The Sacramento-born Ray wanted to be a painter, but her meeting with Charles steered her toward design. They married in 1941. The photo on their 1944 Christmas card shows two bright-eyed people with huge smiles making shadow play on a gray backdrop. A portrait accompanying their 1976 UCLA retrospective titled “Connections” reveals that the diminutive, ample Ray reached only as high as her tall, lean husband’s shoulder.

“Whoever worked with Ray and Charles were touched by their devotion to one another and to their mutual work,” said graphic designer Deborah Sussman, who got her first job with the Eameses. “They set the standard for how to carry on as inspired professionals and delightful people. I was Ray’s friend for many years, and I miss her brisk, interested, supportive and always cheerful presence terribly.”


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