HEAR the name “Eames,” and you probably picture bent plywood “potato chip” chairs, or midcentury tables resting on “paper clip” legs -- iconic home furnishings that shaped the legacy of their designers. Less celebrated is Charles and Ray Eames’ 1949 Pacific Palisades home, though it has profoundly influenced how Southern Californians nest, even to this day.
Their glass-and-steel house and studio -- like monolithic Mondrian canvases springing from the ground -- were not merely a residence and work space. They were incubators for a new way of living. Today, upon the centennial of Charles’ birth and a yearlong schedule of events honoring the Eameses’ oeuvre, the Palisades house remains an enduring symbol of post-World War II design and L.A.'s indoor-outdoor lifestyle.
About 200 Eames devotees gathered at the house recently for brunch, cookies and cocktails, and a game of musical chairs ensued, with grown-ups scampering around like children. Hosted by three generations of Eames descendants, the June 17 picnic celebrated what would have been Charles’ 100th birthday and marked the formal dedication of the Eames House as a national historic landmark.
“California has always attracted people of imagination who felt free to express themselves,” said Bill Stern, founder of the California Museum of Design, who was on hand for the event. “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.”
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As part of the Charles Eames centennial, the Eames Office is staging exhibits and events:
Exhibits: The first installment of a two-part show on Charles and Ray Eames has opened at the Eames Office, 850 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 396-5991; www.eamesoffice.com.
Events: Through mid-2008, the Eames Office will hold centennial events on the 17th of every month. Contact the office for more information.
House: The Eames House in Pacific Palisades is owned by the nonprofit Eames Foundation. The exterior and surrounding grounds can be seen by appointment with at least 48 hours’ notice. The interior is opened once a year to foundation members and for special events. (310) 459-9663, www.eamesfoundation.org.
All in the spirit of Eames
Charles and Ray Eames’ vision of modern living has weathered trends, technological change and knockoffs for decades. Many of the objects we take for granted, such as the black vinyl and polished aluminum row seating in airports, are their creations and continue to inspire new generations of designers.
1907: Charles Ormand Eames born in St. Louis, Mo.
1912: Alexandra “Ray” Kaiser born in Sacramento.
Circa 1919: Charles’ father, an avid amateur photographer, dies.
1920-28: Charles teaches himself photography. Works in a steel mill and as a draftsman during high school. President of senior class, captain of football team.
1925: Charles starts at Washington University in St. Louis on an architecture scholarship but is later thrown out for advocating work of Frank Lloyd Wright.
1929: Charles marries Catherine Dewey Woermann. Their only child, Lucia, is born in 1930.
1930-38: Charles travels Europe seeing the work of Bauhaus architects and works at St. Louis architecture firms.
1938: Charles becomes a fellow at Cranbrook Academy of Art near Detroit. Studies with architect Eliel Saarinen and his son, Eero.
1939-41: Charles joins Cranbrook faculty. Collaboration with Eero wins two first prizes in New York’s Museum of Modern Art home furnishings competition. Entries include molded plywood chair and modular storage that can be assembled at home.
1941: Charles divorces. He marries Cranbrook student Ray Kaiser. They move to Los Angeles and live in the Richard Neutra-designed Strathmore Apartments in Westwood.
1942: Navy adopts the Eameses’ molded plywood leg splints. Eames Office continues experiments with molded aircraft parts and domestic furniture, eventually opening a workshop on what later becomes Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice.
1947: Herman Miller Co. begins manufacturing Eames furniture, including folding tables, screens and the molded plywood LCW, above, known as the “potato chip chair.”
1949: Eames House, made of a steel frame assembled in two days, completed in Pacific Palisades as Case Study House No. 8.
1950: Charles and Ray make their first 16-millimeter film, “Traveling Boy,” using windup toys as actors. Their iconic plastic “shell” chairs are introduced.
1951-53: Wire-base “surfboard” tables, wire mesh chairs and Hang-It-All coat rack designed.
1954-56: Eames Office develops stackable linked seats, seen in school auditoriums to this day. Lounge Chair and Ottoman become signature pieces for Herman Miller.
1957-59: Eames Office designs miniature railroad station at Griffith Park. Firm experiments with solar power, creating moving sculpture called the Solar Do-Nothing Machine for Alcoa.
1960: Time-Life commissions Eames Office to decorate corporate lobbies in Rockefeller Center. Solid walnut stools designed for the job become classics, to be echoed by others for years to come. At right, a contemporary stool from Hivemindesign.
1961: Eames Office designs IBM’s “Mathematica” exhibition for a new wing at what is now the California Science Center in L.A.
1963: Tandem Sling seating units manufactured for airports, including O’Hare in Chicago and Dulles in Washington, D.C.
1969-77: In between making more than 30 films and mounting exhibitions on historical figures such as Sir Isaac Newton, Charles and Ray refine classic chair designs with the Soft Pad and Loose Cushion collection.
1978: Charles dies.
1979-87: Ray continues work of Eames Office, issuing Eames Teak and Leather Sofa and working on exhaustive catalog.
1988: Ray dies.
1989: Films of Charles and Ray Eames released on VHS.
1990: With Eameses’ work still proving relevant, European manufacturer Vitra produces the 1948 design for La Chaise.
1993: Eames classics become available to the public through Herman Miller for the Home.
1997: Library of Congress exhibition on Charles and Ray begins 10-year, nine-country tour, landing at Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2000.
1999: Karim Rashid’s plastic and metal Oh chair, which owes its look to the Eameses, becomes a bestseller at $50.
2000: Herman Miller reintroduces the Shell and Arm chairs in plastic instead of original nonbiodegradable fiberglass. The chairs average sales of 100,000 units per year.
2002: Eames Demetrios, grandson of Charles, publishes “An Eames Primer.”
2004: The Eames Foundation is created to preserve the Eames House.
2007: Blu Dot, maker of desk above, and other contemporary designers continue to riff on molded plywood and paper-clip-style legs in the spirit of Eames. In conjunction with Charles’ centennial, major exhibitions are planned for every continent except Antarctica. Plywood toy elephant, designed in 1945 but never produced, to be released in a limited edition this fall.
-- David A. Keeps
More photos at latimes.com
For an expanded gallery detailing Charles and Ray Eames’ legacy, including their Pacific Palisades house and classic product designs as well as contemporary furniture inspired by the couple, go to latimes.com/home.