Charles and Ray Eames’ living room makes an interim home at LACMA
Charles and Ray Eames nurtured a design imagination that knew few boundaries, stretching far and wide, but if you were to look for its center — its heart — you might have found it in the living room of their landmark Pacific Palisades house. With its 17-foot-high ceiling, panels of glass opening to the grove of eucalyptus outside, and a vast range of objects collected over a lifetime, the Eames House living room is where two of the most influential designers of the 20th century felt at ease. It’s where the couple spent hours talking, entertaining friends such as Billy and Audrey Wilder, and of course playing with collections that informed their work.
After the Eameses died — Charles in 1978, Ray 10 years later, to the day — the room, like the house, was left largely untouched. During a visit last month, the room still felt as though Ray had just stepped out on an errand. Magazines of the day were left out for reading, the fresh flowers had been changed out — the entire scene still kept tidy by a caretaker whom the Eameses hired more than three decades ago.
That frozen-in-time tranquillity has finally been shattered, respectfully. Movers and conservators from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art descended upon the Eames House earlier this month, cataloging the living room’s contents — 1,864 items — then transporting them to the Mid-Wilshire district for installation in a full-scale replica of the Eames living room, a key component of the exhibition “California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way,” which opens Oct. 1 as part of the Pacific Standard Time collaboration running at dozens of institutions across the region.
“I was on pins and needles watching,” said Lucia Dewey Eames, Charles and Ray’s granddaughter. “A number of items had weaknesses in them, so it was all very overwhelming. Thankfully it was the museum doing the moving.”
Landmark houses, in full or in part, have been re-created before in museums, notably at Museum of Contemporary Art shows on the postwar Case Study House program and the work of architectural icon Rudolph Schindler. But exhibiting the Eames living room, if only for six months, is a coup for LACMA.
“It is rare that any room in any house is left untouched for 60 years, let alone one as significant as this,” said Bobbye Tigerman, assistant curator of decorative arts and design, who co-curated “Living in a Modern Way.”
For the uninitiated, seeing how the Eameses lived may be a surprise. Their living room does not resemble the type of rigorously formal space that people today expect in a modern house from the era. Even though the Eames House is a wonderfully calibrated exercise in steel, glass and cement panel, the idea of replicating such formalism on the interior was anathema to its owners. If anything, their architecture is forced to take a back seat to their extraordinarily diverse collection of objects.
Consumed by a quest to put their ideas about play and freedom into material form, the couple were continually excited by how others, especially in cultures far from their own, expressed themselves. The Eameses filled their living room with white-painted terra-cotta folk sculpture of Nandi (the bull of the Hindu god Shiva), a wooden spinning toy, smaller sculptures, shells, stones. Every piece had a narrative. The stylized wooden leopards, one sitting to the side of the bookcase, arrived courtesy of Billy Wilder — swapped for an Alexander Calder mobile, a deal in which Wilder thought he got the better end.
Placement of every object was critical. “Ray would always be moving things around,” said Pat Kirkham, the author of “Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century.”
“Mostly it was a few inches here or there, but how everything aligned intrigued her.”
The couple found a place for a few of their own designs. The bookcase was built at the Eames Office. An original Eames lounge and ottoman — one of the most recognizable and popular designs they created — was always part of the room, despite being a little worse for wear. Their set was the second to come off the production line. The fact that the fine, glove-quality leather was stretched and torn in places was a lesson to the two. They and the manufacturer, Herman Miller, introduced a much sturdier leather on subsequent iterations that is still used today.
At the time, the couple’s crosscultural and highly dense approach to decorating was much discussed. The house and its living room was published in numerous popular magazines, including Family Circle.
As full as it was, the living room remained a family space, ideal for children and adults alike. Lucia Dewey Atwood remembered her grandfather Charles jumping off the loft in the adjoining studio and landing on a pile of cardboard boxes. He insisted that all the grandchildren follow suit.
“It was so much fun,” she recalled. “Wherever you were it was always a house about play.”
Given its history, it was difficult for members of the Eames family to agree to dismantling the room. But they realized that LACMA’s offer not only would be part of the house’s legacy, but also could jump-start a fund-raising campaign to preserve the house. The Eames Foundation will take advantage of an empty house to begin the first renovations of the landmark, also known as Case Study House No. 8, since its completion in 1949.
For its part of the move, the museum proved to be a careful partner. The first job: to ensure nothing in the house had been damaged by insects. The museum suggested that all books, magazines, rugs, blankets — anything made of organic materials — be sterilized. Thus before installation at the museum, about 1,500 items were placed in a freezer truck for five days. (When its doors were opened, “there was absolutely no sign of infestation,” Tigerman said.)
Next spring, after “Living in a Modern Way” closes, the contents of the Eames living room, now certifiably insect-free, will be delivered back to the house in the Palisades. Charles and Ray will have entertained thousands more guests, and their inspiration no doubt will be taken back to a new generation of homes. The task for the Eames descendants, meanwhile, will be to make sure each object returns to its proper place, as though Ray will be back from that errand any minute.