Charles and Ray Eames “were as careful with their words as they were with their designs,” says author and scholar Daniel Ostroff, whose latest book, “An Eames Anthology: Articles, Film Scripts, Interviews, Letters, Notes, and Speeches,” is a compilation of material from 1941 to 1986.
The book is illustrated with rarely seen drawings and photographs, and about 70% of the collected texts are previously unpublished, Ostroff notes. “They were very good at coming up with one-liners, such as ‘Take your pleasure seriously.’”
What makes the Eameses work enduring, he adds, is “the applicability of their ideas to the problems of today and tomorrow.” Charles and Ray even teamed with Alcoa to produce a solar-powered toy. “Who else was thinking about that in 1959?” Ostroff asks.
Ostroff, also the author of “Modern Classic: The Eames Plastic Chair,” “Eames + Valastro: Design in the Life of an American Family” and “Collecting Eames: The JF Chen Collection,” is a veteran Hollywood producer too. On Saturday, he will give a lecture, titled “An Affection for Objects: New Insights Into the Work of Charles and Ray Eames,” at the Los Angeles Modernism Show. He will also be speaking about the designers at the Neutra VDL House in Silver Lake on May 23, at UCLA’s Royce Hall on May 28 and at Boomerang for Modern in San Diego on May 30.
Charles and Ray Eames worked in Venice and lived in an early prefab steel-and-glass box house of their own design in Pacific Palisades. How did L.A. influence the couple’s work?
There was nothing about Los Angeles that influenced the look of their designs. Though many are attractive, they never were about “style” or the “appearance of things,” nor were they regimented about the materials that they used.
Southern California did give them the opportunity to test their idea of ultimate service and performance. For example, furniture that could be used indoors and out. In doing this book, I learned that they wanted a weather-resistant finish on their molded plywood. They again explored this idea with molded fiberglass, and when they first released the Eames aluminum group, they called it the Indoor Outdoor group.
At one time you owned 175 Eames-designed pieces. What are the holy grails?
I prized the examples where I could see their minds at work, addressing a problem in a straightforward way, such as a simple piece of bent steel that served as the torsion bar on a tilt mechanism. Right now, the holy grails are plywood pieces from 1946 to 1948 and molded fiberglass from 1950. I still own three vintage upholstered wire rocking chairs, which I particularly admire. Those haven’t been made since 1967.
Collectors view vintage Eames pieces as the most desirable. What would the designers think?
As Ray put it in 1975, “that’s very nice, to make one thing. But to be able to keep the quality in mass production is the only reason we’ve been working so hard … to figure a way the hundredth and the five hundredth and the thousandth would have the original character.” At LAX and the Apple store in Santa Monica, you can sit on new Eames chairs; they are good design in every sense of the word. I hope collectors will come to appreciate the contemporary iterations as much as customers do.
What role did Ray play in the Eames legend?
Charles once said, “When the camera is on me, I’m the know-it-all of the century. With Ray it is much simpler; she freezes.” Charles rarely missed an opportunity to credit Ray as being “equally responsible for everything that comes out of the office.” She was his intellectual equal, and that shines through in her texts and in the covers she designed for Arts & Architecture magazine.
Whom would you cast in an Eames movie?
Let’s make three: Theo James and Alicia Vikander as Charles and Ray when they first moved to Los Angeles. During the daytime, Charles was working in set design at MGM, while Ray was shaping molded plywood. On weekends, they are broke and holding hands, looking wistfully at the tools in the windows at the Sears in Santa Monica. At the climax, the U.S. Navy gives them a contract for their lifesaving leg splint.
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie would be Charles and Ray when they wowed the citizens of Moscow in 1959 with their “Glimpses of the USA” multi-screen film, then gave Herman Miller the bestselling lounge chair. But Ray was short, so Angelina Jolie would have to wear flat shoes.
Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand would be Charles and Ray in the 1970s. It would be an updated version of “The Way We Were,” except they would stay together and accomplish a lot.
Los Angeles Modernism Show
What: More than 40 dealers from around the world will exhibit 20th century furniture and decorative and fine arts.
Where: 3Labs, 8461 Warner Drive, Culver City
When: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. April 25, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 26
Tickets: $15 (includes catalog)