I’ve been thinking a lot about über-couple Charles and Ray Eames recently; those of you who attended last week’s Urho Talks will know the territory I’m about to shlep into.
If you don’t know, Charles and Ray were designers, architects and filmmakers who are responsible for many classic, iconic designs of the 20th century (Thanks, Wikipiedia!). Notably, a great deal of wonderful furniture, the IBM Pavilion of the 1964 World’s Fair, ground-breaking exhibition designs, and over 100 short films.
Their place in the world of “Design” (whatever that means) is both unclear and totally manifest, maybe because of their uncanny understanding of scale: They managed to tenderly articulate the relative dimensionality of the universe while molding chairs out of fiberglass, as though those two things were part and parcel of the same practice.
Charles Eames once called modern architecture “a philosophy of life,” as opposed to a style. Obviously, because the Eames’ architectural practice extended far beyond putting buildings together: They were architects of form (furniture), sure, but maybe more than anything else, they were information architects. They did with ideas what they did with furniture, by always arranging shapes and structures into their most minimal components. The end product is always radically simplified, both aesthetically unfettered and popular, in the sense of being comprehensible to all, without bias. It was often said of their low side chairs and molded plywood furniture that they were both “strong,” and “light;” in the same sense, their films and exhibition designs articulated inordinately complex ideas (strong) without ever being bogged down (light).
Of course, they weren’t scientists, but they explained the world the way scientists should. I know everyone saw this movie in grammar school, but Powers Of Ten is a monument of humility and grace, as well as a perfect example of the Eamesian tendency to talk simply about complicated things — here, the relative size of the Universe. And yes, the opening scene of the Robert Zemeckis film Contact bites this experiment of “adding another zero” with considerable tinseltown panache, to be honest.
While on the science tip: the Eames office made a series of “Mathematical Peepshows” for IBM, including some animated films that simplified the conceptual workings of computers. These, as well as their wonderful film about Polaroid’s SX-70 Sonar Camera, are worthy of seeking out. You can find them on the Films of Charles and Ray Eames DVD set (Netflix has ‘em).
Theme #2 echoing throughout the 50-year Eames tenure is a ceaseless elevation of the seemingly mundane; a great deal of their short films are simple celebrations of the lives of material objects. The 15-minute Tops, for example, shows a beautiful collection of tops in every stage of spin and rattle, while Bread is a series of panning shots of fresh-baked bread of all forms (at the original screening, Ray Eames orchestrated bread-smells through the theater’s ventilation system). Toccata for Toy Trains places antique toys in a fanciful, collaborative environment with one another. The Eameses collected knick-knacks from all around the world; to them, objects had presence, rights, onus, and the correct use of quotidian objects was essential to human well-being, as well as pleasure. From the 1972 film, Design Q&A:
Q: Does design imply the idea of products that are necessarily useful?
A: Yes– even though the use might be surely subtle.
Q: It is able to cooperate in the creation of works reserved solely for pleasure?
A: Who would say that pleasure is not useful?
It makes sense that they would be so obsessed with making documentary-style films about objects, since all they did in their careers was sacralize quotidian, functional things. They are most known for designing chairs, for crying out loud: how much more pragmatic can you get?
Both of these prevailing ideas — the radical simplification of form and the celebration of the mundane — are rooted, I think, in the same all-encompassing ethic. Charles and Ray Eames understood that all artists are also, to a certain extent, curators. Painters collect forms and color into a predetermined personal space, the canvas, and all their work has something to do with this, no matter how conceptual: all we do in life is collect ideas and re-arrange them. The Eameses got it, and I don’t think they ever considered that they were stepping outside of their architectural or design practice by making films, photographs, textiles, or toys. It was all part of the same thing: a desire to curate the world into a comprehensible, beautiful, and efficient place.