Charles and Ray Eames could possibly be called the first couple of furniture design. In the early ’40s, the American couple were in the single pursuit of making moulded plywood furniture that could be mass produced. Almost every new homemaker is familiar with their classic lounge chair with an ottoman. Though many imitations are available in the market, sitting in a true Eames Chair feels like the warm embrace of a dear one. This iconic chair finds its place in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
But it didn’t come easy for the Eameses who had many iterations of its design. Eames Demetrios, their grandson, testifies that it took nearly 13 versions of the armrest and eight back supports and experiments in material, including glove leather, to reach this level of comfort. He has curated “Essential Eames Pocket Edition”, an exhibition which covers architecture, furniture and toys. Drawn from his book The Eames Primer, it showcases rare images, sketches and design pieces of the architect-artist couple.
As Director of the Eames Office in California, Demetrios, a filmmaker and multimedia designer, has taken the exhibition to Singapore and Hong Kong and is currently showing at the Gensler gallery in Bangalore, which closes on January 3, 2016. Herman Miller, the American company that designs and markets Eames furniture in the US and India, has brought the exhibition to the country.
“My grandparents believed that the role of a good designer is one of a good host anticipating the needs of a guest. So they built a system for this guest-host experience,” says Demetrios, as he encourages visitors to sit around on the different chairs. His grandparents never made sketches of their designs until it was finished, informs Demetrios. Pointing to an office/outdoor chair, one of the exhibits, he says, “They did make a sketch for this one. But it wasn’t about the whole chair. It showed how the cloth fit the frame. They visualised how the person in the factory would assemble it. Their chairs were always designed inside out, not outside in.”
Though only a teaser of the large show in Bangalore, the day-long exhibition in Delhi, last week, had some of the couple’s iconic furniture pieces, including the 1945 LCW (Lounge Chair Wood), which Time magazine called “the chair of the century”, the Eames Compact Sofa, the fibreglass side chairs and the plastic elephant. Under the guidance of Demetrios, Herman Miller has taken forward the Eames legacy by experimenting with new materials, which straddle comfort and sustainability. But chairs were not the only element of their four-decade repertoire. From toys to films and homes to photography, Charles and Ray were masters in every sphere.
In 1955, the couple travelled to India to make a film on the exhibition “Textiles and Ornamental Arts of India” by Edgar Kaufmann and Alexander Girard. Three years later, they would prepare The India Report, at the request of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The report referenced the ubiquitous lota as a symbol of tradition meeting modern needs. Their notes carried questions on designing products that are used today as a “philosophical touchstone” by design schools across India. Out of this report was born the government-founded National School of Design in Ahmedabad in 1961. Later, they returned after Nehru’s death to work with first-year students on the exhibition “Nehru: His Life and His India” in 1965. Commissioned by Indira Gandhi, the show travelled across India and abroad and finally found a place at architect Raj Rewal’s Nehru Pavilion in Pragati Maidan. Today, the pavilion is under threat and the exhibits are no longer on display.
But Demetrios is concerned about a fallacy among designers around the world. “Designers today are doing a disservice by focusing only on the visual. For most people, it is about how a thing looks. Design should be that sweet spot where something is functional and well-designed,” he says.
He narrates an incident where he visited a house in St Louis, USA, where Charles began his architectural practice. “I knocked on the door and said my grandfather made this house. The guy knew it was built by Charles and told me that it was the only house he lived in where everything was in the right place. Charles and Ray surrendered to the journey, it was one of continuous discovery. This exhibition shows that journey,” says Demetrios.