”Innovate as a last resort” was a famous quote from Charles Eames, and considering the knack of innovation of Charles( 1907-78) and wife Ray Eames ( 1912-88), seems almost counter intuitive and against the grain of their virtuosity.To them, everyday objects acquired a unique charge that can only be described as Eamesian.Charles Eames was once asked, “To whom does design address itself: to the greatest number, to the specialist of an enlightened matter, to a privileged social class?” His response was, “Design addresses itself to the need.”
This ”touch” and spirit is tempting to describe, even mythologize, but is best left to understand within the context of the breadth and depth of their creative push. At heart of their philosophy was the belief that honesty as a virtue, should not only be applied to human emotions, but projected onto all materials and inanimate objects.”Charles and Ray Eames also put a high value on the ephemera of everyday life. All the information they needed to do their legendary work they found in ordinary things like Mexican pots, seashells, cigarette packs; from a study of toy tops came an eloquent presentation of the physics of motion and spin; from the circus, a creative way to organize creative people.’ ”
They in a sense, were combining much of the aesthetic of Bauhaus art of Walter Gropius and design into a new fusion of with a particularly American soundtrack adapted to what what Walter Benjamin regarded as ”mechanical aura”.A attempt to bypass the perception of modernist design as cold and impersonal, sacrificed to a machine aesthetic lacking diversity.Thus, the Eames raised serious questions about semiotics, ”functionalism” the relationship between object and user, and a world ruled by machinery.
A key concept for them, a liberating thread that freed the thinking for materialism was their conception of ”ideas” as products. The idea far outweighing the importance of the medium in delivering that idea. For example, their films were mere vessels for an idea; the medium being the servant and not the message. That message was delivered with great clarity; a visual language both spare and precise capturing all within ten minutes.
On the broader context, the Eames had a belief in progress, and a coherent understanding of what was initially termed the ”acceleration of history” by the French futurist Concordet in his ”Esquisse”. The idea of a progressive development of equality has a very recent history, first composed in the shadow of the guillotine at a time when France had sunk back into an abyss of tyrannical violence and passion. Concordet’s pamphlet, advocating the abolition of medieval work quotas, ”corvees” that many French peasants were still forced to provide for their landlords, stirred up so mich opposition that in January,176, Versailles ordered it seized and burned.
”The more we know about a motive, the less irresistible is its force” was, roughly speaking, Concordet,s formulation of a principle that might be called, without exaggeration, the first principle of psychology. That Concordet should thus unwittingly have anticipated freud is not as surprising as it might at first sight seem. Here as elsewhere he was only following in the footsteps of Descartes, the man who had proclaimed self-analysis and introspection to be the touchstone of cognition. After writing a another pamphlet on the new constitution being designed to favor, ”the audacity of some scoundrel who might widsh to mount the throne”, namely the Jacobin, Robespierre, Concordet was under house arrest and wrote his mgnum opus ”Esquisse” while his other Girondist friends passed into the great beyond by means of the public spectacle in the Place de Revolution. He died of stroke in prison. The ideas in ”Esquisse” however, with some influence of Rousseau and Voltaire, have served to guide the creative spirit; the destruction of inequality between nations,the progress of equality within the same people, and the perfecting of humankind.
What Concordat did not foresee, of course, was almost as important as what he did. In yoking together liberty, equality and progress, he assumed that this trio was bound to gallop forward in a smoothly parallel course. A surfeit of liberty leading to chaos and tyranny, and a pursuit of equality to the curtailment of individual liberty.
The Eames were part of a special generation, born before WWI and influenced by the modern literary movement of the 1920′s such as Yeats, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, experimental painting, non objective art of Kandinsky and the International style in architecture in the buildings of Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. The Eames were on the cusp of the modern world and their radical innovations in design crossed disciplines and was part of their own startling new way of seeing the world. In music Schonberg and Webern had broken through to atonalism; it was in this period too
t Emile Durkheim and Max Weber wrote the classics of sociology, bringing into focus such modern concerns as charisma, bureaucratization,the disenchantment of a world without religion, and, above all,the personal dilemmas of anomie and alienation.
It is important to note that Charles & Ray were active at an pivotal juncture in the history of design. They were working in post-war America, where business was experiencing unprecedented growth, and the American public had acquired a taste for good design. They were working for large multi nationals like IBM, who under Thomas Watson, were obsessed with their corporate image, especially in light of involvement with various branches of German government in the pre-war WWII period.
Charles & Ray Eames were artists adept at an astonishing number of disciplines. They produced museum exhibitions, architecture, logotypes, toys, slide-shows, furniture, books, photography, paintings and over 100 films. However, their films are the least discussed of their output. They are one of the few American artists with an entire era named after them, but their films are rarely placed on a level with their furniture or architecture. And yet their films contain some of the most generous, sincere and original ideas of the century.
Upon arriving in California in 1941, they began experimenting with molded wood, using a machine they had crafted to pressure-treat wood. After finessing the technique, they were contracted by the US Army to produce splints and stretchers made from a single mold. The molded plywood experiments would ultimately develop into their best known furniture designs: the plywood chairs and later, the Eames lounger.The first chairs were designed without upholstery, and therefore exposing the base plywood. This represented an important ideal for Charles & Ray. Objects and materials should be appreciated for their intrinsic worth, and should not be disguised as anything else.The Eames followed their original premise behind the plywood chair; make an organic piece of furniture with the least possible components. This was a general maxim in science that says the best solution to a problem is often the simplest, and therefore the most elegant.The first chairs were designed without upholstery, and therefore exposing the base plywood. This represented an important ideal for Charles & Ray. Objects and materials should be appreciated for their intrinsic worth, and should not be disguised as anything else.
One of Charles and ray’s best known works is the film ”Think” (1964) ; a sensational lesson in problem solving done with a multiple screen presentation for IBM at the 1964-65 World’s fair. The IBM pavilion, The Ovoid, was an egg shaped structure designed by Charles and Eero Sarinen and was based on the principle of stacked architecture which Mary Blair of Disney would banalize and incorporate ad nauseam into the new Disney World with much public acclaim as to originality.
”It is not entirely clear at first how IBM, as a client, would benefit from an extremely expensive film on problem solving, and one that didn’t even highlight IBM products. Thomas Watson has stated that his company had an ongoing self-interest in cultivating a well educated American society. Eames Demetrios, in his book Eames Primer, saw it like so: “Charles tried to put it in a more hard-nosed context of genuine value for the company over the longer term — not just the notion that a well-educated public would in the long run be a healthier society and a better market for IBM’s products, but also that a society with deeper understandings was a better one for IBM to operate within.” When you take into account the technology that IBM was developing and marketing, this becomes a very progressive notion. And at the same time, one gets the impression that Charles was putting a wicked spin on the situation to further his own interests. He once said about IBM, “I think I could even persuade them of the value of the toy films if I had to.” Nearly all their films remain artistic through a desire to expose ideas which created its own art form and resulted in turning apparently dry subjects into something frothing with vigor and liveliness.
”Charles & Ray Eames used film as a “tool,” and asserted that their films were vessels for an idea. For them, the idea was more important than the medium. When one interviewer proposed that their films might be interpreted as experimental, Charles replied, “They’re not experimental films, they’re not really films. They’re just attempts to get across an idea.” Paul Schrader, in the lone academic article about their films, “Poetry of Ideas,” published in Film Quarterly in 1970, said, “The classic movie staple is the chase, and Eames’ films present a new kind of chase, a chase through a set of information in search of an Idea.”’
Powers of Ten (1977) is the Eames’ best known work and a culmination of many ideas and themes. It presents the profound idea of orders of magnitude, with the subtitle of the film being: A Film Dealing With the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero. The film was originally developed in 1968 and was entitled, A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing with the Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe. The “rough sketch” in the title is testament to the Eames’ penchant for perpetually iterative design. The film has a cyclical structure and could be played from tail to head with the same effect. It has been termed ”cognitive art” since the maps, charts and graphs incorporate the element of time; seeing the progression of space and feeling it in the progress of time.
”Their films have a tendency to alternate between what Italian writer Italo Calvino might refer to as “lightness and density.” Most of their films are a careful balance of heavy information interspersed with refreshing bits of featherweight beauty and humor. In all of their short mathematical films, after a set of challenging equations, a small animated heart pops out just before the end of the film.” ( Michael Neault )
Ultimately, the Eames combined the rigors of rationalism with more openly expressive and affective qualities of design. They drew on modern fine art and reconciled the mutually contradictory strands of modernist design, the ”machine aesthetic” and organic modernism.”John Berry—a marketer for Herman Miller, the producers of Eames and Nelson furniture—put the proceedings into a historic context. “As entrepreneurs, Charles and Ray did not wait to be commissioned for work. They sought out problems to solve,” Berry said. “They were certainly influenced by their education in architecture and painting, but for them there was no significant difference between design disciplines. There was only the importance of applying good skills and thinking to a shared understanding of a common problem.’ ”