The world of Charles and Ray Eames

Published 19 October 2015

Charles and Ray Eames contributed much more to art and design than their iconic chairs, as a Barbican exhibition reveals.

  • From the Autumn 2015 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    There was no signature style, no instantly recognisable “look” to their work, but Ray and Charles Eames remain among the most influential American designers of the 20th century. Chances are you have already encountered the Eames’s remarkably proliferated work whether you’ve known it or not, relaxing in one of their understated but comfortable chairs.

    Visitors to The World of Charles and Ray Eames at the Barbican can immerse themselves in the restless and playful energy that defined the couple’s 40-year career. The show includes not just the furniture for which they are best known, but the range of products, objects, films, photographs and archival materials that evidence their approach to design. Charles, a trained architect who never received his degree, met Ray, an abstract painter, at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan; both viewed their design work as extensions of their respective fields. Together, they were enthusiastic and tireless experimenters, constantly modelling, photographing, prototyping. Design, for them, was a changing set of solutions, in their words, “a plan for arranging elements in such a way as to best accomplish a particular purpose”.

  • The Eames Office that they established in Los Angeles in 1943 was a circus of activity, aiming to use mass-production techniques to provide high quality but affordable furniture to America’s then rapidly growing middle class. It soon expanded to include products such as toys and even splints for the US army, and brought their free-wheeling manner of working to unlikely clients such as IBM and the US government.

    It was primarily Charles who was credited for their work; appearing on the Today show to promote a new chair, the hostess asks Ray, “So how do you support your husband in his work?” “Well, mostly by the extreme testing of the materials,” she jokes.

    Perhaps more important than the physical output was their commitment to contextualising their approach: their lectures, exhibition design and films became prominent. Remarkably, at the height of the Cold War, their film Glimpses of the USA (1959) was shown at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in a seven-screen installation, showing scenes from across the US to stress a commonality with the Russian audience: “We see the same stars each night… and from the sky it would be difficult to distinguish the Russian city from the American city.”

    It is this concern for mutual understanding and accessibility that shapes much of the Eames approach: materials and methods to reach a large audience. Given the elite status of the furniture designs that are still in production, how much they achieved that accessibility is debatable.

    Showing elsewhere around the UK are a young set of contemporary artists, such as Magali Reus and RA Schools alumni Matthew Darbyshire and Natalie Dray, who are embracing design, industrial materials and the Eames’s model of mass-production to consider our relationship with our surroundings today. This is just one aspect of the considerable legacy that the pair have left to both art and design.

  • Still of Glimpses of the U.S.A., Moscow, 1959. The World of Charles and Ray Eames

    Still of Glimpses of the U.S.A., Moscow, 1959. The World of Charles and Ray Eames

    © Eames Office LLC

  • The World of Charles and Ray Eames, Barbican Centre Art Gallery, 21 October – 14 February 2016

    Inspired by Eames

    From mass-production techniques to furniture trends, young artists today are drawing on product design:

    Nicolas Deshayes: British Art Show 8, Leeds City Art Gallery, until 10 January 2016
    The undulating surfaces of Nicholas Deshayes’ wall-based works give them the appearance of rocks or rough water. But their organic sense is undermined by their resolute artifice: their aluminium frames contain semi-transparent sheets of vacuum-formed plastic, or large polystyrene blocks that have odd landscapes cut into their façades. The synthetic materials we take for granted are here transformed into unsettling designs for the future.

    Matthew Darbyshire, Manchester Art Gallery, until 10 January 2016
    RA Schools alumnus Matthew Darbyshire considers the history of design and the sometimes overlooked forms design takes. He creates fictional sitting rooms (pictured) crowded with objects, from Windsor chairs to multi-coloured versions of classical sculptures. His juxtaposition of artefacts, remakes and replicas makes the style choices of the centuries seem like temporary veneers.

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