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Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012

Charles and Ray Eames: A deep-seated legacy


Special to The Japan Times

A touring exhibition and a recently released full-length documentary are shedding new light on the polymathic world of the U.S. couple Charles and Ray Eames, two of the most prolific and influential creatives of the 20th century.

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Talking family: Eames Demetrios — at the "Essential Eames" exhibition at the Living Design Center Ozone in Tokyo's Shinjuku district — talks about his grandparents Charles and Ray Eames' contribution to design, film and architecture, and his personal involvement in keeping their ideas alive today. © STEPHAN JARVIS
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"Essential Eames" at the Living Design Center Ozone in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, captures the multi-faceted careers of the Eames; from their truly legendary furniture designs (the Eames chair is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York) to their involvement in film, architecture and other artistic arenas. And featured at the exhibition is Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey's documentary: "Eames: The Architect and The Painter", which, narrated by leading American actor James Franco, delves into the professional and private lives of the couple who stayed together and helped shape the aesthetics of the century despite World War II, and artistic and personal difficulties.

Charles Eames once said: "Eventually everything connects — people, ideas, objects." This is more than evident in the exhibition and documentary, which both reveal the pair's staggering body of work that continues to connect and bind us today. Their grandson, Eames Demetrios, director of the Eames Office and filmmaker, author, consultant and polymath, visited Tokyo earlier this month to introduce the exhibition to a Japanese audience. The Japan Times sat down with him to hear his thoughts on the exhibition, his books about Charles and Ray, and his family's astonishing legacy.

Where did the idea for "Essential Eames" come from, and what is its aim?

The "Essential Eames" show started with a book I wrote called "An Eames Primer," which I wrote because I felt that there wasn't a book out there that really dealt with the ideas behind Charles and Ray's designs, and by extension a lot of design, while also capturing their biography and story.

I also wanted to write a book that was fun to read. Most design books tend to be pretty much about the finished product. They don't really go into the process, — and there are a lot of great stories to be told involving design

I wrote the book about 10 years ago and the response has been quite wonderful — it's being used in a lot of schools. Then we started talking about the fact that not everybody learns through a book and how it would be cool to do an exhibition where people could learn, use ideas and have the visceral experience of being with the objects.

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Eames wire chair © HERMAN MILLER

We thought — "we" as in we worked with Herman Miller) — we could base something on "An Eames Primer" because the chapters are broken up thematically and we could use that as a structure for the exhibition — and so that's what happened.

The show opened in Hong Kong, it's been to Jakarta, and it's going to Singapore next, then hopefully to other places in Asia Pacific.

Can you tell us more about why you felt the need to write "An Eames Primer"?

What happened was, my grandmother died very suddenly in 1988 — and I realized if one of us didn't pay attention then the things we cared about would go away. I was in Los Angeles, so I thought I should give this a try. It felt like the right thing to do and it turned out to be pretty amazing.

In the process (of writing the book) I did about 200 hours of history interviews with people who knew my grandparents. I also did a ton of original research and looked at many documents. I tried to dig into it, follow my intuition and figure out how to know more.

There really needed to be design books that you could enjoy as a read — as stories, instead of just being picture books. So it all kind of came together. It was simple — these ideas need to be shared. This is especially true for design students. So many things are "presented" — you see a beautiful object, but you don't learn about how it got there. If you are a student, one of the things you need to know is how these things happen.

What about your other book, "Eames: Beautiful Details"?

People had been asking us for a long time when were we going to do a coffee-table book — and then we came up with a simple concept.

One of the questions about coffee-table books is: Where do the words come from? I'm the author of this book, but I had a lot of help — I wanted it to be written by the first three generations of the family. So, Charles and Ray's words are there, my mother's words are there, and my brother, my three sisters and my own words are there — and it turned out really great.

What was your involvement with the new documentary "Eames: The Architect and the Painter"?

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Eames lounge and ottoman © HERMAN MILLER

That film was inspired by "An Eames Primer" and I was interviewed for it. We didn't want to exhort any creative control over it; we didn't try to and I'm sure they wouldn't have wanted us to. If you want the creative control, you really should be the one making the film. But we were very involved in that we cooperated with them fully and didn't try to influence the content.

I think it's a very good introduction for people to Charles and Ray's work and the response has been good.

What kind of legacy do you feel Charles and Ray have left for designers today?

Their influence is pretty astounding. A lot of people will say that there is not one chair that is made today that doesn't have some part of an Eames chair in it somewhere — and that's probably true.

I think what's even more interesting is that they made so many major contributions to so many different disciplines.

There are these six media that Charles and Ray explored and for which they made contributions that have completely withstood the test of time. They each would be major contributions if they were the only things they did.

Architecture: the Eames House — one of the most important postwar residences in the world. If that was the only thing they did, they would be famous architects.

The chairs: they did two of these chairs which are famous furniture designs.

Toys: "House of Cards". After 60 years they're still in production, still selling tens of thousands a year.

Exhibitions: "Mathematica" is still a landmark. The "Mathematica" exhibit is on permanent display in two museums right now, 50 years after it was designed. The content is still completely valid.

Then there's the graphics, textiles and posters that they designed, and film. If the only film they ever made was "Powers of Ten" everybody would know them as filmmakers.

When you ask why is their influence so widespread, it's because they put their philosophy — they expressed their philosophy — in so many different media. You could say but what's the common thread? And what's interesting is there's no stylistic common thread: It's an intellectual common thread.

The Eames Office mission is to communicate, preserve and extend Charles and Ray's work, that legacy. The reason why it's so important to take care of their furniture is that the chair which Charles and Ray were designing back then, is the chair Herman Miller will still make tomorrow. They weren't trying to design a one-off vintage piece; they were trying to create a system that offered this guest-host relationship again and again. Charles said the role of the designer is that of a good host anticipating the needs of the guest. It puts the human being in the center of the whole conversation.

Our job as the Eames family is to make sure you're treated as a guest when you sit in these chairs the way Charles and Ray intended.

"Essential Eames" at Living Design Center Ozone, Shinjuku Park Tower, Shinjuku, runs till Jan. 15; open 10:30 a.m. — 7 p.m. Free admission. Closed Wed. and between Dec. 26-Jan. 3. www.ozone.co.jp.


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