Wednesday, July 30, 2008
The architect Charles Ormand Eames (1907–1978) and his designer wife Ray Kaiser Eames (1912–1988) moved to southern California in 1941 into a new apartment building designed by Richard Neutra. Between 1945 and 1949 they designed and built their family home at Pacific Palisades. Known simply as the Eames House, the unconventional residence can be considered an architectural feat in that it was economically constructed entirely from “off-the-peg” components, most of which were available at any building materials suppliers. In the difficult years immediately after World War II, the designers thus demonstrated to the United States that good design need not be expensive, a mission they continued to fulfill for the rest of their lives.
The house was commissioned as part of the Case Study House Program, sponsored by John Entenza’s West Coast journal Arts and Architecture. The periodical, setting out to promote good design, was seeking ideas for the creative application of the new technologies and materials developed during the war. Of course, as thousands of GIs were demobilized, one of the objectives of the program was to build “homes fit for heroes.” Each house had a hypothetical client, and the Eameses designed one that combined a living space and studio for their own family setup, a working couple with grown children.
The first version was produced through a collaboration between Charles and the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, under whom he had studied at Cranbrook Academy, Michigan. They also worked together on Entenza’s Bridge House for the lot next door. Then the Eameses together developed their own house, first proposing a single-story box on stilts, typical of the “International Style” brought to the United States by European émigrés. Receiving permission to build, they had the structural steel delivered to the site. But concerned that the house would look too much like the minimalist houses being provided by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, they revised the design.
By 1949 they had generated a proposal for two full-height pavilions, separating the living and studio functions by means of an open courtyard. They managed to enclose a much greater volume of space with the need for only one more steel beam. This design was eventually built. The standard 7.5-foot (2.25-meter) bays of framing were assembled mostly from industrially made, black-painted steel window and door modules. They held clear panels of wired or translucent glass and other opaque ones of aluminum, timber, fiberglass, asbestos cement, or stucco, painted white, blue, red, or black. Some were even covered in gold leaf. There was a full-height living room at the south end, whose sliding windows opened to decks made of railroad ties. A spiral ship’s stair (ordered from a marine catalog) led to bedrooms on a mezzanine; under the mezzanine was a small alcove with built-in seats and bookcases, and a kitchen. Charles and Ray Eames lived in their “house of parts” for the rest of their lives.
By precept and practice, and by the exploitation of technology, they made an invaluable social contribution by promoting the awareness of good design throughout the United States. Their design partnership encompassed many fields: architectural works from houses to exhibitions; innovative plywood, aluminum, or fiberglass chairs; graphics; toy animals; and even a carousel. They also produced more than 120 films. Recently, an international exhibition of their achievements was mounted at Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany. Vitra was the European manufacturer of their furniture for more than thirty years. The show, The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention, traveled to Bilbao, Paris, Copenhagen, and London before beginning its American tour at the Library of Congress in May 1999, after which it moved to New York, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Seattle.