The World of Charles and Ray Eames, Barbican Centre

26 October 2015

Charles and Ray Eames are amongst the most important designers of the 20th century. They are best known to the general public for their furniture when in fact, they were revolutionary in the fields of architecture, industrial design, graphic and product design, multi-media installation, sculpture, photography, and film. The World of Charles and Ray Eames is a major new exhibition at London’s Barbican which will highlight their far reaching influence, including the extraordinary work of the Eames Office: a ‘laboratory’ active for more than forty years.


Husband-and-wife team, Charles and Ray Eames, had a singular vision of how the world works and how good design can enhance the lives of people who live in it. This was the methodology they applied to everything they collaborated on from their furniture design, Case Study Houses, more than one hundred films, and the series of exhibitions they presented all over the world. Their aim was to “bring the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least.” They met at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where Charles was the newly appointed head of the Industrial Design Department, and Ray, a new student interested in all things concerning design. In 1941, they married and embarked on a new life together in California. Within a month they began making LA connections including John Entenza, the influential publisher of Arts & Architecture magazine, and architect, Richard Neutra.


After a stint in the Art Department at MGM studios, Charles began to make moulded-wood splints for the U.S. Navy, so successful were these, the Eameses formed the Plyformed Wood Company, and after considerable expansion, moved into larger quarters on Washington Boulevard in Venice which became known as the official Eames Office. Charles and Ray became heavily involved with Arts & Architecture magazine with Ray designing many of the covers. The Case Study House Program was officially launched in the magazine’s pages. Between 1945 and 1949 the Eameses with Eero Saarinen designed and built Case Study Houses #8 and #9 on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Pacific Palisades. #8 became known as the Eames House and the pair lived there for the rest of their lives. Tours can still be taken around the residence today. There is a fascinating area within the exhibition dedicated to the house, displaying the detailed drawings and models, including some rare footage of the interior.


Prominently displayed in the living room of the Eames House is the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, the culmination of years of experimentation, and the chair which the couple were most proud of. Having developed a lexicon of furniture unlike anything that had gone before, from furniture made of plywood, fiberglass, plastic, wire mesh, and aluminium, this 1956 wood and leather lounge chair was the most iconic. As Charles famously said: “I want the chair to have the warm, receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt.”


Charles and Ray often used the phrase “serious fun” and this code for living is perfectly illustrated in the exhibition they mounted at the California Museum of Science and Industry named Mathematica: A World of Numbers and Beyond. This would be the first concept exhibition designed by the Eames Office. Visitors entered a theme park of fundamental maths problems and their solutions which were conveyed by means of graphic panels, demonstrations, and explanatory interactive devices. Five “peep shows” comprised animation on subjects including functions, symmetry, and topology. Music was supplied by film composer Elmer Bernstein who was a good friend.

A celluloid thread running through all of Charles & Ray endeavours was a series of short films. From 1950 to 1978 they produced more than a hundred films from two to 22 minutes long, on a whole range of subjects to their timeless masterpiece: Powers of Ten. One of their other memorable short films is Day of the Dead (1957), watch here.


After Charles’ death in 1978, Ray spent the rest of her life organising, cataloging and writing about their vast output. She died in 1988, ten years to the day after her husband. Their archive of words, drawings and images are housed in three Library of Congress Divisions, and the Vitra Design Museum in Germany. In 2004 the Eames Foundation was established to preserve the Eames House and the work of Charles and Ray Eames for further generations.

The World of Charles and Ray Eames, Barbican Centre, runs until 14 February 2015.

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Images thanks to Getty.