Eight Art Project
Eight Art Project

Charles and Ray Eames at the Barbican Center.

It is never simple to take on the classics, especially when you are dealing with images and objects that are part of a truly collective visual and cultural heritage. The Barbican Center in London seems to have pulled it off, devoting to the American designers Charles (1907-78) and Ray Eames (1912-88) an ample and many-sided retrospective that can be visited in the spaces of the center’s Art Gallery until February 14, 2016. In a captivating sequence of objects, videos, projects and photographs, the curator Catherine Ince—with the invaluable cooperation of the Eames Foundation in Los Angeles and a team of architects from the London-based studio 6A, responsible for the design of the display—has succeeded in constructing an unprecedented narrative, telling the story of not just the career but also the inexhaustible inventiveness that lay behind the creativity of the Californian couple. Not only their celebrated seats molded from plastic or wood, then, but a fascinating dip into one of the most eclectic personal and professional archives of the 20th century. In particular, ample space is given to their unfinished projects and to those of advertising and graphic design, in other words to each of the many aspects that, from the end of the war up until the late seventies, helped to make the works of Charles and Ray Eames “classics.”

The materials they investigated were always different, even if it was those of the early days that give us the best indication of the nature of their open-minded, sociable characters, ready to take any suggestion on board. The fiberglass of La Chaise, their famous chaise longue of 1948, the plastic of the now popular Eames Eiffel and the compressed wood of the sophisticated LCW (Lounge Chair Wood) of 1945 provide the clearest sign of this, lending themselves to representing symbolically an absolutely unique taste and vision. The Eameses were the first, in fact, to propose a visual balance between the European tradition, still heir to a markedly rationalist approach to design, and the sculptural possibilities offered by the new synthetic materials available to industry, designing iconic and timeless seats.

Industrial design, however, is just one part of the exhibition. Moving ahead a few years, the visitor will discover how for Charles and Ray design was not simply a profession, but a means of giving form to innumerable other interests. With over 380 objects on display, in fact, the Barbican is for the first time making available to the public a vast and stimulating visual world, reconstructed ideally through the splendid collection of Mexican and Indian votive masks that decorated their famous home in California, Case Study House No. 8 (1949). In the period immediately after the war, the couple already showed they had grasped the communicative power of images and would go on to make the beautiful multiscreen film Think for IBM, to be shown at the New York World’s Fair of 1964/65. This was in fact part of a broader collaboration, including the design of a corporate image for the IT company, starting with the pavilion that was to house its leading products at the Expo and, through the film, describe the potentialities of the computer in the future: the Ovoid Theater—of which a scale model is present in the exhibition—was an architectural project carried out in association with Eero Saarinen (1910-61) and in effect its unmistakable Nordic look came from the Finnish master. Nonetheless, precisely because of the overall approach that characterized the collaboration with IBM, it would not be a mistake to consider this pavilion (and everything it contained) one of the most authentic and successful examples of the many-sided work of Charles and Ray Eames.

Elena Tettamanti

London // until February 14, 2016
The World of Charles and Ray Eames
curated by Catherine Ince
Barbican Center Art Gallery, London 
Silk Street London EC2Y 8DS



Photo credits:
1. 2. 3. © Eames Office LLC

January 2016
Elena Tettamanti