Essential Eames: A Herman Miller Exhibition – is a profound showing of the iconic legacy that is design duo Charles and Ray Eames. It opened at the Singapore ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands and runs until the 5th of January 2014.
The exhibition which is based on An Eames Primer, a book written by the Eames’ grandson Eames Demetrios, tells of the extensive contribution the couple has given the design universe in terms of furniture, films, photography and intellectual & mathematical concepts.
Vault-Mag spent some time with Eames Demetrios post an enlightening walk-through the exhibition before her doors opened to the public this weekend, giving us both a rare glimpse into the private world of Charles and Ray Eames, as well as a deeper insight into their well-known concepts and furniture designs.
Eames is an author & filmmaker, the principal of the Eames Office and Chairman of the Eames Foundation.
Vault-Mag: What were the earliest memories of your grandparents?
Eames Demetrios: My earliest memories are of visiting them in LA. Going to their office and to the house (Case Study House #8). I especially remember quite vividly how amazing the office was as a place to visit because they were always working on something and even if it was that my grandparents were just working on their aquarium, there was just always something magical happening there.
I also remember when they would come to San Francisco, which they would always do when they were on their way somewhere else to travel. Charles and Ray would always want to get a visit in to see their grandkids beforehand. And one time they came and Charles had a big smile on his face because he wanted to show us something and he had one of the very first Polaroid SX 70 cameras and so he took a picture and then he handed it to us and said, ‘Look!’ And we saw it develop right in front of our eyes and he was just so excited.
And then he took a Polaroid of each of us and we took the photos to school the next day and none of our friends believed us when we told them how they were developed and we had to wait a whole year until the cameras were released officially.
V: How old were you when you started to form the basis of the iconic nature of the Eames name – did that impact your formative years in any way?
ED: Well I didn’t really know that Eames was a famous name until I got into college especially because the idea of a rock-star designer didn’t exist when my grandparents were alive. As you know, they are much more famous now than they were before when they were alive. And so what that means is that I didn’t really have that experience of knowing per se that my name meant anything. Even though my name is Eames, I would say maybe 1 in 20 people would say, ‘Oh like the chair?’ when I told them my name. Most people just thought it was just an unusual name or thought it was weird and when they heard it was a family name they just sort of said ok, that makes sense. In that way I was lucky, because I didn’t feel the pressure to get into the family business because it just didn’t come up.
Also, Ray died very suddenly you know. She had cancer but it was a very fast acting cancer and in that sense it was merciful for her. For us it was still a big surprise, so with all that, I just didn’t have all that angst about my name and what it represented back then. And this makes me feel that in some ways I am able to do what I do now because it was really a conscious choice.
V: Let’s talk about how you feel about everything that’s going on in design today.
ED: Well, I think that people who aren’t in the design world use design and style as terms that are interchangeable and these days design articles show up in the style section of the papers and while there’s nothing wrong with style and I’m not talking it down in any way, I would say that today, design has let itself be confused with style.
V: And what of the future of design then?
ED: Charles use to say about plastic, that the problem with plastic is that you can do anything with it. It’s my feeling that there’s a possibility that sustainability will save design. Because sustainability will give us a new set of constraints to work against and some beautiful things can result. I think that is the future.
If you make something out of stone you’re stuck with the stone so as a result it’s very hard to make something great with stone but it’s also really hard to make something really bad with stone because stone itself is an amazing material to work with and also, the constraints of the stone are extremely clear. And I think that sustainability is beginning to give us a new set of constraints.
We have the new green fiberglass for our up-coming furniture which is just awesome and yet every decision based on that new material had 2 issues and that was, ‘Is it going to be authentic?’ in terms of what it accomplishes but most importantly, ‘Was it going to be environmentally friendly?’
You can make the most beautiful thing but if it’s made of the wrong kind of plastic, we just weren’t going to do it. That process was very good at putting the environmental constraints at the center of everything.
V: How long did it take to perfect this new environmentally friendly material for future collections?
ED: About 4 years. And it should be out in September 2013 but maybe a little later here in Singapore just based on the process of getting the new pieces out here.
V: So that answers the future of design from a material perspective – what about design as, well, design? Where do you think all that’s going?
ED: Let me use the example of the coffee pot that is too ‘design-ee’. It’s a bit of a joke but it is also very serious. It’s amazing to me that a discipline that has so much to offer the world has allowed itself to be defined in such a limited way. It’s come to a point where it’s just cool looking stuff.
And I have no problem with it being cool looking but it should also always work.
And yet that’s not what most people think about in design. They think of the look of design. I think the future of design is to really unleash that power, to make things work and be functional.
I also think another part of the future of design is that it should change from being a primarily professional skill and become a life skill that we teach to people in the same way that we teach our kids music even though we have no real expectations that they’re going to become musicians. I think most parents whose kids become musicians become happily surprised but it’s not usually the primary reason why we push them to do it. We push them to do it so they can have that music thinking in their lives so why don’t we do that with design?
V: Your grandparents were filmmakers and you are a filmmaker so let’s talk about filmmaking. Is there any conscious inspiration that you derive from that similarity?
ED: The place that I feel consciously inspired by Charles and Ray is by really seeing how they surrendered to the design journey. That they were willing to take an idea and just see where it took them even if the final results may not have been what they expected. And that’s been very inspiring for me for my alternate universe project Kcymaerxthaere (pronounced; ky-MAR-ex-theere). I hope it’s a big success and we have 95 sites in 20 countries and people care about it but also, that may be as far as it goes. If that’s the only thing I get done with it, then, it’s been a great ride. You know, I’ve been to all these countries and done all this work with great craftsmen and so, could I feel like I was a failure if it didn’t go further? No.
It was the same with Charles and Ray. Between the wooden chair and the plastic chair they did a metal chair that was totally not practical and just didn’t work. But it gave them a learning that helped them work out the ideas for the plastic chair so I don’t think they regard the metal chair as a failure but just as part and parcel of the learning process.
That metal chair never went into production at all.
V: Tell us something intangible about this exhibition. Something that we wouldn’t be able to figure out for ourselves, even though it’s all here.
ED: Well, as you know there are pieces that have never been loaned from the house or outside of the US. So unless someone has an obsessive knowledge of which pieces these might be because we didn’t highlight it within the show, you wouldn’t know that.
I think, just to be able to see Ray’s paintings is extremely rare and again a first time visitor wouldn’t necessarily know that.
In terms of other kinds of things that people wouldn’t necessarily know, we did actually try to make it so that you could follow the big idea without a docent guiding you and I think – and I really love this question – what I really hope is that we tried to place multiple connections of ideas in different places in the museum so that you would start to be rewarded by seeing those connections as you went from place to place. A perfect example is the honest use of materials, which I talked about with the ‘lota’ then expressed also with the toys that were in that gallery and the films in the next gallery and then here in the furniture gallery.
Most of the visitors would not leap to that conclusion. So we tried to provide little surprises maybe for the 2nd time visitor or somebody like you who knows enough about the material. We want to reward you too and we don’t want you to just see your favourite hits.
Something else that people wouldn’t necessarily know can be found on the iPads in the film room where we have 30 different films available for viewing. I made some of those films and other people made some of them and you can watch and you could spend hours there and learn a lot. We really wanted you to be able to learn and develop a deeper knowledge of everything connected to this exhibition and to Charles and Ray.
V: How about a personal piece of furniture from anything that Charles and Ray created?
ED: There are 2. I do my own work on an Aluminum Group Chair and I have a low back plastic chair with the locanda shell that was made especially for Charles as his own filming chair. That’s my personal chair.
V: And lastly, what do you want most for the visitors to take away from Essential Eames?
ED: I want people to take away a bit of a feeling of joy that Charles and Ray got in creating and in living their life.
I think, any design aficionado has spent some time sitting on or contemplating an Eames chair, table, stool or storage unit without ever touching the surface of Charles and Ray Eames as 2 people who truly saw beyond design and made incredibly thoughtful and functional furniture that has stood the test of a very long time. Good design is good design, there is no argument to that and while Essential Eames: A Herman Miller Exhibition is so much about that and all of the above, one thing I quietly took away from this exhibition was Charles Eames’ ‘Banana Parable’ . It’s a part of the showing that highlights different meal plates from India when Charles famously saw a possible escape for our materialistic and consuming society in the Banana Leaf parable. He explains how the lowest castes would eat from a simple banana leaf and as the castes went higher within society this would progress to ceramic and metal plates of increased value and intricacy which categorically defined the status of it’s user.
A beautiful observation made by Charles Eames, which has stayed with me for some days, was this quote from him; “But you can go beyond that, and the guys that have not only the means, but a certain amount of knowledge and understanding, go the next step and they eat off a banana leaf.”
Another special part of the exhibition is the collection of 100 rarely seen photographs selected from the family’s personal collection. The images portray the Eameses’ life, work & travel and commerate the 100th year of Charles’ birth.