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    Legacy of Invention
by Stanley Abercrombie
 
     
 
The Eames House living room with tatami mats, 1951
 
Ray Eames
drawing of plywood chairs
 
Chairs designed by Charles Eames and Eero Saaringen for the 1940 "Organic Design in Home Furnishings" competition at MoMA
 
Stack of fiberglass-reinforced plastic chairs, 1954
dining armchair, produced 1950-89
 
Ray and Charles Eames working on a model for the exhibition Mathematica, 1960
 
Any judgments made today about the century just ending are subject to myopia. One thing seems certain, however. The most talented furniture designers of these 100 years have been the husband-and-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames.

In addition, the Eameses were responsible for one of the century's most influential residential designs -- their own 1949 steel-frame house and studio in Pacific Palisades, Ca. They installed some of the era's most visually intriguing exhibitions, including "Mathematica" and "The World of Franklin and Jefferson, " and made some of its best toys, including "House of Cards" and "The Do-Nothing Machine." Finally, the Eameses are responsible for some of the century's most delightful independent films, including Tops. Toccata for Toy Trains, Glimpses of the USA for the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, and Powers of Ten.

But it's those furniture designs that have left the most indelible image. Technically, Eames designs were highly innovative. They used plywood bent into compound curves and molded fiberglass-reinforced plastic for chair shells and rubber shock mounts for connections. Esthetically, the Eameses showed their technology proudly but with profoundly ingratiating Arp-like shapes and cheerful colors. (Ray had studied with Hans Hofmann and was an accomplished painter before turning to furniture design.) Their work was elegant without being elitist, adhering to the Eameses' notion that industry should provide "the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least."

The beauty and quality of the designs are more than enough to justify an exhibition, but admittedly there is an additional reason for the couple's current popularity. Their working partnership is now being fully acknowledged as it never was in their lifetimes. Eames furniture first came to notice in a 1940 design competition sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art, but it was Charles alone whose name was honored (along with his collaborator for the competition, architect Eero Saarinen). Six years later MoMA presented "New Furniture Designed by Charles Eames" -- still no mention of Ray. Presumably, the inequality of recognition suited not only the times but also the designers themselves. Today it fits with neither the times nor what seems to be the truth. At last, Ray Eames is getting equal billing.

When she died in 1988, a decade after Charles, the archives of the Eames legacy were divided. Three-dimensional objects, such as furniture, models and prototypes, went to the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany. Two-dimensional material went to the Library of Congress, where it was further divided into the categories of Manuscript; Prints and Photographs; and Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound. It is a real accomplishment and the result of much care and effort that many diverse elements of the archives have now been reassembled, with more than 500 examples forming the inclusive sort of exhibition the material so greatly deserves.

"A Legacy of Invention: The Work of Charles and Ray Eames" has been seen at the Vitra Museum and also at the London Design Museum, where it came close to breaking attendance records (edged out only by a show on erotica). It opened in Washington, D.C., at the Library of Congress' Thomas Jefferson Building on May 20 and remains there until Sept. 4, 1999. In the fall it travels to the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York and then to the St. Louis Art Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum and the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. After that, it goes to Sydney and Japan. In addition to Vitra and the Library of Congress, supporters include IBM and Herman Miller, two companies for which the Eameses did some of their most important work.

STANLEY ABERCROMBIE is editorial director of Interior Design magazine.

 
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