The Barbican Centre, in the City of London, is an extensive postwar development of 1955–82 by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon comprising high-rise residential towers, low-rise apartments, a major theater, cinemas, and an art gallery, all robustly executed in exposed-aggregate concrete and purple-brown brick and tile. It is very good of its kind, but it is the antithesis of anything one might associate with the delicate, colorful world of Charles and Ray Eames.
In the same space where the Barbican Art Gallery's curator Catherine Ince presented the exhibition Bauhaus: Art as Life in 2012, she attempted, for The World of Charles and Ray Eames, to imbue the heavy, windowless gallery with some of the sunlight of Southern California, and she largely succeeded. Much of the concrete structure that penetrates the gallery was hidden behind white or dark-gray wall panels on which exhibits and labels were sparingly displayed and from which a framework of cold-formed galvanized steel studs emerged to provide a sense of lightweight if temporary construction (Figure 1). In the absence of any attempt to re-create all or part of the Eameses’ house in Pacific Palisades, California—as was done in the Case Study Houses exhibition Blueprints for Modern Living, held at the Temporary Contemporary in Los Angeles in 1989–90—this gesture toward structural fragility reminded visitors that the Eameses’ architecture had much of the ephemerality of the stage set.
In the central bay of the exhibition, overlooked from the stairs and the landing above, were gathered the architecture exhibits: models of Case Study House 8 (which the Eameses designed for themselves) and Case Study House 9 (for John Entenza, designed with Eero Saarinen) as well as drawings for the house the Eameses designed for Billy and Audrey Wilder in 1950 but never built. A pencil perspective of the 1945 bridge-house version of the Eames House and a 1948 façade study of the final version were also included, and on a screen suspended high above, the film House after Five Years of Living was projected. Anyone looking just for the architecture of Ray and Charles Eames might have been disappointed in the limited extent of this central display, but if so they would have misunderstood the exhibition.
The world created by Charles and Ray Eames did not distinguish between architecture and the rest, nor did this exhibition, for their creativity extended almost without boundaries. “It's like a game,” Charles said, “building something out of found objects, which is the nicest kind of exercise you can do.”1 Although speaking here of architecture, he could equally well have meant the collaged movies or the interchangeable fiberglass chair shells and steel-rod bases that can be assembled in a variety of combinations.
In addition to showing the generally familiar, such as the famous 1956 lounge chair and ottoman, and the generally unfamiliar, such as the 1943 plywood leg splint and stretcher, the exhibition included designs that never progressed beyond prototypes as well as other things, now lost, that were specially re-created. Of the prototypes, the experimental three-legged chair of 1945 and the Minimum armchair of 1948 stood out, the first in two versions (one leg to the fore or two) and the other, like a Giacometti figure, unrealistically slender. Would any of these have been safe to sit on? At the 1964–65 World's Fair in New York, The Information Machine, which the Eameses designed for IBM with Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo from Saarinen's office, was a dynamic theatrical event. A whole bank of tiered seating, the People Wall, physically raised some 420 visitors into an ovoid projection space where Think, a multi-image presentation in stills and movies, was shown on fifteen screens accompanied by a voice-over and music by Oscar-winning composer Elmer Bernstein. Although reduced at the Barbican to a nine-screen version, it was still an enthralling experience, even if the chairs (by Eames, of course) remained firmly on the floor.
Ince demonstrated clearly in this exhibition that the Eameses were consummate visual communicators. As with so many of the their own creations, such as House after Five Years of Living or the triple-screen, 345-image G.E.M. (Government, Education, and Management) slide show using 35-millimeter carousel projectors, the exhibition offered a constantly changing, kaleidoscopic, close-up impression of their world, and in many cases our own. In the upper gallery, surrounding the open stairwell, could be found Powers of Ten (1977), inspired by Kees Boeke's 1957 book Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps, and the film's earlier versions, Cosmic View (1963) and A Rough Sketch (…) (1968). Described in the wall text as “arguably the most widely viewed and influential Eames office production,” Powers of Ten both entertains and educates.
Equally profound, yet located in the farthest corner of the upper gallery and rather underplayed, was the Eameses’ work with NID, the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, still one of the foremost design schools in India. In their government-sponsored India Report of 1958, the Eameses provided a new design education model intended to stop the rapid deterioration of the quality of consumer goods in India and to assist small industries by bridging tradition and modernity. “It is not,” Charles Eames wrote in the report, “a self-conscious effort to develop an aesthetic—it is a relentless search for quality that must be maintained.”2 This search for quality unified the material in the exhibition and consequently provided a recognizable “Eamesian” aesthetic. No visitor would have come away thinking that all the Eameses did was furniture or, for that matter, architecture. “The objective,” Charles once remarked, “is the simple thing of getting the best to the greatest number of people for the least.” In this he and Ray—and Catherine Ince too—surely succeeded.