About the partnership between Eames and Vitra

An interview with Eames Demetrios

Eames Demetrios, tell us a bit about yourself and your role at the Eames Office.

Established by Charles and Ray Eames in 1941, the Eames Office – now in the third generation (with members of the fourth generation already quite involved) – is dedicated to communicating, preserving and extending one of the world’s most beautiful design legacies in a myriad of ways, both commercially and culturally. The close bond and partnership between the Eames Office and Vitra, founded by Willi and Erika Fehlbaum, took root in 1953 and continues with great passion today. After initially collaborating with our mother Lucia Eames, Vitra now works with the five grandchildren of Charles and Ray, including myself as Director of the Eames Office and my brother Byron Atwood as Manager of the Eames Office. My personal mission is both highly tangible in continuing the physical production of authentic Eames designs (some beloved classics, others never or rarely seen), but also abstract in matters centred around communications and exhibitions. As beautiful as the Eames objects are, I believe that the ideas behind the rich and wide-ranging body of work deserve just as much recognition.

How has your role been central in maintaining the design outlook established by Charles and Ray?

My grandparents used to say that the last thing they thought of when designing a chair was how it looked. They were not trying to express themselves, they were trying to express the need that the design was intended to address – the chair’s purpose. Long after Eames designs went into production, they would keep coming up with ways to make them even better. Taking that idea further, Charles and Ray recognised that if they wanted their furniture to live on, systems design would be critical – and we are proud to be part of that system together with a partner like Vitra. As my brother Byron puts it, ‘Charles and Ray asked us to do two things: take care of the Eames House and take care of the designs.’ Our family has done exactly that for more than 35 years.

In your eyes, what does Eames stand for today?

Eames stands for design at its best. What I mean is that their holistic vision of design could not be more relevant than it is today. There are three values that underpin the vision I want to call out here: Charles and Ray had a willingness to surrender to the design journey by prioritising the process. Second, they never delegated understanding – their designs could reflect at the deepest level an intuitive grasp of the problem and possibilities (and constraints) inherent in various solutions. And third, they saw the role of the designer as that of a good host anticipating the needs of a guest.

I am writing now from India, where there is a Sanskrit proverb: The Guest is God. This notion puts the human being at the centre of the design process. Taking care of a guest is a universal idea and I have yet to hear of a culture that did not believe in the responsibility of the host to the guest. I think the Eames belief in this idea is the explanation for the international impact of their designs.

Going back to the designs themselves, I would put the LCW up against any chair ever in the category of beauty. As for impact, the Eames Shell Chair, Eames Lounge Chair and Eames Aluminium Group have few, if any, peers. But the Eameses’ influence is beyond furniture – they made landmark films, world-changing exhibitions, were pioneers in television, made toys sold by MoMA half a century after introduction, fabric designs that grace sneakers, and in architecture they made a house that broke a lot of rules – but not the rule of comfort.

Take us through the Eames and Vitra dynamic.

The connection between Eames and Vitra is based on a genuine and enduring personal relationship. Vitra’s admiration for Charles and Ray Eames goes far beyond an interest in their product designs. In 1957 Willi Fehlbaum made his first visit to Charles and Ray at the Eames House, their home in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles, California. One year later, Charles and Ray visited Vitra in Basel, Switzerland, for the first time. During their regular meetings with the Eameses, Willi and Erika Fehlbaum received important translation assistance from their eldest son, Rolf Fehlbaum. This mediating role, which developed into much more than just that of a translator, enhanced the professional collaboration and strengthened the bonds between the two families. In 1977 Rolf Fehlbaum took over the management of Vitra, and in the mid-1980s he and his daughter visited Ray and myself in Los Angeles. During that visit, it was evident that Ray was thrilled at yet another chance to connect the families she knew would collaborate long term.

On several occasions, I have heard Rolf say the following about the two families’ relationship: Charles and Ray Eames are our heroes: they are the figures who, more than anyone else, have given this company its defining form and ideas. These were people of incredible talent, very hard workers and visionaries. They not only made furniture, but were architects, filmmakers, photographers and educators, thinking not only about our society, but also the greater world around them.’

Though today the Eames Office – a cultural and commercial organisation led by the Eames family – makes films and exhibitions along with many other activities, we have redefined ourselves to focus almost exclusively on the achievements of Charles and Ray Eames. Vitra consults with me as Director of the Eames Office on the production of authentic Eames designs and on matters of exhibitions and other communications related to their oeuvre. On the Vitra side, the third generation of the Fehlbaum family is represented by Rolf’s niece Nora Fehlbaum, who has headed the company since 2016.

Both Vitra and Eames boast family-ownerships – how has this added a layer of authenticity in what you produce together?

As the sole distributor of Eames designs in Europe and the Middle East since the 1950s, Vitra adhered to the Eameses’ values and faithfully followed the production processes developed by the Eames Office to meet the couple’s exacting standards of quality. Vitra supported Charles and Ray Eames in the continual optimisation of their designs following market release. The designers constantly improved details or redesigned whole parts of their products: all to provide the best performance and quality, as well as to make use of contemporary technical advances. This passion for ongoing and thoughtful improvement of designs is key to the special partnerships with our trusted manufacturers.

The Vitra Design Museum holds an extraordinary collection of Eames furniture prototypes – a resource often consulted in our work with Vitra. To view these cherished objects in person is to experience a certain kind of authenticity that I personally treasure: the direct connection across time. When I see Charles’s office – today installed at the Vitra Schaudepot on the Vitra Campus in Weil am Rhein – I remember standing there with him and my siblings in Venice, California, aglow in the afternoon light that streamed in through the frosted glass, the Pacific Ocean not so far away. The lovely early Lounge Chair prototypes, the first experimental wooden shells, the shell chairs adorned with drawings by an artist friend – once touched personally by their designers in the act of creation – it is all so romantic and wonderful.
In these past decades, during which our generation has been running and operating the Eames Office with and on behalf of our mother, Lucia Eames, I have come to see how important another form of authenticity was to Charles and Ray. This is the notion that the chair the Eameses were really designing is the chair that Vitra (and Herman Miller) make tomorrow. Charles and Ray knew that if they had to touch every chair personally for it to be considered authentic – something already impractical in their lifetime – not only would the benefits of mass-production be lost, but authenticity would die with them. Therefore, they focused on creating systems to be sure that authenticity could be preserved.

When Charles and Ray were alive, they were the advocates for their designs in dialogue with the manufacturers – led by gifted folk such as Rolf Fehlbaum of Vitra. This system of continuous design dialogue ensured that each product leaving the factory gave users the true experience of function, aesthetics and quality that Charles and Ray intended. The term ‘quality’ refers not only to materials, connections and details, but also to the cultural value and philosophy embodied by the designs. They asked us – their family – to step into this role when they were gone.

From the Vitra Design Museum to the various books and publications, how has Vitra been successful in connecting the Eameses with the public?

Vitra’s commitment has been quite remarkable, starting with Rolf Fehlbaum’s acquisition of a key collection of prototypes from the Eames Office in Venice, California, to sponsoring and cooperating with exhibitions of all kinds. Some exhibitions have been at major museums under the strictest academic and curatorial protocols, while others of a more flexible and commercial nature have appeared in hundreds of public spaces all over Europe and the Middle East. These varied types of presentations are necessary for connection with the widest possible audience. In 1997, one exhibition we did together travelled for nine years to 19 venues in nine countries. In 2017, four different Eames-themed exhibitions filled every venue on the Vitra Campus. In addition, I have personally been thrilled to contribute to a number of Eames publications by Vitra.

One of the biggest topics in the modern design world is sustainability. In what ways are Eames and Vitra working towards a more sustainable future?

Charles and Ray knew that in the modern world, change was a constant. Charles even said: in order to be really secure, you must be secure in change. Their film Powers of Ten is in many ways the ultimate environmental statement; when they built the Eames House, even though they had already ordered the materials, Charles and Ray changed the design radically to harm fewer trees and protect a meadow. The notion of sustainability was part of their very spirit.

My grandparents would have applauded today’s focus on sustainability. But they knew they could not anticipate every aspect of every topic – they knew it was impossible to write enough instructions to prepare us as their heirs or Vitra as their manufacturer. Instead, they asked us, their family, to take on this role of determining the authenticity and value of future modifications and new materials. Through their ongoing relationship with Vitra, they also made sure the family was not left alone in these decisions.

Let’s take the example of the Eames Shell Chair from 1950, one of the most important and impactful furniture designs of the twentieth century. Over the years, Vitra has developed the materiality of the comfortable seat shells in close consultation with our family. Indeed, it has been repeatedly enhanced and adapted to changing situations over the course of its long production history: the Eameses themselves experimented with new materials and initiated new production techniques. Then from the late 1980s, shells in fibreglass evolved to shells in 100% recyclable polypropylene and subsequently to an improved fibreglass production technique. From January 2024, the shells of the Eames Plastic Chairs will be made from recycled post-consumer plastic stemming from German household waste. The Eames Plastic Chairs RE are updated versions of the legendary Fiberglass Chair.
The upcoming Vitra Session on 19 October will tell the shared story of the designer couple Charles and Ray Eames and the furniture manufacturer Vitra, founded by the Fehlbaum family in 1950. The digital event will focus on this special relationship that spans three generations.

To coincide with the launch of updated Eames products in autumn, Vitra has published a book entitled Eames & Vitra. The book describes the special relationship between Vitra and the Eameses and documents designs produced by Vitra from the 1950s to the present day, shedding light on topics such as authenticity and archival holdings.

Publication Date: 18.10.2023, first published in ‘Hypebeast’
Author: Hypebeast, Eames Demetrios
Images: © Eames Office, LLC 2023; Vitra Design Museum; Vitra

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