’Everything is architecture!’

Or is it? Catherine Ince curates ‘The World of Charles & Ray Eames’ at the Barbican Art Gallery in London

’The World of Charles & Ray Eames’ tells of not one, but of the many worlds created by the designer couple beginning in the 1940s – together or with prominent friends like Alexander Girard, George Nelson or Eero Saarinen. Their work and achievements made them key figures in American design. This autumn and winter, the Barbican Art Gallery illuminates the complex and wide-ranging oeuvre of the Eames and devotes a major exhibition to their designs, ideas and life stories. Is everything architecture? The curator Catherine Ince talks with us about the couple’s rich and multifaceted creativity.

Catherine, Charles and Ray Eames have designed furniture, houses, created film and graphic art, arranged lectures and a lot more. In what way does all of their varied work come together?

There are many characteristics and motifs that travel through the varied modes of expression used by Charles and Ray Eames throughout their lifetime. They sought to reflect the world around them and were passionate about all aspects of art, culture, science, history and technology. They used all tools at their disposal to explore and express their ideas, which generated an inter-disciplinary practice motivated by addressing the needs of society.

How important was their partnership for the creative processes? How did they differ from each other in terms of working methods?

Charles and Ray Eames’ partnership was integral to the creative processes established at the Eames Office. They trained as an architect and painter respectively, and while their backgrounds shaped their individual views on creativity they shared an intense curiosity about the natural and man-made world and an innate understanding of structure and form. Both felt that ‘everything is architecture’. Their different skills and interests complemented each other perfectly. Charles naturally excelled at photography and is most often found behind the camera, leading filming and photography shoots; Ray was an excellent art-director with an eye for detail and organisation. Together they produced elaborate and carefully-orchestrated photoshoots, film sets and showroom displays which reflect their interest in visual communication but also reveal their abiding interest in the richness of the material world.

Their oeuvre is often considered timeless, but in fact is deeply rooted in the period when it was produced. How did political and social contexts influence the Eames’ work?

Charles and Ray Eames were highly attuned to the contexts in which they were working. During the Second World War, as they started their new life in Los Angeles, Charles and Ray responded to problems soldiers experienced on the frontline and experimented with material and form to develop their first mass-produced plywood product: the transportation leg splint. Later on they would utilise technologies and materials developed during the war for furniture application. At other times work was produced as a direct result of their interest in current intellectual or scientific theory and academic research; their short film ’A Communications Primer’ was made in 1953 and was influenced by the communications theories developed at the time by such thinkers as Claude Shannon and Norbert Weiner. The Eames were also commissioned to make work for Cold War diplomatic missions such as the American Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, for which they realized their seminal seven-screen film Glimpses of the U.S.A.

Charles and Ray Eames did not believe in the separation of life and work. How did this lifestyle reflect in the concept of their Workspace The Eames Office?

The Eames Office at 901 Washington Boulevard was a productive, flexible and lively place where just about anything was possible. The Eames were extremely hard-working and the office was like an extension of their home. Jehane Burns joined the Eames Office in 1969, and remembers: ‘every surface seemed to be levels deep in eloquent things and images; residues of projects, things left by friends, things kept because they worked well or because they didn’t; models, mock-ups, doodles, diagrams and charts of every kind and scale; drafting boards, cameras, a wood-shop; an understated but cherished kitchen. Pools of light and shadowy corners; buff, faded pink and raw umber. Informal, accumulative, but full of breathing-space; controlled so as to work well: for work, for hospitality, for collaboration.’

If you could break all the work down to one design or project that essentially personalizes the work of Charles and Ray Eames – what would it be?

For me, the IBM Pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair is the most enthralling of all Eames Office projects. The Eames created a rich and layered total environment, which was a visual and intellectual tour-de force and emblematic of their notion that ‘everything is architecture’. They collaborated with Eero Saarinen on its design, creating a garden of delights in which one could experience the latest computer technologies, discover the history of mathematics or simply enjoy the carnival-esque atmosphere of the Pavilion itself. The IBM Pavilion was a spectacle of epic proportion and, when viewed as complete entity, it conveys the essence of the Eames‘ work: from experimental ideas about visual communication, learning, design, and technology, to performance, play and pleasure.


Publication Date: 7.10.2015
Author: Vitra
Title Image: Eames Office staff posing in model for Glimpses of the U.S.A. for the American National Exhibition, Moscow, 1959. © Eames Office LLC

Gallery 1: Charles and Ray Eames with a panel of Eames Office work made for the American Institute of Architects, 1957; Charles Eames in the plywood Lounge and Ottoman. Photograph for an advertisement,1956; Ray Eames. Collage of room display for An Exhibition for Modern Living, 1949. The Work of Charles & Ray Eames, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Charles Eames showing Antony Armstrong-Jones model of the I.B.M. Pavilion for the 1964-65 New York World's Fair; Eames Office staff and friends posing against wall of 901; Alex Matter riding a plywood elephant. All rights reserved © Eames Office LLC

Gallery 2: Eames house courtyard; Charles and Ray Eames selecting slides; Stacking Chairs, 1957; Staff of Evans Products Molded Plywood Division with plywood blister for glider nose section; Artwork from Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero, 1977; Eames Office Staff. All rights reserved © Eames Office LLC