The husband-and-wife design team Charles and Ray Eames are best known for the ubiquitous molded-plywood-and-leather chairs that bear their name. They were revered for their miraculous little 1977 science film, Powers of Ten, which takes viewers on a nine-minute trip from a point a billion light years out in space to a subatomic cranny deep within the human body. But what is most compellingly revealed by The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention, an exhibition that summered in Washington, D.C., at the Library of Congress and will spend the fall at the Cooper-Hewitt (opening October 12), is that the Eameses were visionaries at once way out on the edge of modern design yet heartbreakingly personal in their worldview.
Their partnership, which obliterated the distinctions between private and professional lives, inspired numerous contemporary working marriages, including that of the Culver City-based architects Craig Hodgetts and Hsin-Ming Fung, who designed the exhibition. Charles and Ray, architect and artist, wanted to do everything -- disciplinary boundaries meant nothing to them -- and, by and large, succeeded. "I've worked on this exhibition for five years, and I'm still dazzled by what they did, the scope of their ambition and what they pulled off," says Donald Albrecht, the exhibition's director.
Unlike European modernists, the Eameses were not reductive. They didn't want to make the world a simpler place. They tried instead to build a framework for its complexity. When I visited the Eames exhibition at the Library of Congress, I realized that much of what I think of as American design culture sprouted from the Eames Office. Their multiscreen slide shows were early experiments in telling a story through snap juxtapositions, now a staple of everything from educational CD-ROMs to music videos. Their fascination with objects from India and Mexico predates our present-day infatuation with Third World "innocence" and "authenticity." Even the office itself was a prototype. Their workplace, an old garage in Venice, California, was a forerunner of recycled industrial buildings everywhere. As Hodgetts points out, the Eames Office more or less originated "that scrappy, garage-inventor quality that characterizes the start-ups here and in Silicon Valley."
I can't recall an exhibition that does a better job of immersing us in the process of design, not by leading visitors step-by-step through a methodology but rather by placing us in the designers' world -- filling the room with the things they loved to look at, that inspired them on a daily basis. "If the purpose of design is to improve everyday life," notes Albrecht, "the source of design is to be found in everyday life."
Indeed, my favorite part of the show is a cabinet full of Plexiglas sealed drawers, some stuffed with the paper ephemera Ray Eames collected, others full of Mexican tchotchkes, some just containing stamps or rolls of colorful tape. Hodgetts says the drawers were selected from a collection of hundreds and transplanted without disturbing the contents. Peering into them, he remarks, "is like looking directly into Ray's soul."
Implicit in the Eames exhibition is the notion that Charles and Ray were equal partners in the creative enterprise. In his catalogue essay, critic Joseph Giovannini cites examples of the ways in which Charles Eames, purposefully or not, took full credit for the design of the signature chair that made its debut in 1946. Giovannini then points out that it was Ray, in fact, who performed the first experiments with molded plywood, and that the chair's structure and aesthetic grew from a series of molded-plywood sculptures Ray did in the early forties. In the exhibition, Charles's architectural training and Ray's years as an artist are given the same weight. The iconic chair and all the furniture that followed are presented as the fruit of a perfect marriage of his rationalism and her discerning aesthetic.
Another exhibition highlight is a film re-creating the triumphant seven-screen slide show "Glimpses of the U.S.A.," which the Eameses prepared for the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, the event famous for the "kitchen debate" between Nixon and Khrushchev. The slide show is propaganda, but it is superb propaganda. The cascading stream of images illustrates again and again the places where the Eameses' love of the modern world dovetailed with an idealized, postwar image of America. It was, after all, a remarkable moment in history. After the war, as Albrecht notes in his catalogue introduction, it seemed that a visionary design team working in cooperation with America's biggest corporations could make the world a better place. Years later, of course, it became clear that this was not quite the case. "Our dreams have come true at the expense of Lake Michigan," Charles observed in 1971. "That doesn't mean the dreams were all wrong. It means that there was an error somewhere . . . and we have to fix it."
Our faith in the power of industry and technology to improve our lives bottomed out in the seventies, but it has been rekindled with the advent of interactive technology. The parallels between the Eameses' enthusiasm for the power of smokestack industries and our own enthusiasm for telecommunications make this exhibition seem especially timely. The Eames Office traded in "information design" before the term existed. The Eameses believed that the boundaries between disciplines and aesthetic schools were artificial and permeable, something we are now discovering all over again.