The World of Charles and Ray Eames at the Barbican review

Corinne Julius visits the Barbican’s show, the first British retrospective on these two famous designers in 15 years, and finds there is still much to say about the duo


Barbican Art Gallery, London
Until 14 February
Review by Corinne Julius

Blueprint readers might well wonder what else can there possibly be to say about the Eameses, their house Case Study No 8 and their furniture. As it turns out, there is still quite a lot to add to the Eames story. A new exhibition at the Barbican, The World of Charles and Ray Eames, is the first British retrospective in 15 years, and aims to show the full gamut of their achievements including their innovative approach to photography, film and education.

Curator Catherine Ince spent much of the past three years trawling through their vast archive in the Library of Congress, including thousands of letters and documents and some 750,000 images and films, as well as cooperating closely with the Eames family.

The show takes off with the huge, elegant, laminated-ply, glider nose-cone (1943), that helped fuel the Eameses' passion for ply and for experimentation. The glider crashed and never went into production, but the process begun with Ray's sculptures (1942) was developed into a commercial ply stretcher and splints for the American Navy. They used the techniques developed in what Charles called his Kazan machine to produce children's furniture and the various incarnations of their ply chairs.

The developments of their moulded glass-fibre chairs are illustrated with models from the first prototype set atop a dustbin, by its fabricator John Wills, to the armchair decorated by Saul Bass. The Eameses saw design as a process - a problem to be solved by applying a curious intellect and engaging with the surrounding technologies and social conditions. They were practitioners of what today is known as 'thinking through making'. Their shell design chair (1948) for the MoMa Low Cost Furniture exhibition taught them that they had to be the ones 'to do the learning', by experimenting. So it's surprising that the show doesn't document their approach with more images from the archive or more information about process.

The Eameses’ collection of photographs included this early selfie

The Eameses' collection of photographs included this early selfie. Image: Eames Office LLC

The house they started designing in 1945 and completed in 1949 is illustrated in photos and a new 1:20 model by Rogers, Stirk, Harbour & Partners. What's missing is a huge photograph of the interior to give a real sense of the place. In their interiors, office and films, they mixed and matched objects made and designed by anonymous hands, from their own and other cultures.

They gave equal weight to natural objects, indigenous artefacts and their own furniture. There is surprisingly little colour in this section, yet their house, which started off as a modernist minimalist building, became a home of extraordinary combinations of colour, pattern and layers of objects.

What Ince is careful to credit is Ray's role as a metteur en scene, in the home, in entertaining, in the exhibitions they designed, the films they made and the art direction of Arts & Architecture magazine. Ray's role was often down-played, in part because of the meticulously curated demure image she presented in her Sound of Music dresses, crossed with a dash of Jane Eyre. She was a sharp cookie, with a keen eye and thoroughly organised.

A display covering various of the Eameses’ plywood chairs

A display covering the various Eameses' plywood chairs. Image: Tristan Fewings/ Getty Images

The couple were fascinated by developments in maths and science, creating films such as Mathematica (1961), Think for the IBM New York Expo pavilion (1964), and a film for the National Fisheries Center and Aquarium (1967). The last two are partially recreated in the show.

Their most famous film Powers of Ten (1977), also on view, moves from a man in close-up, out to the edge of the known universe and then at a rate of 10-to-the-10th metres per second, moves in towards the earth, into the man's hand to the level of a carbon atom.

Their films are a revelation. Their innovations included using multiscreens, mixing stills with moving image, to a background of specially composed scores. They took photographs of elements of everyday objects or overlooked natural objects, montaging them to make a sum much greater than its parts. Charles was the photographer, but Ray the visualiser of the final display. Their use of imagery prefigured Instagram by 60 years. Film to them was the ultimate communication.

Sadly the show doesn't highlight the pithy sayings and epigrams the Eameses developed to explain their approach. It does have a wonderful array of their ply and glass-fibre experiments, but doesn't give enough social context for visitors to understand how revolutionary their experiments were, how difficult for them to achieve financially, nor really the designthrough-making approach, that today is taken for granted. It makes it seem like a golden world, yet their route to the top was hard fought, especially in the Forties and early Fifties.

The Eameses' mantra was 'the role of the designer is basically that of a good host, anticipating the needs of their guests'. This show doesn't quite live up to their maxim, although the catalogue does. The exhibition somehow lacks the joy and excitement that the Eameses themselves strove so hard to convey.

The below timeline, created by the Aram furniture store, takes a look at the life and works of Charles and Ray Eames, drawing focus to various points in their journey such as their marriage in 1941 and the Aluminium Series furniture launch in 1958. You'll also be able to spy some of their most iconic designs including the plywood chair, long chair and ottoman, and the wire mesh chair.




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