Linda Castellani (castle) Thu 18 Apr 02 15:57
Eames Demetrios is a writer and filmmaker in Los Angeles who has just written the book _An Eames Primer_ about the life and work of Charles and Ray Eames. The Eameses are best known for their furniture (somewhere, somehow, you have sat in an Eames Chair even if you don't know it by name!), but one of the real contributions of the book is that it helps people see what Demetrios calls the "seamless connection" between all their work from their chairs to the landmark Eames House, from exhibitions (like Mathematica currently at the Exploratorium in San francisco) to films like Powers of Ten. Eames Demetrios is their grandson as well as being the director of the Eames Office for the past 8 years and he brings both perspectives to this book. The book is ultimately a kind of a thematic biography and the first overview of their philosophy and design process to hit the bookstands. The Eames Office is dedicated to communicating, preserving, and extending the work of Charles and Ray Eames. At the Eames Office site (www.eamesoffice.com) you can see examples of their work including a chapter from the Primer in pdf form at http://www.eamesoffice.com/primer.html. Bob Rossney is a software architect and writer who lives outside of Denver. He has written about technology and culture for Salon, Wired, New Scientist, and the Whole Earth Review. His primary interest as a writer is in the way culture and technology mold one another. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote that we are suspended in webs of significance of which we ourselves are the weavers; these webs of significance, which both support and constrain us, comprise what we call our "culture." Technology is a product of culture, but it also shapes both what we think and feel and how we are capable of thinking and feeling about it. As Eames Demetrios explains in _An Eames Primer_, the work of Charles and Ray Eames emerged from exactly this dance between how we shape our tools and how our tools shape us. The greatness of the Eamses was that they understood this dance enough to lead. Please join me in welcoming Eames and Bob to inkwell.vue!
Bob Rossney (rbr) Fri 19 Apr 02 12:33
I think a good first place to start in discussing _An Eames Primer_ is to ask: what brought you to write it? As we talked about offline, there are already numerous books about the work of the Eameses -- including one that Ray Eames herself helped assemble. Why write another one?
Eames Demetrios (eamesdemetrios) Fri 19 Apr 02 13:15
I really felt it was time to pull together Charles and Ray's design philosophy and process all in one place. I also wanted there to be a text driven book, a book you could curl up with or read on the subway. As beautiful and wonderful as the objects they created were, the ideas behind them are maybe even more important and I felt that there was no book one could pick up to get them. Ray's book that you mention, the Eames Design book (the co-authors were John and Marilyn Neuhart), is a what she called "a book without adjectives." She wanted the projects to speak for themselves and it is almost a catalogue raisonee. And that is wonderful and worthwhile (and a wonderful book), but it is very different. It is also expensive and therefore really hard for students to purchase. And it is difficult to read cover-to-cover as a story. The other books all have their strengths, but none of them really capture the spirit of what Charles and Ray were all about. Over the last few years, I have learned alot of things both through interviews and research and watching the films and reading letters. But the only someone could hear those stories was to email me or call me or go to one of my talks, and I really felt that had to change. This information had to be out there.
Eames Demetrios (eamesdemetrios) Fri 19 Apr 02 14:17
to continue: why did it have to be out there? well, I think first of all, because there is a lot of interest in Charles and Ray's work and so it is good to have a book talking about the How and Why. But the other thing is that I think their process is something that we can all take and include in our lives whether people are designers or not. Design is not simply a professional skill, it is a life skill. I hope the book conveys a bit of that.
Bob Rossney (rbr) Fri 19 Apr 02 14:53
I thought it a little strange, when I started reading the book, that it was called a "Primer." Particularly at the beginning, it seemed to be assuming a considerable level of familiarity with the Eameses' career and work. This seemed to contradict the notion of what a primer is all about. Now that I've read it to the end, I think I understand why it's a primer. Can you talk about this notion directly? Why is this book a primer?
Eames Demetrios (eamesdemetrios) Fri 19 Apr 02 18:02
Well, the first level is that it was a play on the name of the Eames film, A Communications Primer, which was the third completed film that Charles and Ray made in order to get some of the ideas of communications theory out to a broader audience--particularly to architects. So when I first thought of writing a book like this (about 5 or 6 years ago) in my mind it was always An Eames Primer. But on another level, I really wanted people to get what I felt were the key ideas about Charles and Ray's life and work. And to me that was not so much a list of products but a group of concerns that they explored and also insights that I felt I had gained into their work and process. These are things like: constraints, the honest use of materials, the role of photography to the office, 901 as a space, the house, iterations, design addressing the need, the issue of style and a lot more. But the point was: I really felt this was the good stuff that people needed to hear and so i wanted to write a book that took you through the key ideas in a meaningful way. A book that would be an introduction on one level, but a book that would reward the aficianado as well. That's always a fine line to walk--but I really wanted to pull off both levels. Part of it was that I felt that there was so little information of this kind out there, that even people who were passionate and relatively about the Eameses work were hungry for this kind of information. I also wanted the constraint of making it short but not superficial--as I said: text driven. So that is where I was coming from. To see a little more about A Communications Primer, go to: http://www.eamesoffice.com/films/Communications_Prime.html
Linda Castellani (castle) Fri 19 Apr 02 23:44
I am wondering what this means: > 901 as a space It sounds very mysterious.
Bob Rossney (rbr) Sat 20 Apr 02 00:30
901 is shorthand for 901 Washington Blvd. in Santa Monica, the location of the Eames Office. There is a lot of remarkable and strange information in this book that I haven't seen anywhere else -- for instance Charles finding his career at Washington University cut short because he was prematurely pro-Frank Lloyd Wright. Or his year in Mexico, which I don't recall reading about in any previous writings about him. (I'd like to get back to that year, because I'd like to hear what more you have to say about it, but that's another question. Don't let me forget.) But one of the most remarkable funds of information in the book addresses what I think -- and, apparently, you think as well -- is a question that needs to be answered at length and in detail: What was Ray's role? Nearly everything they produced was credited to "Charles and Ray Eames." But it was always apparent that Charles had a leadership role, a sort of master-builder -- he was the architect, the articulator of theories, and, to be blunt, the man. But it was never "Charles Eames, with Ray." One could argue that well, it's obviously collaborative work. But dozens and dozens of people worked collaboratively on products of the Eames Office and didn't get credited at Ray's level. Most explanations I've seen of Ray's role have been vague and somewhat patronizing. There's always a whiff of inspiring-the-great-man to them. Your discussion of the office's working techniques, and the ways in which Ray helped projects jell, sheds some valuable light onto what a complicated process creative collaboration actually is. It's a difficult subject to discuss clearly because the great-man myth is so compelling and distracting. It's easy to get a sense of how formidable Charles was. It's a lot harder to get why Ray was essential. I know it's difficult to answer this question outside of the context of other things that we haven't talked about yet, but can you say a few things about how Ray made the process work?
(fom) Sat 20 Apr 02 00:40
(I thought nearly everything was credited to "Charles Eames" for a long long time -- that's how I remember it, anyway.)
Eames Demetrios (eamesdemetrios) Sat 20 Apr 02 08:47
>the book addresses what I think -- and, apparently, you think as well -- is a question that needs to be answered at length and in detail: What was Ray's role?< Well, the first thing I want to say is that I put the chapter that focuses on Charles and Ray's design partnership as number 18 out of 22 chapters. And that was very deliberate, because I wanted the reader to experience the ambiguity of the issue in the context of learning about the work BEFORE I pronounced my own take on it. For that reason I am very wary of pulling my thoughts too far out of context because it is such a complex area. I will say I have gotten very frustrated with people trying to summarize this partnership either, as you say, with the whole she-inspired-him thing or the other extreme: she was the creative one, he was the implementer. Another one I often get is that Charles must have done the Eames House's hard masculine frame and Ray the soft interiors. Is anyone that boringly subdivided? No one I know. But behind even comments like these is a genuine curiosity (I am almost always asked this question when I give a talk) and I felt it was time to convey the richness of the topic. That's why I like the quote from Jehane Burns that "If the office were an island they would have been equals." In some ways of course the office WAS an island, but ultimately it was not. And in that I see a way of honoring and acknowledging Charles' powerful force and at the same time honor and acknowledge Ray's genuine and substantive contribution to the partnership. I don't believe what Ray did was as simple as add a Ray "touch" to things in progress. I think that she deeply understood the guest/host relationship. I think she brought a structure with her from the world of painting. And I think that she and Charles had a deeply intuitive connection. I also believe that all their work (in all media) evolved from their previous work and since they really did start as a duo solving problems and the scale of the office took off from there, I think that gives Ray a special status as well. I do believe Charles set the overall direction of the office, based on much conversation with clients and staff members. If you think about their films and the notion of Charles and Ray directing them and interesting thing comes up: what is the role of the director? Well, directing the actors--that's not an issue one way or another in their films. But the shooting (the photography) was truly a gift of Charles's and the arrangements (the set design if you will) was truly a gift of Ray's. And yet Charles would work on the arrangements and Ray would look through the lens. My point? Let's be wary of completely deconstructing the achievements and thereby missing the alchemy that came from it being a partnership.
Eames Demetrios (eamesdemetrios) Sat 20 Apr 02 09:06
<(I thought nearly everything was credited to "Charles Eames" for a long long time -- that's how I remember it, anyway.)> Fom has a completely fair point and yet even that matter is a bit more complex than it might seem. The Eames Chairs were generally credited to Charles Eames alone for a long time and yet: As early as 1961 or so Charles and Ray TOGETHER won the Kaufman Industrial Design award for the fiberglass chairs. The Herman Miller timelines referred to both of them. Charles always said that fully half of what we have done is due to Ray. And the films almost always say Charles and Ray Eames. One of things that I thought was interesting as I looked through old records and stuff was how much more Ray was acknowledged at the time than the popular wisdom would suggest. I return to Jehane's comment: if the office were an island, Charles and Ray would have been equals. Because there was a very powerful way in which Charles interacted with the outside world. Both as a persuasive force presenting their ideas but also as a thinker seeing intellectual opportunities. In the same interview, Jehane observed that after Charles' death Ray "spoke as a full participant but made Charles the protagonist." That was true in life as well as death to some degree and offers another way of looking at it. I guess what I am really against is oversimplifying: they had rich lives and adventures and however they joined forces to engage the world together, it really worked for them.
Eames Demetrios (eamesdemetrios) Sat 20 Apr 02 09:09
I should have said that Jehane Burns Kuhn was a staff member at the Eames Office for about 10 years and worked closely with Charles and Ray--especially on the text of exhibition and films. The interviews I speak of are an ongoing project of the Eames Office today: The Eames Video Oral History Project. I have been interviewing many different people over the years who worked there or were friends. I probably have about 200 hours of interviews so far and they are just great.
Eames Demetrios (eamesdemetrios) Sat 20 Apr 02 09:17
<901 is shorthand for 901 Washington Blvd. in Santa Monica, the location of the Eames Office.> To amplify on Bob's comment: 901 W. Washington (and Washington is now called Abbot Kinney for those of you in the LA area) was the home of the Eames Officce from 1943 to 1989. And it was just an incredible space. It was so important to the Eames experience that when Ray died I decided to make a film documenting it before we closed the building down (it was about to be condemned for earthquake reasons). The film was called 901: after 45 years of working. It was a huge warehouse that had been a former bus garage. At first the Eames Office used only the front few rooms, then later Herman Miller (manufacturer of the Eames Furniture starting in the late 1940s) used the back half as a factory. By the late 1950s, the Eames Office took over the whole space and they made films, mocked buildings, made amazing models --everything. I could go on, but I suspect some future questions will lead us back to this. But knowing something about 901 and how it worked is important to understanding who Charles and Ray were. So important that I put a flipbook of a steadicam shot from my film in the lower right hand corner of each page of the Eames Primer so that, in a sense, the book would be immersed in 901.
Bob Rossney (rbr) Sat 20 Apr 02 11:15
Let's turn for a moment to the lota. Because I think the idea of the lota ties in with the importance of 901 to the Eameses' approach. The third chapter of _An Eames Primer_ discusses Charles and Ray's fascination with this object, which is a traditional brass water jar common in India. The significant thing about the lota is that it has become, over its evolution, exactly right. The design of the lota addresses the need of retrieving, carrying, storing, and pouring water. And the "designer" of the lota is every artisan over several centuries who looked at a previous version of the lota and thought to change the design slightly, adding a handle, or flaring the rim, or making the jar larger or smaller. Over time, the solution to the lota's problem space emerged from these many hands making many passes, many large and small alterations to what had come before, until the end result that we see before us is the best solution to the problem that human ingenuity has been able to devise. By coincidence, at the time that I read this chapter I was enmeshed in a fairly deep discussion with a Christian friend of mine about the "intelligent design" theory of speciation, which posits that random mutation and selection couldn't possibly result in the biological structures that we see (and are) in the world today. And what struck me deeply about the lota was how much like natural selection this process of design is: there is certainly a kind of focused intelligence behind introducing changes into the design stream, but ultimately nature bats last. Either an innovation works better than what has preceded it, and it becomes part of the canonical form, or it doesn't, and it gets abandoned. Design and evolution embody the same basic process. And how this gets back to 901 -- and this is another aspect of the book that I found so enlightening -- is that 901 was a laboratory for this kind of process, a sort of proving ground where designers could come up with ideas, make them concrete, and then begin subjecting them, in prototype, to the rigors of the real world that they would ultimately survive or fail in. It also seems to me that despite the exhausting, iterative process of design that the office employed, there's no way that the office could afford the real-world cycle of refinement that produced the lota -- they didn't have centuries to bring a design to market. One thing that comes through in your discussion of 901 is how important Charles's eye was to cutting off the decades: he could look at a design and recognize that it wasn't going to work very very quickly. And this whole complicated set of ideas actually does get me to a question. Given this approach to design -- exhaustive, expensive, time-consuming, iterative, filled with continuous refinement -- how is it that the office was actually able to get products to market? What was that part of the process like? How did they know when they were done?
Eames Demetrios (eamesdemetrios) Sat 20 Apr 02 15:06
Excellent prelude to a key question. And everything you said about the lota and more important the lota's process and Charles and Ray's fascination with and awareness of it is the reason it was such an early chapter in the book. One short answer is in your comment: a design was ready when Charles said it was ready. And many people at the office phrased it exactly that way in our interviews. but there are fuller answers: First, Charles and Ray were acutely aware of two ends of the spectrum of how to deal with deadlines. At one end, you do something over and over until you get it right--no matter how long it takes. Charles was once asked, "Did you design the Eames chair in a flash?" and Charles said, "Yes, a 30-year flash." In that sense, every idea flowed into every other. Dick Donges, who worked at the Office, once told me that Charles and Ray weren't done designing an object even when it went into production. The Lounge Chair is a perfect example. The first few dozen or so were basically hand assembled. No one knew if they would take off or not. As they looked at those, they tweaked them a little and that became the final design. The chair itself took a couple of years to design--Herman Miller undoubtedly despaired that it would ever be done. But it was and was a smashing success. At the other end, they had an expression which was: the best you can do between now and Tuesday is a kind of best you can do. In the case of the Lounge Chair there is a great story about the film that they made about the making of the lounge chair. The film was made on the spur of the moment in about 5 days. And it is wonderful and fresh too. The point is: they had an absolutely finetuned sense of how to balance that. Pushing the envelope but valuing the spirit of the deadline (as the Eameses' Franklin and Jefferson film says about Benjamin Franklin). second, they weren't afraid of doing something again. They believed in the learn by doing process. So that even if they couldn't replicate centuries of growth, they could focus on the essence of any given problem. So they knew something was done when it worked and they weren't afraid either of getting involved with something a deadline (I think actually they relished the constraint provided by that) and they weren't afraid of saying it could be better. A couple of years a go a conductor wanted to conduct Elmer Bernstein's beautiful Tocatta for Toy Trains score live to a print of the film. So he practiced to our homevideo of it with the orchestra. And then he needed a 16mm print. So I grabbed one from our archives that hadn't been used a lot and would therefore be more pristine. After his dress rehearsal I got a panicked call from him: what happened to the movie? It turned out that I had grabbed a finished print that was 1 minute longer. I had occasionally seen references to "a short version"--but it turned out that the short version was the final. Charles and Ray had completed the film made a final print and then revised--and that is the version used today.: the one they always showed. We got the conductor a real print, but it was real reminder of how they understood the value of a completed product to making the finished product better. I think it is something we can all relate to but don't always act upon. However, I think we all observed it however watching the evolution of websites: very few successful sites kept slow loading and clumsy graphics up there for long. But sometimes it took going live to understand how to improve it. I am sure the Well went through that, I know our site has. Further references on those 3 films: http://www.eamesoffice.com/films/Franklin_Jefferson.html http://www.eamesoffice.com/films/Tocatta_Trains.html http://www.eamesoffice.com/films/Lounge_Chair.html
Eames Demetrios (eamesdemetrios) Sat 20 Apr 02 19:07
I guess I am scaring everyone with these long answers... But there is so much to say on all these good points!
Linda Castellani (castle) Sat 20 Apr 02 20:02
I followed those links and discovered the filmography - there's an enormous number of films there. Can the films still be viewed?
Eames Demetrios (eamesdemetrios) Sat 20 Apr 02 20:25
Charles and Ray made over 120 or so short films. We have about 33 of them available on home video and DVD and another 15 or so can be gotten by special order. But Volumes 1-5 of the video series are a great place to start. Many independent video stores carry them or you can order them from our website. Each volume (except volume 1 with the Powers of Ten) is about one hour in length. We also have some links online where you can play a few films: http://www.eamesoffice.com/resources/webcast_downloads_resource.html that has Lounge Chair in its entirety and clips from Eratosthenes, Tops, and Kaleidoscope Jazz Chair. Obviously the quality is a lot better in person, but it is a good start. The films are really Charles and Ray's essays and are very important to see. Enjoy
Bob Rossney (rbr) Sat 20 Apr 02 23:00
Is _A Communications Primer_ available yet? When I discovered the Eames films on video, there were only four volumes available, and it wasn't in any of them. Also: is it even possible to show "Glimpses of the USA" again?
Eames Demetrios (eamesdemetrios) Sun 21 Apr 02 01:02
We now have 5 volumes and we are working on a 6th. But we are also trying to make more titles available as single titles and, yes!, A Communications Primer is the first in that format. Dubs are basically made on demand, so it is more for the library market. But here is the link for a special order http://www.eamesoffice.com/catalog/detail.php?prod_id=298&category=202 But we hope to have it out less expensively within the year. It is quite an amazing film both for its ambition and the fact that the essential ideas are still valid. Now, for those of you don't know, Glimpses of the USA was a 7 screen presentation Charles and Ray did for the American Pavilion in Moscow in 1959 (it was screened in a huge Bucky Fuller dome on screens a total of nearly a football field across about 50 feet away from the site of the Kitchen Debate). Here's a link that will at least show the configuration of the screens: http://www.eamesoffice.com/films/Glimpses_USA.html It was a presentation of America done in 2200 images over 12 and half minutes or so. Therefore, literal reconstruction would be a challenge even if the negatives had not been lost. but we found a print in our archives that had been used as a record for 6 of the screens. Then we found the notes for the final version and transferred those images to video. It is this version that we presented on 7 video screens at the Library of Congress/Vitra Design Museum show that started in 1997 and came to the US for 4 cities and is now back in Berlin. Unfortunately that's pretty much the only way to see it. it is hard to get the full effect without having 7 separate screens, so we will probably not release it as a single channel video. Maybe we will do special screenings from time to time. (And of course the Russians who saw on the big screens must have had an overpowering visual experience).
Eames Demetrios (eamesdemetrios) Sun 21 Apr 02 01:03
I should have added that the Glimpses presentation is done with 7 different DVDs running in sync.
Eames Demetrios (eamesdemetrios) Sun 21 Apr 02 01:10
Also, I wanted to say there is a nice video clip on our site of Billy Wilder discussing a small (but helpful) contribution he made to the Glimpses of the USA. It is at the bottom of the tribute page. http://www.eamesoffice.com/wilder.html I don't mean to overdo it with these links, but I hope it gives people who haven't seen the book a chance to get a feel for some of the more specific topics we are talking about.
Scott Underwood (esau) Sun 21 Apr 02 08:19
This is all great stuff. Going back to the question of evolution in design, many designers feel as if the moment that a product is released they could very easily take the product and start the design process all over again. So, knowing when it's time to say "Enough!" and push it out the door is key to a designer's success. How did the Eameses feel about some of their early work? Was he critical of ideas that came out of the office years later? Did he ever think about updating some of the chairs? And also, what sort of people were they? That is, did they tend to be critical of the poor design decisions that seem to surround us every day? My guess is that they found beauty in surprising places, but I wonder how he felt about, say, driving one of Detroit's finest or visiting a department store. (My apologies--I see I go back and forth between "he" and "they"--I suppose I haven't completely embraced Ray's role in the team.)
(fom) Sun 21 Apr 02 09:14
Oh there's a great story about how the Eameses used to drive Fords until... But I'll let Eames tell it.
Eames Demetrios (eamesdemetrios) Sun 21 Apr 02 10:16
<How did the Eameses feel about some of their early work? Was he critical of ideas that came out of the office years later? Did he ever think about updating some of the chairs?> I think part of it is valuing the spirit of the deadline. I think that's why they liked having the client in the equation because it anchored you to the real world. And I think that they also were always moving forward. One fascinating thing for me about conducting interviews with people at the office is that I always asked people if they remembered Charles or Ray discussing the early years of the office or their pre-LA years. What was fascinating is that they all knew a couple of vague things indirectly (like from their reading), but they hardly ever knew anything directly (from the horse's mouth one might say) about experiences before the staff member's arrival. They all said it never came up. it wasn't that it was an offlimits conversation, it was just that Charles and Ray were always focused on the future. So were they critical of earlier work? I think they saw the work before 1941 (when they came to LA and effectively started the office) --with the possible exception of the Organic Chair -- as being part of their development but not as accomplished. Important structurally (like Charles's experiences at Cranbrook and Ray's with Hans Hofmann). Jeanine Oppewall remembered seeing Charles at an exhibit (Connections) that included some early work and Charles saying: Boy, you get to make alot of mistakes. (it was something like that, I don't have my notes) But you were asking maybe more about the early work of them as a team???? In that case, Charles once said (perhaps somewhat self-deprecatingly, in the early 1970s) he really felt that there was essentially one idea in the fiberglass chairs and LCW together. (the idea of the pursuit of the single shell chair). So they could be quite clear-eyed. One specific example of being always willing to challenge the completed work is that they were re-examining the shockmount (the attachment of the base to the seat and back) as late as the 1972 or so even though mature products with the shockmount had been in production since 1946 in wood and 1950 in plastic. The whole pursuit of the single shell chair is an example of not being satisfied. But there is a difference between thinking that there is an even better solution out there and beating oneself up unnecesarily. I also find it quite moving that in 1971, in the Norton Lectures, given a chance to sum up a life of work, Charles ended with Tocatta for Toy Trains, a 1957 film. Last, did they go back???? YES! Powers of Ten was made 2 and half times. Tops was made Twice. Toys were in the first and last projects. The Eames House was completed twice from a blueprint perspective.
Eames Demetrios (eamesdemetrios) Sun 21 Apr 02 10:50
<That is, did they tend to be critical of the poor design decisions that seem to surround us every day?> Absolutely, but even then they tried attack them on a deeper level. Here I am thinking of the comments on Los Angeles: "California, and particularly Los Angeles, is a very special example. If it were as good a lesson as it is an example, it would be especially helpful. . . . People in large numbers from many different cultures came together to form a communityleaving all their traditions, social mores, inherited land responsibilities and restraints behind. The form the community has taken is more a product of its freedoms than of its restraints, and the result is frightening. . . . A very large community has been forced to make many decisions large and smallwithout the restraining effects of a common cultural tradition, or limitations that come with isolation, or social responsibilities of long-standing or a lore of materials and their appropriate use. But what is important is that they didn't use this insight to become reactionary. Similarly, they felt that what schools wanted out of the arts should be present (and in fact was) is other disciplines, not compartmentalized out into a solitary place. And time one of the reasons I started the book with the stories about appropriateness is that they recognized that sometimes good design is cheap (like a top in an Indian market) and sometimes expensive like a Mercedes) and bad design can be cheap or expensive. The price alone is not a sufficient factor.
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