Matt Blease in conversation with Catherine Ince, Curator, Barbican Art Gallery’Building the world of Charles & Ray’
MB: First off, I have a confession to make. I am a total Eames fan-boy. I had been counting down the days till this exhibition for almost a year. I made a somewhat awkward blag into the private view, got told off by the security guard for sneaking a picture (rightly so) and have been back twice since, wearing my Eames OfficeTM pin badge with pride.
I love the exhibition. I’ve been recommending it to anyone willing to listen. It really brings together and celebrates the Eames’ incredible, multi-disciplinary output. As a curator, where on earth do you start with building ‘The World of Charles & Ray Eames’?
CI: Well, part of it was wanting to follow in the context of the Barbican programme, wanting to reflect on 20th century practice, and particularly designers and artists who represent an interest in many different disciplines. Their work still feels incredibly relevant, timely and part of something one should be looking at today, with what’s happening in the world right now.
For many people the work of the Eameses is still largely understood through furniture. They don’t even necessarily know that Ray was a woman and not Charles’s brother, as is often assumed.
I curated a show about the Bauhaus a few years ago and when talking about what might follow, we naturally had lots of conversations about protagonists of the 20th century. I have always been very interested in the Eames’ work and felt like there was much more to say, and that it wasn’t just about furniture design and mass production, but there was a philosophical ideology that runs through everything. Their position on education and history, on the material world, on ideas of science and technology, particularly during the middle of the 20th century, and the impact of the computer.
I was also a huge fan of their films and the way in which they used visual media to communicate their ideas or represent their thinking. So we decided that it would be the right time to reflect on them, to tell people who knew nothing about the Eameses something about all aspects of the practice, and to tell people who knew lots about them things that they hadn’t thought about before. So, that was the starting point. Where you go from there is always a long and interesting process of enquiry – trying to distil what you find in a body of work you feel represents what you want to say.
I spent a long time exploring everything they made and establishing what original artefacts still existed that could be included in the exhibition. The Eames’ archive is principally in three places: the Library of Congress, with the estate, and at Vitra Design Museum. Their body of work is enormous but many projects and stages of the production process only survive in photographic form. This raised questions as to how one might represent their projects and ideas through different means: by commissioning new models or thinking through different modes of representation in the absence of the original object.
MB: I noticed that many of the exhibits were from private collectors, which I imagine must be a logistical nightmare. Was there anything that you had wanted to include that you were unable to acquire?
CI: That’s a really interesting question. Yes, any show like this will have a significant number of lenders and there are a lot of practicalities that go with making exhibitions, such as availability of an object, its condition for travel and display, institutional loan processing etc. And as I said, a lot of time is spent simply trying to unearth artefacts and sometimes it’s difficult to find what you’re looking for. We spent a considerable amount of time trying to find a complete unbound set of Arts & Architecture Magazine for which Ray designed the covers in the 1940s. The last one was only finally agreed for loan two weeks before the opening of the exhibition.
The Eames were so prolific in documenting their work, taking photographs of projects and furniture. As well as being an incredible resource it offers a tantalising record of things that don’t exist anymore. A lot of the three-dimensional models that they made are lost or destroyed. You probably know what it’s like, in the process of working you don’t start to build your archive for posterity, you just work. And while their studio in California was fairly sizeable, there wasn’t always the means to keep large-scale architectural models. One lost 1:12 scale model of the IBM Pavilion Ovoid Theatre intrigued me because photographs show they were testing their ideas for the multi-screen presentation by projecting into it using multiple film projectors. I felt it was as important to communicate their research and development processes as well as the final production or object. The model was also very useful to communicate the scale of the project. Their use of models and modelling ideas became a thread through the show.
MB: As an illustrator I was so happy to see Saul Steinberg’s cat painting on the LAR chair. Do you have a favourite design or project in the exhibition?
CI: I’m a huge fan of Steinberg and it’s kind of sad that some of the other drawings he made in the studio disappeared, so it’s great to have both chairs there as the only surviving artefacts.
My favourite piece? It’s really hard to answer that question because there are so many good things. I’m a little bit in love with the study of the plywood nose cone section of a glider plane, and it’s one of the first objects you see when you enter the exhibition. And I rather like the whale that sits in relation to that, floating in the sky in a way that it sometimes did when on display in Herman Miller’s showrooms.
I’m really pleased with the way that the triple-screen slide show comes together in the exhibition. I think both Charles and Ray possessed a phenomenal eye and were really great editors. They captured the world through their photography and then put the individual images together in pairs and trios to make a more meaningful whole and suggest connections and relationships. I really wanted to have more triple channel slide shows in the show, but we ran out of space! There is so much in their film and photography work that is visually sumptuous and provocative and expressive. I like seeing through their eyes.
MB: All things mid-century seem to be enjoying a renaissance, from the production design of film and TV series such as Mad Men to the DSW chair being the go-to item for contemporary interior designers (they have even made an appearance in McDonalds!). Do you think that the timing has helped with the success of the exhibition? Or did you choose to stage the exhibition now as a response to the current appreciation of the mid-century aesthetic?
CI: It wasn’t a motivating factor, no, but it’s undoubtedly contributed to the exhibition’s success. The aesthetic of the show is something quite different. It doesn’t have any of that pastiche-y element. I think it feels very contemporary.
MB: For Charles and Ray it seemed that the boundaries were fluid between art, design, film, architecture, technology and education. Their multi-disciplinary approach was ahead of its time and not dissimilar to the way that people within the creative industries work now. What do you think it is that makes them still so relevant?
CI: I think it is about that attitude. They were very admiring of craftsmen or people that had a deep knowledge or skill with a single material or technique. They absolutely mastered and developed their own techniques and tools to make supremely good objects. But they were also interested in the bigger picture, and that is what really resonates today. They were curious about everything and encouraged interest in the world. When you read their writing or notes on projects that’s what you come away with.
There’s an often-quoted statement about the Eames’ desire to reach as many people as possible with their early furniture designs. They felt very strongly, especially at the end of their lives, that the same principle applied to public institutions, large corporations and broadcasting agencies. That these organisations had a responsibility to share and distribute their assets and knowledge with as many people as possible. That this sharing of information – about history, technology, science and culture – was critical to human advancement.
MB: Today we are so concerned with the work/life balance. Charles and Ray famously didn’t see a distinction between the two. Is there a lesson for us all in this?
CI: They often talked about taking satisfaction from the process of work itself and not the end product, and quoted this passage from the Bhagavad Gita in the introduction of their 1958 Eames report to Nehru, the Prime Minister of India:
You have the right to work but for the work’s sake only; you have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working. Never give way to laziness, either. Perform every action with your heart fixed on the Supreme Lord. Renounce attachment to the fruits. Be even-tempered in success and failures, for it is this evenness of temper which is meant by Yoga. Work done with anxiety about results is far inferior to work done without such anxiety, in the calm of self-surrender. Seek refuge in the knowledge of Brahman. They who work selfishly for results are miserable.
When you are able to take such immense pleasure from what you do (including the challenges and stresses) it becomes impossible to see an artificial division between life and work. I don’t know if everyone in the office always shared their view, but their philosophy certainly proved rewarding.