The Twentieth Century Society

Review: The World of Charles and Ray Eames

Barbican Art Gallery

Reviewed by Magnus Englund

There are two problems with any exhibition about Charles and Ray Eames. One is that it relies on sponsorship from the two licensed makers of their furniture, Herman Miller and Vitra; the other that it relies on the cooperation of their descendants to access exhibits, making any exhibition inevitably sanitised. This exhibition at the Barbican didn’t suffer from the first problem – there were no logos or branding – but the second meant that anything falling outside the narrative of the golden couple was left out.

We learned that Charles practised as an architect during the 1930s and 1940s before he met Ray, yet there was no information about what he built, or images of what it looked like. Charles met Alexandra ‘Ray’ Kaiser at Cranbrook while he was a teacher and she was a student; she assisted him and Eero Saarinen with the Organic Design in Home Furnishings exhibition at MoMA in 1940. Charles was already married, yet his first wife Catherine Woermann and their daughter Lucia Jenkins are both written out of the story. Towards the end of their lives, Charles and Ray’s relationship was not good, and when Charles died in 1978 she was not by his side (having said that, she famously died ten years later to the day, and was buried next to him). However, her solo work during the last ten years of her life remained unmentioned here.

This blockbuster exhibition showed the power of Eames as a brand, which is still incredibly strong considering that they are chiefly remembered as furniture designers – not the most usual profession leading to mainstream stardom. Charles and Ray were extraordinarily talented in building the image of the perfect designer couple, an image the USA was happy to use during the Cold War to show the world what a modern, capitalist superpower could achieve. Charles even has a star in the St Louis Walk of Fame next to Chuck Berry and Charles Lindbergh.

The best aspect of the show was the opportunity to experience the sheer width of their creative output, of which furniture design was only one part. There were short films, exhibition stands, graphic design, audio products, toys, interior architecture and textiles, even if the latter were not covered in much detail. IBM was a major customer for many years. Some great plywood objects were on display: furniture, aeroplane parts and artworks. During the war, Los Angeles was home to major aircraft manufacturers such as Douglas, Lockheed and Vultee. Charles and Ray constructed a variety of moulded plywood aircraft parts for the US Navy. They took advice on such manufacturing from Alvar Aalto during his stay in the USA in the 1940s, and developed plywood splints for US soldiers, which were manufactured in very large numbers.

One of the most interesting works on display was a travelling remembrance exhibition about Jawaharlal Nehru, commissioned by his daughter Indira Gandhi in 1964, shortly after his assassination. Charles and Ray had met him while travelling in India in 1957 for a study of Indian design commissioned by the Nehru government. On the basis of their report, India founded the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad in 1961.

This was an excellent exhibition, but it seems that the full story of Charles and Ray Eames, and their lives before and after they lived and worked together, will have to wait for another time.