Eames’, Mod­ernism and graphic design

Eames’, Modernism and graphic design

Charles and Ray Eames pio­neer­ing chair designs have become sym­bols of the mod­ernist design move­ment. Com­par­a­tively lit­tle is known of their graphic design work. At the cur­rent ret­ro­spec­tive of their work at the Bar­bi­can, Lon­don are a selec­tion of invites, brochures, posters, pack­ag­ing designs, print and press adver­tise­ments, mul­ti­me­dia and film that are of great interst to the prac­tic­ing graphic designer and his­to­rian. The exhi­bi­tion raises the ques­tion of how they (Eames’) and the mod­ernism move­ment at large flour­ished in post war Amer­ica. What were the influ­ences and how did those influ­ences jour­ney west from a frac­tured Europe that was rebuild­ing its econ­omy and borders.

The “Bauhaus of America”

Mod­ernist Amer­ica had to find com­mon ground in a world no longer uni­fied in belief. After the Bauhaus had closed its doors in 1933 many of those design­ers emi­grated to the United States, bring­ing mod­ernism with them in all areas of artistry and craftsmanship.

Many vis­ited and lec­tured at Cran­brook Acad­emy of Art in Michi­gan such as Lud­wig Mies van der Rohe and Le Cor­busier. Under the pres­i­dency of archi­tect Eliel Saari­nen (Finnish) stu­dents were exposed to mod­ernist the­ory and trends in archi­tec­ture and design that deeply influ­enced the Amer­i­can applied arts. Cran­brook was named its founder George Booth’s father’s birth­place: Cran­brook in Kent. Besides the Eames’ many of the stu­dents at Cran­brook became artists of world renown: Saarinen’s son Eero, Harry Weese, Harry Bertoia, Jack Lenor Larsen and Flo­rence Knoll (née Schust) who with her hus­band Hans built the Knoll fur­ni­ture man­u­fac­tur­ing and design company.

Charles Eames received a fel­low­ship in 1938 and moved to Michi­gan join­ing the fac­ulty the fol­low­ing year. Dur­ing 1940 Eames became head of the depart­ment of indus­trial design and in 1941 mar­ried Ray Kaiser. After leav­ing Cran­brook the Eames’ moved to Los Ange­les (Ray hav­ing been born in Sacra­mento) where they worked and lived until their deaths.

Dur­ing the 1950s to mid 60s with the Her­man Mil­lar com­pany the Eames’ pro­duced the clas­sic chairs using molded fiber­glass and a process of 3-​D veneer man­u­fac­tur­ing tech­nol­ogy. The assump­tion being this rela­tion­ship was founded back in Michi­gan. Her­man Millar’s head­quar­ters are based in Zee­land — a 2.5 hr drive from Cranbrook.

Eames’ as graphic designers

At the same time the Eames’ were pro­duc­ing mag­nif­i­cent front cov­ers for John Entenza’s ground­break­ing mag­a­zine Cal­i­for­nia Arts and Archi­tec­ture; the pub­li­ca­tion that put amer­i­can mod­ernism archi­tec­ture on the map. Until the mid-​1960s Arts & Archi­tec­ture mag­a­zine fea­tured the lumi­nar­ies of mod­ernism Rudolph Schin­dle, Eero Saari­nen (son of Eliel), Craig Ell­wood, Pierre Koenig and the Eames’ own build­ings.

The cov­ers between illus­trate The Eames’ mas­tery of graphic design with indi­ca­tions of influ­ence of Euro­pean graphic design of the same period eg Paul Schuitema (Dutch), Her­bert Mat­ter (Swiss-​American) and closer to home, Paul Rand.

House of Cards and Big Blue

The most widely recog­nised of Eames’ graphic design projects is their the House of Cards designed in 1952, with the giant ver­sion pro­duced the year after. The cards repeat­ing geo­met­ric pat­terns, shapes and pho­to­graphic imagery are intended to depict famil­iar objects from the arts, the sci­ences and the world around us. As Eames said, “good stuff… famil­iar and nos­tal­gic objects from the ani­mal, veg­etable and min­eral kingdoms”.

House of cards was refreshed for the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka with IBM com­mis­sion­ing a spe­cial edi­tion, “The Com­puter House of Cards” with exquis­ite pho­to­graphic details of the company’s main­frame com­put­ers (the floppy disk was intro­duced a year later by IBM). IBM later dis­trib­uted the Pow­ers of Ten™ (1977), the doc­u­men­tary film writ­ten and directed by Charles and Ray Eames depict­ing the rel­a­tive scale of the uni­verse based on a fac­tor of 10. The film was adapted from the book Cos­mic View (1957) writ­ten by Dutch aca­d­e­mic Kees Boeke and was prob­a­bly one of the most seen short films of the post-​war era.

The Eames’ Office pro­duced over 75 doc­u­men­tary films that reflected the breadth and depth of their inter­ests. Pow­ers of Ten™, and “Toc­cata for Toy Trains” are bril­liant exam­ples of the Eame­ses’ skill, cre­ativ­ity, and far-​reaching inter­ests. The scores for both those films and some thirty oth­ers were writ­ten by their friend and col­lab­o­ra­tor, Elmer Bern­stein.

Mod­ernism is long gone (and thank­fully with it the whimsy of post-​modernism) but its influ­ence con­tin­ues through­out the design world. There is much more to the Eames’ than the Eames/​Herman Miller clas­sics. Given the breadth of the Eames’ designs, much of their graphic out­put was for their own prod­ucts (aside from their long term clients includ­ing IBM). The Eames’ graphic design and film-​making should be his­tor­i­cally con­sid­ered as impor­tant as their archi­tec­tural and fur­ni­ture mas­ter­pieces. Their legacy in the belief of design hav­ing to be func­tional, use­ful, play­ful and beau­ti­ful remains as rel­e­vant today as it was 50 years ago.

The World of Charles and Ray Eames con­tin­ues at the Bar­bi­can art gallery con­tin­ues until 14 February.