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.