Eames: The Best Seat in the House

Charles and Ray Eames
Wikimedia Commons

From the 1940s to the 1970s, Charles and Ray Eames, the husband-and-wife design team best known for their chairs, worked out of an anonymous former trolley-car repair shop in a seedy section of Venice, California. Their studio was a reflection of their manifold fascinations — lathes and power saws competed for space with antique dolls, light tables heaped with slides and piles of cameras and lenses.

Whether posing together on a motorcycle (five-foot-tall Ray driving, a bow-tied Charles grinning behind her) or balancing on a beam of their just-framed house, the Eameses exuded a witty, fun-loving, all-American informality. In their designs, too, the Eames look was inviting and user-friendly. With creations like their still-popular 1956 molded plywood and leather lounge chair and ottoman, writes biographer Pat Kirkham, the Eameses gave modernism "a human face and a comfortable bottom."

On May 20, the first posthumous retrospective in the United States of the Eameses' career opens at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The exhibition runs through September 4, then moves on to the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City (October 12-January 9) and later to St. Louis and Los Angeles.

To upwardly mobile members of the postwar middle class, says the show's organizer Donald Albrecht, the Eameses epitomized modernity. "Eames furniture represented good taste without extravagance." This still holds true.

The broad sweep of the Eameses' work — from furniture showrooms to nature films, kit-built houses to toys and games, mathematical slide shows to history exhibitions — testifies not only to their wide-ranging curiosity but also to their belief that knowledge, properly packaged, could entertain.

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