15 December 2011
Designs by Nature
Designs by Human Nature
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Today I celebrate the anniversary of Ray Eames’ birth on 15 December 1912. She ranks high on my most admired list. I’m in awe of her genius, ingenuity and perseverance to “just do” what she did best: create an aesthetic that won a permanent place in the annals of art, design and technology. The collaboration with her husband, Charles, is well documented–the couple did it all and together. Really, their contributions are so vast that it staggers my thoughts. They personified the “ever-ready” battery of artistic expression, and they were successful in their lifetime. Their range crossed the lines of architecture into communications into education into exhibitions into film into furniture into graphic design into mathematics into science into technology into toys. They seemed to sit comfortably on the apex of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: the place where self-actualization and the highest achievements occur.
Because they seemed more like Siamese twins, joined in ideas, mind and space, I thought that I would try to wedge apart that inner connection (over forty years of a shared personal and working life in California) to see Ray Eames in her own light. At the end of next year she would have been one hundred years old. So this tribute is an early cyberspace soiree for her.
Ray Eames (Bernice Alexandra Eames, née Kaiser 1912-1988) must have known at a young age that she wanted to be an artist. In the late 1930s she moved to New York City where she studied at the Art Students League with Hans Hofmann, the abstract expressionist. When he began his own art school, she enrolled. Hofmann’s oeuvre emphasized color and structure. Those six years (in NYC and Provincetown, MA) under his tutelage, I believe was a major influence on her artistic development. New York City itself was a monumental lesson in art and culture. Those years were instrumental as was the next phase when she attended Cranbrook Academy of Art and met Charles. It was the 1940s, and he was charismatic and tall. Ray may have been petite and quiet, but her inner spirit gave her the strength to prevail.
But it’s hard to measure such a duo’s contribution separately. It’s conjecture. But it is worth saying that she would have succeeded without him. It was in her soul and spirit to be an artist, and on its own merit her work would have risen into notoriety. I believe that her painterly eye and her artistic center is what made a difference in their achievements. She may have been muse for his own creativity, but she had a particular spark of passion that made her unique.
Here is a quote from Linda Cervon who knew the Eames: “I knew Ray quite well as I literally grew up with her! I was 7 when we bought the house. Ray influenced me in lots of ways. From her wonderful sense of style and decorating, to her handwriting and her signature hearts. I even drive a Jaguar like she did and have been known to wear ballet slippers as non-dance footwear. I always knew if Mrs. Eames liked it, or gave it to me it was the ‘right’ thing.”
The box of goodies arrived with much anticipation on my part. Some people buy sweets, jewelry, cars, clothes, I buy small luxuries–at least in my mind’s frame of reference (books and design gems). As I lifted the aptly decorated cover that was embellished with Eames colorful chairs, the rectangular box was packed with these treasures: an Eames Flip Book (OMG, I adore it.), which shows the making of the 1956 Eames lounge chair; a book of Eames postcards with images of their variety of chairs; Eames pencils; a DVD of the making of the lounge chair; and, a DVD with Elmer Bernstein’s music that was used in the films of Ray and Charles Eames. I am in heaven. While I do own four original Eames wire chairs (given to me by my mother who was an abstract expressionist and studied with Hans Hofmann in P’twon), two small Eames tables, some other accessories, and books, books, books about them. I long for more.
In 2008 the issuance of the Eames commemorative stamp had me bolting to the post office to purchase one. It now hangs framed on the wall behind my computer. It’s next to three other frames with a commemorative of Isamu Nogchi, another about the Abstract Expressionists, and one honoring the Pioneers of American Industrial Design (see my post from 15 April 2011 titled “Stamps as Imagery”).
The reminders of their innovation and talents continue through Design Within Reach and their designs produced by the furniture company Herman Miller. Tributes continue to abound. Take Christopher Neimann’s fabulous illustration in the “Sunday New York Times Magazine” on 27 November 2011. This artist was not only displaying his talents, but his sense of history and humor. Please view his “Modern Squash,” which is his seasonal reinterpretations of design classics, including two of the Eames’ works (http://niemann.blogs.nytimes.com). It’s hilariously inventive.
Ray and Charles Eames pushed each other’s imaginative genius, and a symbiotic relationship transpired. As individuals and a team they produced lasting designs and ideas that have remained at the forefront of contemporary innovation. Today an Eames design is as fresh and visually-seductive as it was in its infancy.
Each had a talent fueled by an aesthetic and a vision. Each brought significant ideas and possibilities to their conjoined projects. Maybe I should accept that their coming together was a stroke of luck that also was fueled by human chemistry. Still, I strongly believe in individuality and its palpable existence.
If you live in Southern California, you can be treated to the latest exhibition to honor them: “Eames Words” at the A + D Museum Los Angeles (through January 16), which places their words across walls to show their ideas. Or get a copy of the new documentary, “Eames: The Architect and the Painter” that details their effect on today’s contemporary life. For me a sad part of their relationship rests with Charles and the culture of the times. He took much of the credit, and she often was a shadow to his larger-than-life needs. I believe the film gives Ray the light she deserves. The film premier’s on PBS’s “American Masters” on 19 December—do try to watch it. The DVD was released on Tuesday.
Their talents have been feted, and their legacies continue through the Eames Foundation (http://eamesfoundation.org). For those who simply want to browse through their products, go to Design Within Reach (http://www.dwr.com), the online store that is similar to meandering through the rooms of a great repository of art. But brick-and-mortar stores also dot this country.
Their collaboration was a tour de force, a spontaneous and yet very calculated display of artistic merit. They wanted to give the people “the best for the least for the most,” which they accomplished and so much more. Happy, happy ninety-ninth b’day Ray, I do wish that I had known you.