The world of Charles and Ray Eames

Chances are, an iconic Eames chair is on your furniture wish list, but how much do you know about Ray and Charles Eames, the couple behind its design?

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In the first UK retrospective on Charles and Ray Eames in 15 years, the Barbican, in London, is dedicating two floors of its art gallery to the work of the design visionaries. From early iterations of their sought-after chairs, to leg splints designed for the UK navy, and even a plywood glider nose, the 380 pieces on display encompasses both the couple’s iconic and lesser-known creations.

Working from their ‘laboratory’ in California, the couple, along with a team of collaborators and staff, produced pioneering work for more than four decades – not just enduring furniture, but also architecture, painting, film, sculpture and photography.

The World of Charles and Ray Eames runs at the Barbican until February 2016.

The exhibition explores the huge amount of research Charles and Ray carried out when producing their designs and the attention to detail they put into their finished pieces. Designs are accompanied by detailed plans, mock-ups and scaled models, which give a real insight into the couple’s unique way of working.

‘For Charles and Ray, design was not simply a professional skill, it was a life skill—more than that, it was an essential attribute of life itself,’ says Eames Demetrios, director of the Eames Office. ‘And not pretentiously; on the contrary, they never stopped: challenging themselves to make their most iconic designs better and better— all the while having fun.’

Experimental moulded plywood chairs 

The exhibition includes the first moulded plastic chair created by the Eames Office as entry for the Museum of Modern Art’s International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design. They subsequently experimented with moulding plywood to create a chair with both the seat and back gently curved to ergonomically and comfortably support the body. This chair was mass produced by the Herman Miller Company and marketed as an affordable, multi-functional chair suitable for all modern American households. It is still in production today. From 1949 until the late 1960s, the couple oversaw all of Miller’s showrooms; and sketches and photographs of their designs are displayed in the exhibition, alongside graphics, adverts and other promotional material.

Slideshow of work on plans for a National Fisheries Center and Aquarium in Washington DC

Ray and Charles later expanded their furniture collection to include moulded plywood dining chairs, tables, and storage units. Their experimental approach to materials also continued, with the use of moulded fiberglass for shell chairs, collapsible sofas, and later a range of aluminum-framed furniture.

The exhibition also includes plans, drawings and photographs of the couple’s vision for satisfying post-war housing demand. As part of a project sponsored by California Arts and Architecture magazine, called the Case Study Houses, in 1951, architects were invited to design and build prototype properties that they believed would provide solutions for the chronic shortage of building materials.

For their entry, Ray and Charles built themselves a family home in Pacific Palisades, California,  using readily available industrial materials, such as corrugated steel, which hadn’t previously been used in residential properties. Their home’s flexible design, including multi-functional living spaces and double-height ceilings, has since become the hallmark of modern architecture.

Infographic showing the history of Eames furniture

The World of Charles and Ray Eames runs at the Barbican until 14 February 2016 and tickets cost £14.50.