The Eames Institute is bringing to a wider audience Ray and Charles Eames' systematic approach to design, helping a new generation learn from their outlook
The bricks-and-mortar legacy of Charles and Ray Eames doesn’t just lay in the Pacific Palisades house they built for themselves in the late 1940s, or in the handful of other architectural projects the couple undertook. North of San Francisco in the rural landscape of Petaluma is where Charles Eames’ daughter Lucia built a ranch in the 1990s that served as home and artist’s studio, but also an incredible archive that celebrates two of the 20th century’s most enquiring minds. Now, it’s also HQ to the Eames Institute – or, to give it its full title, the Eames Institute of Infinite Curiosity – a non-profit that aims to bring to a wider audience the couple’s unique approach to ideas and problem-solving, to help a new generation learn from their outlook.
“The institute grew out of this place, which my mother created to archive the material that she inherited,” says Llisa Demetrios, Lucia’s daughter and chief curator of this new venture. Lucia Eames, who died in 2014, in many ways laid the groundwork for the institute through setting up the Eames Foundation in 2004 to ensure the safe future of the Eames House; donating a portion of the archive to the Library of Congress; and taking steps to protect the Eames’ intellectual property and manufacturing quality.
Having seen first-hand what visitors gained from coming in person to the ranch to piece together the Eames’ work through objects such as handmade prototypes, exhibition designs and the couple’s collection of folk art, Demetrios decided to bring it to a wider audience via a website. She started the archiving process with her mother 20 years ago and she and her team are still going, with some boxes still unopened, and much of the collection stored off-site for space reasons. “When I’m done I think it’ll be close to 20,000 objects. There is still so much to archive, but [the institute] seemed like a wonderful way to let it unfold, and introduce people to the way that Ray and Charles used design to solve problems,” she says. “We started to see connections in the material, through the furniture, or the photography or the films.”
Demetrios and her team have used their knowledge of the collection, gained through their own research and through working with international curators who want to research or borrow items, to tell some of those stories. These online exhibitions include Plywood During the War, an account of how the couple went from fabricating moulded plywood shapes in their spare bedroom to assisting the war effort by designing a lightweight splint, to using their new-found technical mastery to develop some of the 20th-century’s best loved (and still highly sought-after) chairs. Form Follows Formulation, meanwhile, traces the evolution of the Shell Chair and how the couple worked backwards from an end goal of mass production alongside consistently high quality.
Demetrios explains how the pair thought through design in 360 degrees: “When they approached a problem like airport seating, they realised they shouldn’t just speak to the person buying the furniture but the person who’s going to take care of it. When they spoke to the airport maintenance teams, it was the replacement parts that were difficult because the existing seats were heavily upholstered in the back, and the seat and back were different shapes – it took two people to change it. If you look at their Tandem Seating, the seat and back are the same and the replacement leather comes rolled up in a tube; it just needed one person to pop out two screws to replace it.” It’s no wonder that this product, celebrating its 60th birthday in 2022, is still in production.
Charles Eames died when Demetrios was 12, but that was still plenty of time for her to have been influenced first-hand by the Eames’ infectious curiosity. “They loved what they did and I think the greatest gift they gave to us grandchildren was getting to spend time with them,” she says. “They never talked down to us, and they always shared what they were working on.” Once, on a walk after dinner at a Russian restaurant in Venice in Los Angeles, Charles Eames asked how his granddaughter had liked her borscht. She hadn’t liked it, “but he turned to me without missing a beat and said ‘how would you have done things differently?’ We then came up with a whole story around it, and thought about the other things you could make with those ingredients. I felt empowered.”
The institute’s website has a democratic outlook and is aimed at anyone interested in design and problem-solving processes. “I want it to be very approachable,” says Demetrios. “I think people don’t realise that they have more choices, or that there are other ways of looking at things. That there’s a process to solving problems.” While the focus is online for now, there are plans for the institute to host live events and exhibitions too (Airbnb founder Joe Gebbia has provided the institute’s seed funding, while its president and CEO is writer and curator John Cary, whose work has a particular focus on the intersection of design and philanthropy).
The last word is Lucia Eames’. “Preservation is great, but if you’re not doing something that contributes to the future, if you’re only looking backward, then you’re not honouring the ideas behind the house,” she said in 2005 about Eames House. “The items, the furniture, the films – those are all great – but even more marvellous was Charles and Ray’s approach, how they worked.”