1962: a full-page advertisement in Arts and Architecture magazine shouts at you in red capital lettering: "BEWARE OF IMITATIONS - Enjoy The Comfort Of The REAL THING." Such was the situation for Herman Miller and their key designers, husband and wife duo Ray and Charles Eames. Their iconic designs were now under threat from poor-quality fakes, risking tainting the Eames name with shoddy workmanship. Despite this, their reputation has remained intact - "Are they the chair ones?" my brother asked, when I told him about the World of Charles and Ray Eames exhibition at the Barbican. Well yes, I suppose - but there is so much more to the Eameses than their inimitable chairs. Ranging from architecture, film, graphic and exhibition design, and even children's games, the Eameses' were the designers of a post-war America; promising a world full of fun, whimsy, and advanced technology.
The exhibition recreates this highly dynamic, forever changing fascination at the surrounding world perfectly. It combines the detailed creative process of individual projects with their personal developments in their close relationships with others. Prototypes of their moulded plywood chairs are displayed alongside the wooden leg-splints that foreran their design, complimented by the letter in which Charles proposed to Ray. In the next room, the architectural drawings of their home are hung alongside personal photographs of them on its building site, while Charles' film House: After Five Years of Living plays on a screen suspended from above. Similar Eames films follow in subsequent rooms, including Fiberglass Chairs which documents their manufacture, and Glimpses from the USA from the American Exhibition in Moscow (1959). This exhibition is a fully immersive experience, a tiny peek into the scope, variety and enthusiasm of the Eames universe.
As well as products, the collaboration with organisations in the creation of exhibitions is also explored, in Mathematica: A World of Numbers...And Beyond and the IBM Pavilion for the 1964/1965 New York World's Fair. Upstairs, their collaboration with retailers explores the display of their products in a shop environment - shown in a domestic set-up as if they were already bought and in use. These were objects for utility, and you can engage with (sit on) examples while moving though the exhibition.
The recreation of the Eames’s world extends beyond an exploration of their output. The exhibition is set over two floors, with the lower rooms left exposed so visitors are able to look down over previous rooms. In this way we are able to engage with the world in the same way as them - as both observers and participants, looking critically at its construction and effectiveness in order to improve and develop, just as was intended with their building toy House of Cards. When it comes down to it, we could all use a little Eamesian wonder when interacting with the world.
This article was written for the December/January edition for the paper. It features content appropriate to the intended date of publication, and hence it might not be possible to visit or see the events/objects mentioned anymore. We apologise for the delay in the publication of the article.