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Ten things to see at The World of Charles and Ray Eames

The World of Charles and Ray Eames is the first retrospective of the Eames’ work in the UK for 15 years. Spread out over two floors in the Barbican’s art gallery, the show offers a look at both blockbuster projects and lesser-known inventions – from plywood leg splints for the US Navy to a plywood nose for a glider plane, the Eames’ famous lounge chair for Herman Miller and homes designed by the couple.

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A plywood elephant designed by Charles and Ray Eames for Evans Products Company, alongside a small collection of children’s chairs and stools (1945)

While perhaps best known for their furniture, the Eames worked in a range of mediums and the exhibition places equal focus on their films, photography and visual communications. Also a key focus is the pair’s iterative way of working and the huge amount of research and attention to detail they would put into every project. Finished pieces are accompanied by beautifully detailed plans and sketches, mock-ups and scaled models, giving a fascinating insight into their working processes.

The sheer scale and variety of the Eames’ output poses many a challenge for exhibition designers but 6a architects and the Barbican have done a great job of mixing large and small-scale projects. Larger designs such as Case Study House 9 and the IBM Pavilion are displayed through floorplans, perspective drawings and photographs, helping give a sense of their size and scale, while films and moving image work are displayed beautifully on large screens around the space.

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Installation design for the exhibition For Modern Living, Detroit Institute of Arts, 1949

The exhibition is accompanied by a lavish catalogue: designed by John Morgan studio and published by Thames & Hudson, the hardback book offers an in-depth look at all of the work featured in the show, and is a great resource for any fans of the Eames. An events programme running until January 2016 includes guided tours led by Ince and assistant curator Lotte Johnson, talks and screenings of the Eames’ moving image work and a talk from Ray and Charles’ grandson, Eames Demetrios.

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There’s a lot to see but below is a selection of ten highlights from the show. It’s by no means an exhaustive list (and projects are arranged in no particular order) but includes a look at various aspects of the Eames work, from furniture to graphic design and photography.

  1. IBM Pavilion (1964)
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Bird’s eye view of the IBM Pavilion

The IBM Pavillion, created for the New York World’s Fair in 1964, was one of the Eames’ largest undertakings. The Office was responsible for the graphics, signage and film as well as the design of the pavillion itself, which was spread out over a 1.2 acre site and included a vast ovoid theatre suspended over 100m in the air. Using synchronised projectors and multiple screens, the Eames used the space to deliver a multimedia presentation which explained the similarities between the human brain and computers in the way they process, interpret and analyse information.

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Think!, a 1964 film created for the IBM Pavilion

The exhibition includes detailed sketches and plans for the Pavilion and Ovoid theatre, as well as a scaled model. Think!, a short film which uses images of everyday scenes to explain how computers process data is also on display across multiple screens, as it would have been in the Pavilion. It’s a fantastic example of the Eames’ eye for a great image and their ability to distil complex ideas into easy-to-understand concepts.

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Model of the Ovoid theatre showing the scale of the building
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Sketch of the Ovoid theatre for the IBM Pavilion

2. Saul Steinberg Armchairs (c. 1950)

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Charles & Ray Eames were close friends with illustrator and cartoonist Saul Steinberg and his wife, artist Hedda Stern. On a visit to the studio in 1950, Steinberg drew on several chairs and walls. Two of the chairs are on display in the exhibition alongside early armchair prototypes.

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3. The Toy (1951)

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Released in 1951 and manufactured by Tigrett, The Toy was a modular system made up of triangular and diamond shaped panels, wooden dowels and wire connectors, creating a flexible frame which could be arranged in various ways to form stages, puppet show stands and even tents.

The Eames had developed several ideas for structural toys – from huge masks to triangular and diamond units which could be assembled to create towers and sculptures. The item highlights both their fascination with toys and their interest in open and imaginative play. The pair also designed a doll’s house based on their own home for Herman Miller and toy company Revell, which was never put into production but could be arranged in one, two or three storey configurations, and a prototype is on show in the exhibition alongside graphics and interior design for Herman Miller.

4. Herman Miller graphics, props and interiors

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From 1949 until the late 1960s, the Eames oversaw the design of Herman Miller’s showrooms. Ray produced detailed lists of objects and props to be used in displays, and would devise layouts which incorporated photography, art and a range of media. Sketches and images of showroom interiors are displayed in the exhibition alongside graphics, print ads and promotional material created for the company.

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Graphics include posters promoting the opening of Herman Miller’s Textiles and Objects showroom in Manhattan, designed by Alexander Girard, and mock-ups for ads promoting the Eames lounge chair. There is also a letter to Ray and Charles from the late Deborah Sussman regarding showroom invitation designs from 1962, which is decorated with hearts and a note reading ‘from Deborah…still miss you!’

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5. Traveling Boy & Sumo Wrestler

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Scene from Traveling Boy, the Eames’ first film

Alongside some of the Eames’ most famous films and slideshows are two lesser-known productions: Traveling Boy, the pair’s first film and Sumo Wrestler, a 1972 short featuring Hawaiian-born sumo wrestler Takamiyama Daigoro.

Traveling Boy was shot at the Eames’ studio in their house and captures a small mechanical boy travelling through a landscape filled with hand painted circus characters, toys and drawings by Steinberg. The film was never completed, though led to a follow-up, Parade, or Here They Come Down our Street, which won an award at the Edinburgh Festival in 1954.

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Boats and masks collected by the Eames

Sumo Wrestler, meanwhile, is an oddly mesmerising film in which Takamiya’s hairdresser prepares his hair for a wrestling match. The film was made spontaneously after the wrestler and his hairdresser (a former staff member at the Eames Office) made a visit to the studio.

The films are displayed together alongside personal items collected by the Eames: on one wall is a collection of wooden boats and on another, a series of masks. The installation aims to highlight their fascination with everyday objects and with rituals and customs in other cultures.

6. Ray’s Arts & Architecture covers & paintings

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Between 1942 and 1946, Ray Eames designed 26 covers for Arts & Architecture, the publication founded by John Entenza in 1938. Her covers combine montage, layering and superimposed motifs and are shown alongside sketches and mock-ups for covers and interior spreads. Also on display are a selection of her paintings, which feature a similar aesthetic. The magazine explored the impact of modernism on contemporary culture and had a particular focus on Californian design.

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7. Ray & Charles’ letters

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Dotted throughout the exhibition are several letters, doodles and sketches by Charles and Ray. There is a letter from Charles to Ray in which he declares ‘I love you very much and would like to marry you very soon’, plus letters from Ray decorated with hearts and assembled using various scraps of paper.

There are also some touching illustrated envelopes and doodles – from a handmade birthday card to an enamel sign given by Ray to Charles on his birthday and an extract from Ray’s diary, marking the day of Charles’ death with his initials. While the majority of the exhibition is focused on their professional work, these drawings and letters – alongside a selection of portraits of the couple, and their studio and family – offer a glimpse of their personal lives and close relationship.

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8. India Slideshow

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The Eames were fundamental in the formation of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India, submitting a report in 1958 which proposed a new education model for the country.

The pair visited India several times from the late 1950s onwards and Charles took hundreds of pictures, which were used to create a three-screen slideshow titled India. Several stills are on display in the exhibition, and capture Indian architecture, traditional dress, food and local customs, providing another example of the inspiration the pair found in their everyday surroundings.

9. Powers of Ten 

Made for IBM, Powers of Ten is one of the Eames’ most famous films, and aims to communicate the relationship between design and the world. The film starts with a picnic in Chicago but every 10 seconds, the camera moves farther away, until the galaxy is visible as a mere speck. The film is accompanied by production stills and photographs from the shoot.

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10. House of Cards

One of the Eames’ most popular products, House of Cards was a 54-card pattern set depicting objects from the animal, mineral and vegetable kingdoms. Cards are displayed alongside mock-ups for packaging and contact sheets featuring images of potential designs for a follow-up game, Pairs. The game never went into production and the sheets are all that remain of the Eames’ idea, alongside initial sketches for a logo.

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The World of Charles and Ray Eames opens at the Barbican Centre on October 21 until February 14 2016. Tickets cost £14.50 – for details, see barbican.org.uk

Lead image: Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images Courtesy Barbican Art Gallery

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