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MODERNITY FOR SALE

Before an auction of work by Charles and Ray Eames in Chicago, Jordan Hruska talks to the official archivists of the Eames Office

Jordan Hruska | April 8th 2010

It seems a bit meta to build a small-scale model of an office dedicated to designing models, but for John Neuhart, his ten-year effort to memorialise the Charles and Ray Eames office in miniature was a labour of love. Neuhart, a designer, spent four years working with the husband-and-wife design team in Los Angeles, from 1957 through 1961. Inspired by their pioneering work creating economical, mass-produced, curvilinear furniture and modern design pieces, Neuhart and his wife, Marilyn, would eventually establish their own design practice. The two couples remained friends, and the Neuharts mounted the first comprehensive retrospective of Eames work at the University of California in Los Angeles in 1976. Since then, the Neuharts devoted themselves to Eames scholarship and collecting. Now in their 80s, they have decided to sell most of it as part of a grand auction of Eames designs at Wright20 in Chicago on April 8th.

The Eames Office model, rendered in a quarter-inch to one-foot scale, is full of idiosyncratic detail, including the untidy office where Ray hoarded her swatches of fabrics, photographs, toys and inspirations. “It was always difficult with Ray,” says Marilyn Neuhart. “She was an arbitrary type when it came to collecting things.”

The interdisciplinary nature of the office was a radical idea at the time. Charles ran the studio with a quiet yet strong discipline. He had his designers working tirelessly on multiple projects unrelated to their expertise, in order to foster greater creativity. George Nelson, another modernist pioneer, once quipped to Marilyn that the Eames Office’s overworked designers often looked lobotomised.

“We always thought of Charles as a ringmaster of a three-ring circus,” says Marilyn. Indeed, Charles often looked to the circus for inspiration, fascinated by the way different parts came together to create a complete spectacle. Among his rich colour photographs of circuses are portraits of clowns, whose amoebic face-paint could be likened to the curved silhouettes of the patented Eames moulded plywood and fibreglass furniture.

These circus photographs form a small part of the Eames Research Archive (Lot 733), which includes the Neuharts’ collection of over one hundred binders full of Eames Office graphics, Eames House photographs (taken by Julius Shulman, a renowned architecture photographer) and meticulously organised original design records and drawings, collected for the Neuharts’ definitive book, Eames Design.

Despite his fondness for the circus, Charles disdained colour when it came to either furniture or cars, according to Marilyn. “Charles said that there was only three colours for furniture: black, black and black. He was kind of a Calvinist at heart,” she says. When it came time for Herman Miller to produce their Plastic Side Chair in colours other than black and grey, Charles stalled. “He just couldn't choose and he struggled for months. It was either Ray or Herman Miller who made the decision for him.”

Lot 693 of the sale includes all ten of the Herman Miller Plastic Side Chairs in their original colour spectrum and with the “Eiffel” wire base. These moulded fibreglass designs were translated to various modular seat systems for private and industrial use from the 1950s on. The template can be seen in the chairs used in American public schools and the seats in waiting areas in airports.

Eames’s designs were fashioned for America’s postwar economy, which saw widespread demand for furniture that was both affordable and stylish. Herman Miller, a company based in Michigan, manufactured and distributed modular furniture from the likes of Eames, Eero Saarinen and George Nelson. These days, when a brand new Eames plastic side chair from Herman Miller costs upwards of $249, works from such designers no longer seem so affordable.

But the plastic chair remains Herman Miller’s biggest Eames seller. It was just re-issued in five new colours, to accommodate 21st-century residence and office interiors.

Eventually the Eames Office moved away from designing furniture pieces to composing experimental short films and designing exhibitions. “Glimpses of the USA”, a design for the American exhibition in Moscow in 1959, was one of their more ambitious ventures. John Neuhart helped orchestrate this multi-screen presentation of a day in the life of 1959 America, shown inside a gigantic geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller, as part of a cultural exchange with the Soviet Union.

Documentation from similar exhibitions comprise large portions of the Eames Research Archive. These events marked a sea change in design, as Charles and Ray Eames understood that they needn't be limited to form or function, but could create complete immersive experiences. Such concepts have influenced the museums and commercial environments we know today.

“It was a very exciting time to be a designer then in Southern California,” says Marilyn. “Once we came out of the war and the depression, it seemed like you could do anything. So many architects had moved from Europe. It was just very hopeful.”

Eames Auction at Wright in Chicago, April 8th