There is a parable that goes something like this: in India, the poorest man eats off a banana leaf. As you ascend the caste system, you will find them eating off a little dish called a tali. Ceramic talis, brass talis, bronze, silver, maybe even gold talis, all kinds of intricate and lavish dining ware is sure to exist. Yet, once you get past a point, the man with a certain amount of understanding and knowledge goes back to eating off a banana leaf; some process has happened within the man, which has also changed the leaf.
It may not be an actual parable, but this most repeated Charles Eames quote might also be the most misunderstood.
"This parable seems," I ventured, "to suggest that essentially, good design is something very simplistic? Functional, without any added flair. But also that simplicity in design is a concept that only a person with proper training might think about?"
"Do you think you need design training to be comfortable in that chair?"
That was the most important question of the day.
Husband and wife duo Charles and Ray Eames changed the face of post-war American design, to the eternal worship of enthusiasts and students alike. Their tenacious curiosity and immense creativity spawned a staggering range of work covering architecture, film, photography and product design, a selection of which is on display at the exhibition curated by Demetrios.
The grandson of Charles and Ray, Eames Demetrios recalls growing up in the constant presence of the legendary designers; although to him, they were first and foremost, his grandparents. We didn’t ask, and he didn’t tell, if they influenced his foray into design. Regardless, it is obvious that the Eames philosophy lives on through him.
In talking about their design process, Demetrios was hardly hesitant. "I think that they were very good at addressing problems from going back to first principles. For example, the Eames house, made out of prefabricated parts." A hallmark of modern architecture, the Eames house in which Demetrios spent many of his childhood days possesses astounding spatial qualities despite using prefabricated components, typically seen as an architectural inconvenience. "The reason why you care about prefabricated, especially after WWII, is that when something is prefabricated, there’s a lot of knowledge in the final objects. ...You have something of quality; reliable, where you don’t have to be the person making that window for the first time and hoping it works well."
Considering the Eames Office’s fame for their formally refreshing plastic chairs and ground-breaking plywood molding process, it is a little jarring to try and reconcile the prevalent image of the innovative designers with the one Demetrios is describing, one which suggests respect and appreciation of pedestrian, pre-made products. Delve deeper, and there is something fundamentally different about the timeless designs and forms of Eames furniture: it lacks the hubris we assume of star designers.
"I love this expression of theirs, which is ‘way it should be-ness’, that if something is really well-designed, then you wouldn’t even think that it’d been designed. And you just start taking it for granted. But ironically, if you achieve that, then that is timelessness. So I don’t think that they sought it out, I think that they were skeptical that you could really figure out timelessness for its own sake. But you could figure out quality. You could figure out endurance and legitimacy, and all these other things. Those, you could try to figure out."
"It’s all about self-expression," Demetrios acknowledges about contemporary design, "and Charles and Ray felt that that was the least important thing. That your ‘youness’ would be in everything you did, no matter what, so to worry about it as a goal is silly."
This 'youness’ is not so much the unique touch of a designer, but the part of a designer who recognizes his individuality as part of a collective whole. "The role of the designer is basically that of the good host anticipating the needs of the guest ...it’s an ideology that puts the human being at the center of the design process."
It is this mentality, and an inherent understanding of a primal ergonomic experience that allowed Charles and Ray to create perplexingly comfortable chairs: by focusing on the experience of a person sitting in a chair.
These ideas of function and universality tie in with multiplicity and mass-manufacturing, something inherently evident from the earliest Eames designs. When Charles and Ray designed a method for bending plywood, it was to ensure that plywood chairs of a curved form could be mass-produced with ease. Rather than aiming to innovate upon the material expression of a chair, they sought to ensure that the experience they envisioned in a chair was achievable.
So it seems a little ironic that vintage Eames products should exist, when ‘vintage’ suggests limited production and rarity: concepts opposed to those of the Eames office. Demetrios showed no signs of being perturbed.
"I kind of made my peace with that. It comes two ways. First of all, it’s clearly a sign of respect for the chairs. So if this is how people are going to show their respect, then that’s absolutely fine. But the other thing is that it makes it more important to make sure the chairs are available in authentic-original, but not vintage-pieces, because the chair that Charles and Ray were designing is the chair that Herman Miller makes today."
And for all the emphasis on functionality, Demetrios also acknowledges that the design aesthetic of Eames products is undeniable. "Ray had this expression, she would say: what works good, it’s better than what looks good, because what looks good can change but what works good will always work good. But it didn’t mean giving up on the visuals, it just means keeping yourself centered there. I think they were very clear, aesthetics should be a part of function, so there’s always room to have all these wonderful things in there, but they never gave up on the other side. The quality and experience of function."
"If someone wants to buy a chair as an object of function in their home, and they may find that function as beauty, I want to make sure that that chair they can buy is exactly as Charles and Ray intended it, and it’s a perfectly authentic object."
Before I sat down to talk to Demetrios, we spent a good couple of hours meandering after the man, following his animated narration of the exhibition. A sense of jarring awkwardness emerged as we scrutinised each object with reverence. It was only later, as he and I stared at each other, that I understood why. The fundamental trait of any Eames creation is an undeniable quality in the user-object interaction. Chairs raised on pedestals and barricaded away behind glass welcome our gaze, but deny haptic interaction. While the exhibition no doubt serves as an insightful glance into the life and work of Charles and Ray Eames, the necessary barrier of presentation takes away the pleasure of experience. As a result, the poignant photography of Charles and the insightful short films they created turned out to be more resonant than any of the product displays, although the latter is more associated with the Eames name.
"They used to say, innovate as a last resort. So that quote is important because people always say, oh they’re so innovative, and they were. But if there was only a way to make a chair, and somebody was making it well, they didn’t want to work on it. Because it was already working. It didn’t need their help."
Perhaps, then, we’ve got this all wrong. Perhaps Charles and Ray Eames weren’t about designing good chairs, not in the conventional sense. Perhaps, they were more about the notion of a chair, the chair, and being the hands by which this concept could be materialised.