Not Just A Chair – A Peek into the Lives of Charles and Ray Eames, America’s most famous designer couple
It is not everyday you get to meet an exhibition designer, let alone one that designed the exhibition “Essential Eames – a Herman Miller Exhibition” at the ArtScience Museum of Singapore.
On 5th October, I had the privilege to meet Yann Follain, a French architect and designer, founding partner of architect firm, WY-TO, who designed the exhibition. Just like watching a movie with the director’s commentary, Yann shared design insights, nuances and nuggets of information as we walked through the exhibition.
The exhibition was beautifully and tastefully designed, with Yann and his agency team having worked closely with the grandson of Charles and Ray Eames, Eames Demetrios, to bring out the essence of the lives and designs of Charles and Ray.
Prior to the exhibition, I’ve admired the Eames iconic chairs – the molded plastic chair, the Eames Sofa Compact and the Eames lounge chair and ottoman without knowing who Charles and Ray were. It was a treat to experience their design philosophy, get a sense of how they lived and to capture their innovative spirit.
The exhibition brings you into the world of Charles and Ray that was diverse. While they were known for clean, minimalist, modern designs, their lives were anything but that. Their home and their famous studio “901”, was one that is organic, filled with diverse artifacts, and their working style, fluid and hands-on. To them, everything is inter-related; design is one that evolves, one that requires constant exploring and researching. You can also sense the spirit of fun that they took in their approach to the work. To them, the chairs actually play the role of a host and they need to make you feel at ease and comfortable. As Charles Eames said “The role of a designer is that of a very good, thoughtful host anticipating the needs of his guests.”
One would have thought that Charles and Ray were simply furniture designers. But they were not. Ray was a painter. Charles was an avid photographer. The “901” studio made films, ranging from subjects that include handmade dolls to high-technology scientific philosophies. They surprise you. They merged both the practical with the aesthetic. To achieve what they wanted for chairs, they researched for years. During World War II, they got a boost to mold plywood for the army, as they needed to make wooden splinters for the army to transport injured soldiers. Eventually they succeeded in making them and applied the technology to their chairs.
INNOVATION AND ENTREPRENUERIAL SPIRIT
With every project, the “901” studio kept pushing boundaries, trying things nobody has done before, continuing to merge art and science. It was very apt that the ArtScience museum hosts this exhibition. The studio did work for IBM, politically sensitive work to introduce U.S.A. to the U.S.S.R. and showed the world what was the future. They were not mere designers but innovators and entrepreneurs.
“THE BEST, TO THE MOST, FOR THE LEAST”
The couple believed in bringing the best design to the masses at a price point that everyone could afford it. In India, they observed that no matter what caste you come from, all Indians eat from banana leaves. Through the scientific breakthrough of creating molded plywood, the couple achieved their dream. It is rather ironic though, that now, their chairs are selling at premium, only afforded by the elites.
I appreciated the little touches that Yann and his team made to tell the story. It wasn’t just an exhibition of the chairs that the couple was famous for, but it was also a love story and a great partnership. At the start of the exhibition, you’re greeted by Charles and Ray on the motorbike, and at the end, you see Charles and Ray ready to take a photo of you. I thought that was a clever start and end.
To symbolically show the distinction of the top floor of the home of Charles and Ray from the bottom floor, Yann and team used a translucent fabric separator. The top floor was a private space while the bottom one was more public, where the couple often hosts their friends and employees. Above the fabric, an Eames chair is hung upside down. The translucent cloth seeks to represent the curiosity of people peering up and the upside down chair, the flexibility and creativity of the couple. If Yann had not mentioned this, I would have missed it completely.
To showcase the furniture, Yann and Team did not only create tiered displays for the chairs but also created silhouettes that cast shadows. The aim was to represent the infinite nature of their work and how it will last into the future. It is a visual treat.
Yann was most excited when he spoke about the “901” studio culture, that he likened his current studio to be. His team too pushed the boundaries in creating the biggest “house-of-cards” in Asia, something they thought was impossible but they did it. Together, they designed the biggest Eames show in Asia, bringing in rare and never-before-seen works and images from the Eames family collection, the Eames Office, and the archives of Herman Miller.
This exhibition is indeed not one just about chairs and furniture, but one that enthuses people with the color, energy and legacy of Charles and Ray Eames.
Text & Images by: Jael Chng
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