Eames? So wie die Stühle? Der Vorname wirkt weniger seltsam, wenn man weiss, was seinen Träger mit den Stühlen verbindet. Eames Demetrios ist nämlich der Enkel von Charles & Ray Eames. Genetisch gesehen nur von Charles, aber das geistige Erbgut trägt er von beiden in sich. Sein eigentliches Erbe umfasst jedoch weit mehr. Als Direktor des Eames Office sorgt er für den Erhalt, die Pflege und die Vermittlung des Werks seiner Grosseltern. Inwiefern dieses auch weiterentwickelt wird, verrät Eames im nachfolgenden Interview. Er erzählt von privaten Erlebnissen mit Charles und Ray, seinen Erfahrungen als Enkel berühmter Grosseltern und von der Verantwortung, die mit dieser Aufgabe einhergeht. Eames hat viel zu erzählen, auch über Authentizität. Um die Komplexität dieser schillernden Persönlichkeit und des Gesprächs so authentisch wie möglich wiederzugeben, haben wir das Interview in der Originalsprache und in (fast) voller Länge belassen.
► Teil 2 der Unterhaltung, in dem Eames von seiner eigenen Arbeit als Filmer und Inventor einer fiktiven Welt berichtet, finden sie hier.
1. SILVIA STEIDINGER: Eames, when my environment got word of my interview with you, there was literally a murmur going through the room. Is it a curse or a blessing, to have such famous grandparents?
EAMES DEMETRIOS: Personally, I believe that it’s healthy if you do things that are about yourself and also things that aren’t. It kind of gives you a good balance in life. Also, in some places in your life you are the river and in some places you are the channel. In my case, the things that aren’t about myself are still related to me – Charles and Ray are part of my legacy. So with the Eames work I think I’ve been a pretty good channel and I learned a lot from doing that. Of course, there are people who look at me without REALLY looking at me and all they see is the Eames work. But a lot of beautiful things have happend as a result of choosing to take on this task. The real blessing of being part of the Eames family was that I knew Charles and Ray.
One of the things that has made this a comfortable experience was that I never planned to do it. It wasn’t like: there’s going to be a family business to take over. It was more of a recognition.
2. I guess, one of the most common questions you have to answer is how they were in private ...?
Hm, do you wanna ask it? (laughs)
When I was 14 years old, I ended up going to the South Pacific to swim with a whale shark. It’s kind of a complicated story but I was always into animals and fish especially and a local TV station wanted some sort of a junior biologist to go and swim with a whale shark that was trapped in a lagoon which made it very predictable where it would be. Anyway, so I was going to go there on this trip. The night before I left, Charles showed up unexpectedly in our house in San Francisco and said: «Ray and I have been thinking about your trip, and we are really worried about it. We’re worried that you’re going to borrow your parents’ Nikon and you’ll be so afraid of dropping it into the water that you won’t take any pictures. You won’t even bring it onto the boat.» In those times there were these 35 mm cameras that were really cheap but you could still take rather good pictures with them. He gave me one of those cheap cameras and told me that I don’t have to worry about using it, because there was no big deal if I dropped it. Now, at that point of their career they could have afforded to buy the best camera around but they knew that the best camera was not what I needed. What I needed was the permission to take chances. To put it in a risky situation. That’s the kind of grandparents they were. Pretty groovy, I assure you.
Charles and Ray were amazing people. They didn’t talk about all the things they did, they showed us what they were doing. They also wanted to know what we were up to. So, if you had come to the office, they would have asked you if you had seen any new movies or dance performances lately. That curiosity and their enthusiasm for life was such an amazing part of them. They were great spirits.
In a way, my siblings and I, we learned about design backwards. Because we learned things from Charles and Ray that turned out to be design lessons but were part of our normal experience. So for example, this whole idea – which you have probably heard of in the Eames work – which is, that the role of a designer is basically that of a good host and anticipating the needs of the guest. It’s a great quote and you can see it in all aspects of their work. But knowing that quote now, totally helps us to understand some of the things they did with us. In some ways it was sort of normal life but with them, it was always very hightened.
3. When or how have you learned of their importance in furniture design and architecture? Was it a certain moment or more of a feeling that grew?
It is important to realize that Charles and Ray are much more famous now than when they were alive. Some people knew who they were – even a lot of people knew who they were. I mean, their names had been published. But it was a different world back then. The idea of a famous designer, was just ... Nobody would have believed it. I mean, 25 years ago, the concept of a «rockstar designer» or even a «rockstar architect» would have been almost comical back then. Now, it is part of the discourse—for better or worse.
One turning point for me was when I was at College and I was taking a visual history course or something like that and the Eames house was shown by the professor. So, I went up to him afterwards and said: «Hey, by the way, it’s kind of funny because that was my grandparents’ house!» And he goes: «Yes, I saw your name on the list and I kind of wondered if there was a connection.» It was that sort of moment, which I think happens to most people in college, when you sort of look at your earlier life in a different context because you’re stepping out of it – whether it’s because of your town or in my case because of my family. So that was sort of an awareness point.
So yes, my first name is Eames. But for some time, most people just thought that it’s a strange name. A few people would say: «Oh, like the chair!» And every now and then someone would go off the deep end and get very excited because they knew Charles and Ray’s work in detail.
But today, I would say alot of people I encounter will say: «Oh, like the chair.» Which means: «Eames» means a lot more today.
4. As director of the Eames Office, you take care of the Eames’ legacy. What is it you do to make sure that not only their work but also their philosophy won’t be forgotten or misinterpreted?
Most people have a very fine art idea of authenticity. For example, when you go to the museum to see a Picasso painting, one of the great things about this experience is that you stand exactly where Picasso stood in relationship to the canvas. So, somehow you have been transported through space but also through time and you have this amazing sort of connection with the object. But when Picasso is gone, there will be no more authentic Picassos.
With design authenticity it’s a different animal. Because with Charles & Ray, Verner Panton, Eileen Gray, etc., what they were trying to do was to create a system – even though they probably would have phrased it differently – a system, to give you the same guest/host experience again and again. So, in a very fundamental way, the chair that Charles and Ray were designing is the chair that Vitra (or Herman Miller in other parts of the world) makes tomorrow. It’s not that the authentic chairs are in museums – even though the early pieces of course are – Charles and Ray wanted originals to be out in the world.
So then, that becomes the question, because how is that going to happen when nobody lives forever? Very few designers have come to the conclusion that, if they design a beautiful chair and get hit by a car outside of their studio, there will be no authentic chair after that point. So for example, Mies van der Rohe identified the head of the architecture departement at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) to be in charge of his legacy. Noguchi created the Isamo Noguchi Foundation. And in Charles and Ray’s case, they decided, well, first to start, Charles left it up to Ray, but Ray thought about it long and came to the conclusion that it would be best to leave it up to the family. So when people say that we don’t know what Charles and Ray wanted – we actually do know what they wanted. They wanted the family to make these kind of choices. First, it was mostly me and my mom and when the work increased all the siblings in my generation got involved (in addition to our own work).
Authenticity is a big part of our message. We want you to have the guest-host-experience that Charles and Ray intended. But we do a lot of things. Basically our mission is to communicate, preserve and extend the work of Charles and Ray Eames. Ray decided to leave those choices to us because design is a method of action. The two of them were so innovative, so moving forward, that if you only look backwards then you’re also not quite preserving their spirit.
But what we do through the Eames Office, has always some sort of connection to Charles and Ray’s work – as a family, we made the decision that we wouldn’t do our own personal creative work through the office.
5. Have you ever had doubts that you might not be the right person to fulfill this «duty»? I mean, not being an architect nor a designer?
People challenge what we do all the time. It’s totally true that I’m not a designer and I’m not an architect. Although I design some things I do not identify myself as a designer because it’s not how I think of myself in the world. I think my strength is that I always loved their ideas. And the more I learn about those ideas the more I love them.
In the years after Ray died, I did hundreds of hours of interviews and I probably looked at more original documents than anybody else around did and I visited collections that nobody else had visited and that was invaluable.
6. Design is an on-going process, and changes are not only inevitable but also required. The handling with Charles & Ray’s furniture creations must be a rather tricky part of your work – what are the criteria to change an original design or adapt it to new needs?
There are a couple of different aspects to that question. I think that there’s this sort of triangle to make any successful authentic design. You need the consumer, you need the manufacturer and you need the designer. So, without a consumer there’s no market, which means that there’s no need for the product. Without the manufacturer you are dealing with a handmade object, which is great, but that’s not what Charles and Ray were trying to make. The idea of a totally idiosyncratic version of each chair being done was not what they were trying to do. They were trying to create a system for the consumer to create the same experience again and again. And last, you need the designer, of course. Or in our case, some representative of the designer.
I can give you two good examples to answer your question:
One is the plastic chair, that was originally reinforced with fiberglass. Ray, just before she died, talked to both Vitra and Herman Miller about discontinuing with the fiberglass because in that time fiberglass couldn’t be made in an environmentally friendly way. So it was discontinued. But it was a very beautiful form, and it represented Charles and Ray’s achievement with «The best, for the most, for the least.» So, we really wanted the chair back in the line but didn’t know how to do it without violating the environmental principle.
But by then, other plastics were available, and we realized that Charles and Ray had expanded things already as early as the 1970’s with removing the fiberglass entirely from the chair. When we came out with the chair in polypropylene, we got a lot of heat from people saying: «How could you make that chair without the fiberglass?!» And: «How can you get rid of the shock mounts? How could you do that, Charles and Ray would have never done that!» Actually, they have made a chair called the Two-piece-Plastic chair which looks a lot like the DCM without the shock mounts because when they first did the fiberglass version of the plastic chair (which they always called the plastic chair, by the way). you couldn’t make plastic in variable thicknesses. So the reason for the shock mount was to give enough purchase to be able to attach the base to the chair without the need to screw it on through the chair. But once you could make the plastic in various thicknesses, you didn’t really need to do that.
Anyway, we found some prototypes Charles and Ray had made of the shell chair with these extruded elements. So ironically, Charles and Ray had done this design and had these ideas thought through!
You know, there were definitely market opportunities, where, if we changed the design, we could make a whole new product. That’s true. But we won’t do that.
But if we can improve the design in the way that Charles and Ray had intended, then we will do that from time to time. So, improvement for example, can be offering finishes – whether it’s an Ash or whatever – that were not available during their lifetime. Also, Charles and Ray were always using new kinds of playful colours. So to me, it is much more in the spirit of their work to continue to play with new colors too. You can say that these are subjective decisions, and I won’t disagree with you but I am 100% confident of the spirit behind them.
Another good example is the molded plywood elephant. The molded plywood elephant was given as a gift to my mum by Charles and Ray. As kids, we actually played on the incredibly valuable prototype without realizing. And there were five kids in my generation! Amazing ... It’s a beautiful object. It’s actually harder to make the plywood elephant than to make the LCW because of the complexity of the molds! So when we came out with the molded plywood elephant in 2007, we made a limited edition that cost 1000.- Euro. That’s quite expensive. But it sold out. And I bet that of all those sold elephants probably five were played with by kids. Because you couldn’t let your child play with a 1000.- Euro sculpture. So, even though we felt that it was important that they came out in exactly the materiality that Charles and Ray wanted, there was this paradox that the kids couldn’t play with it. That’s why we have the plastic elephant now. Now, if you want to tell me, that we’re wrong for making a plastic elephant, you have every right to do that. And I’m sure that for collectors there’s no question that they only want to have the plywood elephant, not just because of value but also because of what they perceive as the authenticity of the material. But to me, there’s also no question that it is just as authentic and just as an important choice to make it accessible to kids.
But that’s the kind of choices that Charles and Ray left to us. Because they knew, they couldn’t write everything down that would anticipate every single thing. If we had only made the plastic elephant, it would have been a mistake, and if we only had made the wooden elephant, it would have been a mistake too. But taken together, they capture the authenticity of that design perfectly.
7. And what are the criteria for including a design into the production range that hasn’t been serially produced before – if we look at the Organic Chair as an example?
The Organic Chair is a special case. We felt that there was a big hole in the history of the chair, and we thought we should make it available as a useful chair. We also saw it as an almost academic exercise to achieve this new edition, and that’s why we worked particularly with the Vitra Design Museum which holds some of the original produced pieces of the chair that was designed by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen in 1940 and won first prize at the Organic furniture competition at the MoMA.
First prize of that competition meant, that your design was actually going to be manufactured. For young designers this was totally great. But a letter from Charles to Eliot Noyes (director of industrial design at the Museum of Modern Art [MoMA] in New York City, 1939-1946) that I’ve found shows that Charles said that if they had known how the chair was going to turn out, they would have designed it totally differently. Charles and Eero thought they knew how to make that chair in molded plywood but the technique they wanted to use wasn’t strong enough. And so actually, you couldn’t produce it that way. Because even making the shell was five times more expensive than they thought it would be, and it didn’t look right. If you ever see a chair from that era, you will know what I mean – If you look under the upholstery, the molded plywood is very crude. It’s almost chipped away. Anyway, it just wasn’t very satisfactory. So, when we made the new edition of the Organic Chair, we used the later manufactured chairs that Charles and Ray had in their collection, and we optimized it and improved the upholstery in a way Charles and Ray intended. We made sure that every chair would pass the safety standards of each country that has them.
So, the criteria is a very intense collaboration with Vitra working again and again with prototypes until we get it exactly right. Because again: to make that chair, we are trying to create a system. Everyone can make a single visually superficially identical replica of anything. But it’s not about an object, it’s about a system. We wanted to create that system, that will make a product that can go out into people’s lives. Initially, it really was an approach like: «Wouldn’t it be great to have it as a 3-dimensional research for people to experience and to study?»
8. «Innovate as a last resort» is one of Charles’ best-known quotes. That doesn’t sound like something you would someone innovative expect to say, is it?
In the world culture today, we describe innovation as a uniformly good thing. But if you innovate something for the sake of innovation, often, little pieces of knowledge get lost in that process. Some of them may not matter, but some of them do.
The bigger problem with innovating for the sake of it is that it distracts you from the problems where innovation really is needed. So for example, I can make you the most innovative car you ever wanted, right now. It will have 23 wheels. Very innovative, right? But stupid! There’s a reason why cars have four wheels. Sometimes people innovate for the sake of it without doing the work of asking: «Well, four wheels, why did that last?» Well, because it’s very stable! On the other hand, to innovate the engine and ask: «Why are we stuck with that particular engine?» Which obviously hybrid and electric cars are about. The last resort is as important as the statement «innovating as a last resort». There are lots of places where we’re at the last resort. Water supplies, greenhouse gases, information overload. So, Charles and Ray’s point is really: Let’s focus on those. But if there’s a good solution already, why mess with it?
I think such design thinking is very powerful and I really wish it were taught the way people teach music: without the intention that it became professionally important but actually just a useful way of looking at the world. I mean, how many people who want their kids to do sports really expect them to become a professional athlete? Some people probably do but some don’t, and I don’t think that they regard it as a waste of time if their kid gets great exercise throughout their school. So why isn’t design taught that way?
9. What, would you say, is the most important «quality» or asset your grandparents have passed down to you?
The thing I feel I got the most from them is that you should pursue what is important to you but in a rigorous way. And that way, even if you fail, you still have gotten a great deal from it. They articulated in various ways but basically, if they had failed as furniture designers from an economic standpoint, I don’t think they would have regarded six years of molding plywood in their apartment as a waste of time. I think that’s actually what I find inspiring about their work. I think that’s something they showed us every day even though we didn’t realize it.