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Friday, November 8, 2013

Charles and Ray Eames

The Eames House (living area) from the courtyard.
Ray and Charles Eames built and
photographed models of virtually
all their designs.
One of the most satisfying undertakings of my entire life has been the design and realization of the home in which we live. Having been a "design freak" since the days of my childhood (mostly cars and houses), the opportunity and wherewithal to design and "build" a house from the ground up in which to spend the rest of my life with my wife and son (for some twenty years at least) was a dream (house) come true. Thus I have a real affinity for Charles and Ray (his wife) Eames. Though primarily known as a mid-century modernist architect (a follower of Frank Lloyd Wright) Charles Eames was far more, what one might call a designer of domestic comfort and style. His wife was a designer as well, though more in the line interiors and furniture. She was also produced short-films in her spare time. Working as a team, the Eames several homes and other structures, but their most notable contribution to architecture was that of their own home in Pacific Palisades, California.

The Eames house plot plan. The retaining
wall is to the left, the lot slopes to the right.
The year was 1949. The location was picturesque but not exactly any architect's idea of an ideal building site. Situated on a gently sloping heavily wooded lot accessible only by a lengthy right of way between other neighborhood homes, the site had the further liability of being quite elongated. In fact, the first order of business was building an eight-foot tall, two-hundred-foot-long concrete retaining wall. Even with that, the lot allowed that the house could be no more than twenty feet wide. The most fundamental first step in designing a house from the ground up is acclimating it to the site. After the war, building materials, especially the steel the Eameses planned to use, was in short supply. The couple camped out and picnicked dozens of times at the site of their future home while waiting for materials to become available. As a result, the design and hundreds of revisions took shape in their minds and on paper over the course of three or four years.
A model of the Eames House--glass, steel, and Mondrian
In designing a home, one does not start by drawing a bunch of neat little rectangular boxes on the back of an old envelope, then labeling them as rooms. Planning begins with several (usually round or oval) "areas" keyed to living activities--the living area, the eating area, the work area, the sleeping area, etc. An area may be only one, or several rooms (as in a sleeping area). It's the interrelationship of these areas that is key to the practical aspects of the plan. One does not place the sleeping area between the living area and eating area, for instance. Charles and Ray did not start out planning a two-story home. The limitations of the site dictated it. The fact that they wanted to work from their home suggested a physical separation (in this case a courtyard) between the living areas and the work area, the only physical connection being the common retaining wall.
Even in a traditionally styled home, the Eames concept of an open floor plan can
be seen today as the living "room" kitchen and dining area blend into one.
During the era in which the Eames house took shape, domestic architecture tended to be highly compartmentalized as to rooms. Often the outside of the house was designed first with the interior rooms shoe-horned into whatever space the overall housing style and space permitted. The Eames designed their house from the inside out using interior walls only when absolutely necessary, thus being among the earliest proponents of what call today an "open" floor plan--the living area flowing into the dining area which evolves into the food preparation area (above). Any divisions between these areas are usually created through the arrangement of furniture, plants, counters, a fireplace, or other forms of functional "room dividers." Sleeping areas, requiring some degree of privacy and quiet, involve more traditional cubicles, which meant, in the Eames house, the second floor.

The Eames House floor plans and perspective drawings (zoom in for details.)
The key design element in the Eames house (above), and any modern home is simplicity. One open room is better than two smaller ones. The ground floor of the Eames house consists of a two-story living room, blending into a cozy den, plus an entry foyer with circular stairs, and a dining room-kitchen area. The only traditional room on ground floor is a laundry-utility room in back. The separate studio structure is similarly simple, a two-car-garage-size studio, a darkroom, bath, and entry foyer. The upper level is simply a storage area balcony overlooking the studio. Separating the two components is a twenty by thirty foot garden courtyard (top).
Modular design--so simple, even a child can understand it.
Mondrian among the organic masses.
The Eames House is modular in design. By that I don't mean it bears any resemblance, or even relationship to the manufactured homes we know today. Far from it, in fact. The Eames modules are more akin to children's building blocks (the Wright influence). The house is six module blocks wide, the living area fourteen blocks long. The studio portion is six by ten blocks, with each floor being three blocks tall. (the blocks being approximately one cubic meter). The Eames liked Piet Mondrian. Thus the steel structure reflects Mondrian's black lines, while the enclosed spaces are divided into areas painted Mondrian's bold primary colors of red, yellow, blue, and white. Pre-existing trees and landscaping serve to mitigate the bold, rectilinear impact bringing a natural, organic warmth to the exterior (left).
Style, warmth, and comfort, flavored with the clutter of many married years.
Inside, it where one sees the full impact of Ray's talents and mindset (above). The original decor was sparse, almost harshly minimalist (ten to twenty years before minimalism became a fad). However, as any long-married couple will tell you, having lived in the same house some thirty years, you accumulate "stuff." The Eameses were no exception. Today the house has been preserved as it was when Ray Eames died in 1988 (ten years to the day after the death of her husband). It is modern in style, attractive, comfortable, though bearing its fair share of lived-in clutter (no more pillows neatly arranged on the floor in lieu of furniture). Instead we find the Eames Chair (with ottoman, bottom), the Eames Sofa, and various other simple, stylishly modern pieces bearing the Eames name. Many feature the moulded plywood the they popularized and helped develop. The Eames House is not the most beautiful home any architect (and his wife) ever designed for themselves, but it certainly is among the most practical and easily among the most architecturally influential.

The chair that bears the name Eames.


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