Furniture brand Vitra has teamed up with the Barbican and the Eames Foundation to put on a season of events celebrating the work of Charles and Ray Eames – two of the twentieth century’s most influential and prolific creatives – at its campus in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany.
The Eames’ work spans furniture, graphics, photography and film. Many of their best-known designs (such as the Lounge Chair) are still in production today.
An Eames Celebration includes three small exhibitions and a major retrospective, Charles and Ray Eames: The Power of Design. The retrospective debuted at the Barbican in 2015 and has been adapted for the Vitra Design Museum with help from Barbican curator Catherine Ines. (See our write up from the Barbican show here.)
For anyone who missed the London exhibition, it’s a must-see, offering a look at more than 500 objects from throughout the Eames’ career.
There are rare plywood prototypes – including a plywood elephant and splints designed for the US navy – as well as magazine covers, furniture designs, photographs and models and sketches of the Eames’ house in California.
There’s also a chance to see Think! – a film created for the IBM pavilion at the 1964 New York World Fair, which uses everyday scenarios to explain computer processing. The film plays across multiple screens just as it did in New York.
In a neighbouring gallery, Vitra has curated a small exhibition focused on the Eames’ designs for play. This includes The Toy, a simple but ingenious kit of wooden dowels and brightly coloured fabric panels and House of Cards, a pack of slotted cards featuring photographs of animals, minerals and vegetables.
The Eames considered toys an important creative tool and believed they were a “prelude to serious ideas”. This belief is evident in their designs: both House of Cards and The Toy can be arranged and rearranged in a seemingly infinite number of ways, encouraging children to use their imagination.
The exhibition also includes a collection of spinning tops, masks and colourful paper kites from the Eames’ collection. There are bird, butterfly and dragonfly-shaped kites embellished with intricate hand-painted patterns alongside an eight-minute film about spinning tops.
In the Fire Station (designed by Zaha Hadid), Vitra is showing a selection of the Eames’ films.
The duo collaborated on 100 films during their career and they remain a delight to watch several decades later. Some (such as The Power of Ten) visualise complex theories while others featuring toys and puppets exist to delight. Blacktop is a mesmerising 11-minute look at washing asphalt on a school playground and demonstrates the Eames’ knack for finding beauty in the everyday.
Films are played back to back on a cinema-sized screen in the space. This might prove frustrating for those who would rather drift between them, but showing films in this way forces visitors to give each film their full attention – and notice delightful details they might otherwise have missed. If you’re so inclined, you can take a seat and watch the Eames’ shorts from 9 to 5.
The Vitra Campus is a fitting home for an Eames exhibition. The company began producing their designs in 1957 and continues to make Eames chairs, modular shelving units and plywood elephants.
The campus is also home to a vast collection of items from the Eames archive, which visitors can catch a glimpse of at the Herzog and de Meuron-designed Schaudepot building.
The striking red brick structure is home to a permanent display of iconic chairs, including Mae West’s red lips sofa, George Nelson’s coconut chair and experimental prototypes by Tom Dixon, Hella Jongerius and Phillipe Starck. There is a recreation of the Eames’ US office in the basement alongside a permanent display which explains key furniture making techniques. More of the Eames work can be seen in the Vitra Haus – a visitor centre where items are displayed as they would be in a home.
An accompanying book catalogues the Eames’ furniture designs and includes essays on the pair’s partnership and their design ethos – you can order copies here.
The exhibition is open until February 25 2018 – for details, see design-museum.de