When Ray Eames entered this textile design in a 1947 competition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, she titled the print “Brown and Black Free Shapes on a White Ground.”
One might find the title a bit uninspiring, in light of the whimsical, other worldly creatures vacillating across the fabric. But considering Ray’s background in Expressionist painting—she trained with Hans Hofmann—the title makes perfect sense. Ray would have been more concerned with the basics of shape, color, and scale. And, perhaps, she would have expected others to be more impressed with her execution of these elements than with the vibrancy and character of her “Sea Things”— the name by which the textile is commonly known.
Whether you are compelled by the brilliance of her abstract composition or by her fanciful creatures, one thing is clear. “Sea Things” is yet another example of the creative, playful, and colorful mind of Ray Eames.
A Ray Eames biography would be better expressed through pictures—with the soft, delicate arcs of charcoal from her early sketches, and the bold blocks of yellow, blue, and red of her paintings.
Throughout her life, Ray used pictures, and later, objects, as a means of communication and expression. A study of correspondence between Charles and Ray hints at their reliance on a transcendent, pictographic language. It was as if their ideas were too brilliant and beautiful to capture in the strict confines of a word or phrase, so pictures became their favored form of ideation.
It’s clear that color was the defining parlance of Ray’s unique visual language. Influenced by her study with Expressionist painter Hans Hofmann, Ray’s love of bold, primary color is evident in every facet of her life and work—the exterior panels of the Pacific Palisades home she shared with Charles, her Arts and Architecture magazine covers, and her dress designs and textile patterns.
Ray’s visual language colored her design partnerships with Charles; her aesthetic imprint is unmistakable on collaborations like the Eames Wire Base Low Table. It’s now being offered for a limited time in a Select Edition, in three Ray-inspired colors—cobalt blue, red-orange, and yellow-gold.
As the new film about them makes clear, Charles and Ray had so much confidence in the way they went about solving a problem—whether designing a chair, an exhibit, or a film—they didn’t entertain thoughts of failing. Other factors, besides their design brilliance, helped. Two of the most important were maintaining artistic control and having the ear of the CEOs at their client companies.
There is much proof of their successes, including the string of designs they did for Herman Miller, beginning with the groundbreaking plywood chair. But one clinker stands out: their 1976 show for the bicentennial of the American Revolution, “The World of Franklin and Jefferson.” Hilton Kramer writing in the New York Times panned it as overly ideological. Others saw it as overwhelming: too much information, too many artifacts.
But as Donald Albrecht, architecture and design curator, points out in “Eames: The Architect and the Painter,” the exhibit can be seen less as a failure and more as a reflection of the restless minds of the Eameses. Layering the material, as we do today in digital experiences, would have made it compelling and digestible. Perhaps this exhibit was simply another example of Charles and Ray being ahead of their time.
“It’s not about the pieces. It’s how the pieces work together,” says LA-based rapper Ice Cube. Whether sampling beats or designing architecture, beautiful things happen when you “take something that already exists and make it something special.”
Touring the Eames House, Ice Cube calls attention to the off-the-shelf pieces that make up the modern icon. Built by designers Charles and Ray Eames using a steel-frame, factory windows, and prefabricated walls, the home is more than its parts—a fine example of the rapper’s maxim.
Restored in the early 1990s, the art deco masterpiece features furnishings and works designed not only by Eliel Saarinen, but also by his wife Loja, a textile artist, his son, Eero, and Cranbrook students and instructors, too.
Saarinen, Cranbrook’s first president, intentionally planned that the home be a complete work of art, where one room flows to the next. Every aspect of it works in harmony, from the patterns in the rugs to the details of the silverware. Even the bathrooms are perfectly symmetrical, with streamlined sinks where no faucets clutter the view.
Whether you are an architect, a designer, or someone who simply appreciates well-crafted, finely-made objects from an era long gone, you must put the Saarinen House on your top 10 list of places to see. (And while you’re there, take a look around; the Saarinen-designed campus is designated as a National Historic Landmark.) Photo via: Cranbrook Academy of Art