In 1951, Charles and Ray Eames held a tea ceremony at their Pacific Palisades home with a whimsical mix of guests including sculptor Isamu Noguchi, poet Iris Tree, and actors Charlie Chaplin and Ford Rainey. Japanese actress and singer Shirley Yamaguchi participated in the event as a student. The tea master, Shizuye Sosei Matsumoto, was teaching Yamaguchi how to perform the tea ceremony for the film “East Is East.” Like everything done by the Eameses, the ceremony was a spirited artistic statement—a singular experience impossible to replicate.
The singularity of the experience recalls the Japanese saying “Ichi-go ichi-ye,” which in essence means “one time, one meeting.” Eames Demetrios, grandson of Charles Eames and head of the Eames Foundation, took this phrase to heart when considering a reenactment of the original ceremony. He and members of the Eames Foundation, tasked with preserving and restoring the Eameses’ home, thought reenacting the ceremony would be a compelling way to raise money for repairing the home’s floors.
The original ceremony gave the Eameses not only the chance to host—a skill they excelled at—but also to be inventive. Given the home’s high ceilings, Charles Eames hung a horizontal panel from the ceiling to give the space a sense of intimacy. Mitsuhiko Sen—architect and brother of Urasenke tea master Hounsai Daisosho—observed this and later used the concept when designing tea houses in his native Japan.
The Eameses also used a small table they had designed and had just been introduced by Herman Miller in 1950. Just 10 inches tall, the tables provided an individualized setting for each guest as they knelt during the ceremony. Today, these Eames Wire Base Low Tables are still made and sold by Herman Miller.
In its effort to recreate the feeling and spirit of the original event, the Eames Foundation invited Mrs. Matsumoto, the tea master from the 1951 ceremony, to preside over the event. Five of Mrs. Matsumoto’s students served tea, and her niece, Etsuko Ota, performed the ceremony.
In another nod to the original ceremony, Mrs. Matsumoto and her students used the bowls and utensils from the 1951 ceremony for the event. Eames Demetrios was served first with Charlie Chaplin’s bowl—a copy of the Ninsei black bamboo motif made by Myuhou.
Held at the Eames Home on March 10, 2012, the twelve attendees included patrons of the Eames Foundation and members of the design community. An anonymous donor granted funds for the foundation to invite individuals passionate about the Eameses but unable to afford tickets to the event. Beyond raising significant funds, the Foundation staged a unique event that both respected the past and embraced the future.