YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Forever Eames

A hundred years ago, a Modernist icon was born. Charles Eames went on to craft the new California home with wife Ray. Their 1949 house is the blueprint for 21st century L.A. living.

June 28, 2007|David A. Keeps | Times Staff Writer

HEAR the name "Eames," and you probably picture bent plywood "potato chip" chairs, or midcentury tables resting on "paper clip" legs -- iconic home furnishings that shaped the legacy of their designers. Less celebrated is Charles and Ray Eames' 1949 Pacific Palisades home, though it has profoundly influenced how Southern Californians nest, even to this day.

Their glass-and-steel house and studio -- like monolithic Mondrian canvases springing from the ground -- were not merely a residence and work space. They were incubators for a new way of living. Today, upon the centennial of Charles' birth and a yearlong schedule of events honoring the Eameses' oeuvre, the Palisades house remains an enduring symbol of post-World War II design and L.A.'s indoor-outdoor lifestyle.

About 200 Eames devotees gathered at the house recently for brunch, cookies and cocktails, and a game of musical chairs ensued, with grown-ups scampering around like children. Hosted by three generations of Eames descendants, the June 17 picnic celebrated what would have been Charles' 100th birthday and marked the formal dedication of the Eames House as a national historic landmark.

"California has always attracted people of imagination who felt free to express themselves," said Bill Stern, founder of the California Museum of Design, who was on hand for the event. "The Eames House eschewed traditional materials like bricks and sticks, and used glass and steel in fresh ways to create a new understanding of how people can live."

Anybody thinking of building a house should "come here and take notes," added film producer and Eames scholar Daniel Ostroff.

"There's a horrible trend in architecture today where the last person that everybody thinks about is the user," he said. "In its concerns for practicality, use, beauty, durability and cost, the Eames House is the most important innovation in home design since the tepee."

Arguably the father of American midcentury modernism, Charles Eames was a design polyglot, fluent in the languages of architecture, industrial engineering, photography, graphic arts and filmmaking. His wife and design partner Ray was a painter who had studied with famed Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann.

As designers, the couple exuded an optimism about new materials and technology. Being newcomers to Los Angeles, they embraced the expansive physical and psychological landscape.

The Eames House referenced Bauhaus design but was a major departure from the austerity of that movement. Composed of dual two-story rectangular boxes bathed in California sunshine, the form followed its intended function: to provide shelter from the elements while living among them.

The western end has a wide overhang to cut down glare and heat, and its southern face, rising on a bank above the long meadow, is a grid of steel, glass doors, windows, brightly colored panels and X-braces.

The interiors echo Frank Lloyd Wright's vision of confined entrances that lead to voluminous areas. The Eames House also takes the concept of open floor plans to new heights with a two-story atrium, a design element now de rigueur in contemporary homes.

A spiral staircase leads to second-floor bedrooms, and in the living room a ladder reaches toward the corrugated steel ceiling. From the top rungs, Charles would rearrange hanging light fixtures and string paintings face down, parallel to the floor.

The house was the direct result of the Eameses' friendship and collaboration with John Entenza, editor of the L.A.-based Arts & Architecture. In 1945, the magazine inaugurated the Case Study program to design cost-effective housing for a booming postwar nation.

Entenza purchased 3 acres on a bluff in Pacific Palisades and commissioned Charles Eames and his friend and colleague, Eero Saarinen, to create two houses -- one for Entenza and the other for the Eameses.

As originally conceived by Charles Eames and Saarinen, Case Study No. 8 was a cantilevered structure made from off-the-shelf parts.

"During the war, America had figured out how to build fast," said Eames Demetrios, Charles' grandson. "The idea that my grandfather and Saarinen had was to put prefabricated pieces from industrial catalogs into a new, affordable configuration."

Due to postwar supply shortages, three years passed before all the parts were delivered. "During that time, Charles and Ray would have picnics on the meadow lined with eucalyptus trees," Demetrios said. "They realized that they would be destroying the site with a building."

Charles and Ray ultimately decided to reconfigure the house.

"They were good at solving problems and working within challenging constraints," Demetrios said. "They treated it [the house] like a big pile of Legos."

Though it has been suggested that Charles was responsible for the hard, masculine edges and Ray did the soft interiors, Demetrios said the partnership wasn't that simple.

Los Angeles Times Articles