Exploring The World of Charles and Ray Eames at the Barbican, there’s little doubt that what you’re looking at is art. The world-famous pair, who married in 1941, were masters of form and function, working across fields as varied as design, architecture, and film. From their early commissions for the US navy to their iconic lounge chairs, the duo’s output is a paragon of modernist elegance and simplicity. The supple curves of their pieces are crafted with a sculptor’s eye.
But beauty never comes at the price of function. The couple’s work takes it lead from the needs of its consumers; this is design at its most practical and sympathetic. One of their most famous pieces, the curved fibreglass armchair, was made to be entered into MoMA’s ‘International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design.’ The duo did not work in opposition to the needs of the mass market, but in perfect unison with it.
The retrospective is a testament to the couple’s inexhaustible ethic, and its name well chosen: this is a genuinely immersive experience. With some 380 works on display, ranging from the filmic to the sculptural, you could spend hours here and still not see everything.
One room is dedicated to the much-celebrated Eames House on North Chautauqua Boulevard, with models, photographs and videos capturing the rectilinear beauty and quiet magnificence of the couple’s LA home. It is a light and supremely liveable space, nestled harmoniously among Eucalyptus trees.
Another directs its attention to the pair’s technique of multi-screen projection. This is one of the exhibition’s most unusual and attention-grabbing moments. The many-screened set-up was originally designed with educational intentions, conceived as a way of processing simultaneous streams of information. But watching it in the exhibition space, it comes across as an avant-garde installation: a sequence of images whose effect is gently mesmeric.
For all this variety, though, there’s a unifying principle at play. It’s clear that Charles and Ray Eames saw design as a vitally serious endeavour; as a way of responding to practical challenges, and meeting the fundamental requirements of human life. Such an idea could make for coldly functional design, but not so here. The couple understood that amongst these requirements was the need for beauty and craft; for something that works, and that inspires.
|The World of Charles and Ray Eames, Barbican
|Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London, EC2Y 8DS | MAP
21 Oct 15 – 14 Feb 16, 12:00 PM – 6:00 PM
|£14.50 Concessions: £12 Student rate: £10 14-17 yrs: £8
|Click here to book tickets