The powerhouse of design that was Charles and Ray Eames is currently undergoing a major show at the Barbican in London. Their work spanned many design disciplines but always with one focus – this was something a person used and got value from – so as a product manager, and design geek, this is a must see show.
“The details are not the details. They make the design.”
Most of my experience of Eames’ work comes from the furniture that pervades many design shows, combined with watching the excellent documentary – Eames: The Architect & The Painter [DVD]the Architect and the Painter. The documentary is a great introduction especially as the show groups together physical products from almost every aspect of their life – and the Eames were all about physical production, even with their films.
“Take your pleasure seriously”
The show covers not only these physical artefacts, but also shows how they made many of them. My first strong memory of Eames came from watching the Powers of Ten film. The way in which they conveyed what happens at different orders of magnitude, both beautiful and informative, stayed with me from that day – even while my physics background questioned some of the simple models they showed at small scales. In this show you get to see not only that film in full, but also see some of the real production work that went into it. This was a time before computers, so every frame was painstakingly cut out, stuck together and then filmed to create this simple sub-ten minute epic.
As well as the films you also see models of the house they lived in and the choices they made to create it. Space for entertaining and socialising was key, as well as beautiful lines and flow. The Eames held regular dinner parties, encouraging sharing of ideas and creativity, and their home was at the centre of this. Their design ethic permeated every part of their lives.
“Beyond the age of information, there is the age of choices.”
One of my favourite parts of the show is a recreation of the ovoid theatre from the World’s fair. In this structure, shown at the top of the post, the Eames had a number of screens arranged in a dynamic layout. Each screen showed different images – either parts of the same image (in a time before 72 inch LCD was common) or related films that they carefully choreographed so that interactions occurred across different screens – such as a cheque passing from a customer to a salesperson across the divide. Nowadays this type of visual play is common, but in those days this was highly innovative. As a topic, they took the idea of how we research and plan – comparing the relatively simple task of a seating plan for a dinner party to high powered scientific considerations – and showing that the core steps were the same, in creating an internal mental model that you manipulate then try out in the real world. All of this, if somewhat dated in presentation, feels relevant now and still engages you to watch.
Overall from the show you get a sense of the work this talented wife and husband couple did in taking complex challenges and solving them in ways that seem simple to the person using them. This resonates with our modern world of information overload and seemingly endless choices, all as good as each other. Eames himself saw this coming, in the quote above he cites this ‘age of choices’ as the follow on to the information age – personally I’d always hoped it was an ‘age of knowledge’ but that does seems an age or two away right now. As a product person, understanding how to simplify these choices – without removing the necessary detail – is one of the most interesting challenges we face every day. Less is more, something Ray and Charles Eames understood and executed perfectly time after time.
The World of Charles and Ray Eames is on at the Barbican until 14th February 2016.