The World of Charles and Ray Eames
Exhibition Review

The Barbican’s visually stimulating show is full of surprises, finds Joanna Day

I have clear memories of being a child in a draughty school hall, grudgingly stacking plastic-and-metal chairs which had a particular smell. If you had told me then that 25 years later I would be found standing in a gallery mesmerised by a film on a loop of how they were made, I would have been flummoxed.

But mesmerised I was by this and some of the other exhibits at the Barbican’s The World of Charles and Ray Eames. I suppose it is a testament to the Eameses’ legacy that scores of children have sat at their mass-manufactured chairs without a thought of the design genius, or process, that created them. Inevitably, then, the visitor finds the Barbican galleries filled with recognisable things, such is the impact this exceptional pair had on some of our everyday objects. So far, so familiar.

Aspects of the Eameses that were less well known to me included that one of their first realised projects was for bent-plywood transportable leg splints for military use in the 1940s; that they were such prolific film makers (the Powers of Ten being one notable example); that Charles Eames had such a suitable tone for voice-overs; and that, via their involvement with IBM, they were early analysers of the effect that information technology would have on our lives.

Curiously, architecture takes something of a back seat in the show. The Case Study House section (they designed numbers 8 and 9) is understated. The accompanying slideshow treats the Eames House that they designed and lived in as a backdrop for collectibles, utensils, plants, trinkets, textiles, vessels, tools, art… For the world of Charles and Ray Eames was a world of “things”. A world of problems to be solved. In the 1972 film Design Q&A, Charles succinctly defined design as “a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose”. He stated that it is “an expression of purpose” that may only later, if good enough, “be judged as art”. This clear approach spans all the fields of design they touched.

The exhibition is colourful, noisy and – on a Saturday afternoon at least – deservedly busy. A number of the visual media installations created by the Eameses attempted to educate the viewer via a kind of optical battering with multi-screen changing images. The exhibition seems to adopt a similar approach, liberally filling the expansive Barbican space with exhibits – magazines, films, furniture, reconstructed rooms, beautiful and playful letters, photographs, models, drawings, and even a vertical xylophone – with a light-touch curatorial approach to choreography, theme or sequence. This is deliberate; the curator Catherine Ince calling it “consciously a rough sketch”.

The effect of the rough sketch is that you absorb a fairly ad hoc selection of the vast array of information – you could never appreciate it all in one visit – but are left with an overarching impression of their achievements. The Eameses were so careful to design their image to “never let the blood show” that you also leave with a sense that the couple had a lot of fun.

This review first appeared on bdonline on 10 December 2015