It All Began With A Chair

New York, 1940. Architects Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen enter the competition for Organic Design in Home Furnishings organized by the Museum of Modern Art with “the Organic Chair” made with wood, foam rubber and upholstery. They win in both the chair design and living room categories, but Charles is somehow dissatisfied. Its upholstery makes the Organic Chair hard to manufacture and Charles had hoped to build a model that would be easily mass-produced. So he continues working on the design of a chair that would be comfortable and accessible (In the years to come, the motto of the Eames office would become: “The best for the most for the least.”)

Shortly after, Charles marries his second wife, Ray, a painter by trade. The duo starts a working collaboration that lasts until their deaths, 10 years apart to the day, in 1978 and 1988 respectively. Together they create the chair that will become Eames’ signature — the Eames Lounge Chair Wood, 1946, hailed by Time Magazine as “the greatest design of the twentieth century.” Known for their curiosity and playfulness, Charles and Ray go on to collaborate on many projects beyond furniture, including medical apparatus, houses, films and museum exhibitions. Some of their clients include corporations such as IBM, Boeing and Polaroid.

Photos of the couple clearly reflect their high-spirited character and original inventiveness. In one image, they wear animal masks and silly hats. On another, their body appears pinned to a wall by the metallic skeleton of chairs. One black and white photo shows Ray driving a motorcycle, Charles holding on to her back. Ray is fiercely looking ahead, her upper body leaning forward, as if determined to reach a goal. Charles smiles relaxingly at the camera, a pipe in his mouth. The image definitely speaks about Ray as a driving force in the collaboration. Her sense of color and composition is so essential to the success of the brand that in the documentary The Architect and the Painter about the couple’s life and work, one former collaborator reflects: “The body of work wouldn’t have been the same without Ray’s. Charles depended on her aesthetic choices.”

Yet the image of Ray driving the motorcycle also conceals a gender reality deeply imbued in the sexual politics of the 1950s, a reality in which Charles was the name behind the brand. “Ray felt deeply enraged and hurt on occasion when it was assumed that it was only Charles’ office,” a former colleague recalled. It would take many years for Ray to be recognized as one of the most influential woman in American design. It was not until 2008, twenty years after her death, that Ray was inducted in the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame.

San Francisco, 2016. Bay Area choreographer Kristin Damrow is strolling along the Alameda flea market when her boyfriend, a graphic designer, points to a chair: “It’s an Eames chair!” Damrow, not familiar with the designers’ work, is taken by how the chair’s molded plywood conveys a sense of movement and dynamic. Back home, she researches the history behind the chair and learns about Charles and Ray Eames’ unparalleled influence on the world of design. Intrigued that the designers’ team comprised a man and woman duo –“A woman in the fifties?” Damrow questioned when we talked last week– the dance maker starts to uncover more about Ray’s contributions and the couple’s relationship. After making abstract work, Damrow had wanted to do a narrative piece and the story of the Eames sparks her interest. This marks the starting point for EAMES, inspired by the life and work of Charles and Ray Eames, and which is presented at ODC Theater January 25 through January 27.

In early January, performer Patrick Barnes enters the rehearsal studio at ODC, inquisitively looking into space as if figuring out something that is not there yet for us to see. With assertiveness, he molds space, delineating lines, carving niches, building invisible structures, helping us to see along with him what could take shape. He is portraying Charles in EAMES. He is soon joined by Ray’s character, performed by Heather Arnett, whose curved and playful movements complement Barnes’ more linear ones. One former collaborator of Charles and Ray Eames had described the couple as “communicators who used images rather than words,” so it is not farfetched to imagine their work transposed into movement. “With lines and curves, their work is very translatable to dance,” Damrow adds. “We looked at photographs of their body language. In general, Charles is a bit more architectural, Ray is a bit more curious and playful.” Charles and Ray had studied the postures and shapes of countless body types when conceiving their chair. Reversely, Damrow and the dancers looked at photos of Eames creations and experimented with dancing with furniture to generate movements.

For Damrow, the research for EAMES mainly consisted in reading and watching footage about the couple’s life and work. Damrow was also in conversation with Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, Curator of Architecture and Design at the SFMOMA, whose exhibition Designed in California will feature some of Eames work and coincidentally opens on January 27. Seeing Eames pieces along those of other designers at the How Should We Live? Propositions for the Modern Interior exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the fall of 2016 helped Damrow realize how “their work influenced other artists or was influenced by other designers preceding them.” But more essentially it helped convey an essential part of the Eames’ philosophy: making things accessible. Running alongside the show, the pop-up exhibition of objects and photos of the Eames and their work in the theater lobby echoes the Eames’ philosophy of providing audiences with historical context and visual references.

Aaron Gold, with whom Damrow has been collaborated for five years, composed the original score for EAMES, which represents somewhat of a radical turn in their collaboration. For Damrow’s earlier pieces, Gold had favored an electronic and abstract sound. “I did a lot of more research than I normally do, since this is essentially a period piece,” Gold shared in an interview with KALW. He researched 1950s jazz from California. “The West coast sound encapsulates that mid-century modern feeling that I wanted to capture. I went back to my roots as a beat maker to create a sound palette that I could draw from to write a new style of music that had the flavor of that time but also my own rhythmic style.”

In her portrayal of the couple’s life and work, Damrow chose to highlight the gender underpinnings of the Eames’ story. The piece first started as a duet, but Damrow soon added three dancers (Nell Suttles, Anna Greenberg and Allegra Bautista), who first appear on stage behind Arnett. They help amplify her character and cast more light on Ray. “When people think about Eames they tend to focus on Charles as the face of Eames, but Ray had such a huge contribution to their body of work. If there wasn’t a Ray there might have been no Eames. I wanted to dive into Ray’s character more to embellish her contribution to the legacy. The three other women’s roles in the piece are exposing the personalities of Ray: passion, compassion, and independence.”