The World of Charles and Ray Eames: The Barbican

The Barbican’s current exhibition dedicated to the creations of Charles and Ray Eames celebrates the couple’s contribution to twentieth century design beyond their well-known innovations in furniture. There are some beautiful individual pieces on display and I thoroughly enjoyed the insights offered into their personal and professional relationship, but I did find it lacking an overall theme and at times quite difficult to follow. The curators describe the Eameses as “enthusiastic and tireless experimenters” and a couple who “embraced the joy of trial and error” which certainly comes across in the constantly changing focus of the exhibition – from their furniture and product design, to architecture, exhibition-making, photography, and even forays into education. The show opens with plywood constructions ranging from a plane wing to a medical stretcher and leg splints, immediately highlighting not only the couple’s product design skills but also their fascination with experimentation. It goes on to display a wall of ‘Arts & Architecture’ magazine covers designed by Ray Eames throughout the 1940’s, showcasing his skill in graphic design. It moves on to explore the numerous competitions and commissions the duo entered, including ‘New Furniture’ at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1946, ‘Arts & Architecture’ magazines’ commission of eight houses in California, a post-war Museum of Modern Art competition for low cost furniture, and developmental pieces from the IBM Pavilion at New York’s World Fair in 1964-’65. Personal highlights included a letter from Charles proposing marriage to Ray which is charmingly childlike including a sketch of Ray’s left hand alongside an engagement ring! I also appreciated viewing the Eameses chairs which went on to be mass produced by the Herman Miller Furniture Co. (an precursor to IKEA), as well as a replica of their 1950’s ‘Musical Tower’ – a playful gravity powered xylophone made from wood, metal, acrylic, lacquer, rubber and resin.

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