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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MUDE Museum: Lisbon, Portugal

MUDE Museum – The Museum of Design and Fashion in Lisbon – is well worth exploring. I have to admit I knew nothing about it prior to visiting and was enthusiastic to discover that it is housed in the old BNU headquarters. The museum has done an admirable job of preserving the original banks’ features, most visible in the basement where the vast vaults, chunky Chubb locks, safety deposit boxes and maximum security measures remain in situ and showcase temporary exhibitions to great effect. The ground floor is dedicated to their permanent collection (Francisco Capelo’s collection) which draws out design highlights from each decade of the 20th century. This display is accompanied by recognisable music from each era and an information board comprising bullet-point history and politics of the decade, helping add context to each design. The first floor again encourages investigation and looks at design from an unusual perspective; displaying portrait photographs of architects alongside architectural drawings, quotations about, or images of their buildings and somewhat provocatively questions the culture of “design celebrity” as the majority of architects had instantly recognisable names yet the majority of their faces alluded me (and other visitors). The top floor contained an exhibition dedicated to local design produced over the last sixty years – pertinent given the fact that Portugal did not have a museum dedicated to design where designers could develop a collective awareness until this century. The exhibition is entitled ‘How do you pronounce design in Portuguese?’ and again explores topics from an unusual angle, discussing the idea of a collective national design and how the country’s geography, heritage, traditions and culture have shaped and influenced this. The whole building has an unfinished, ramshackle charm to it which encourages exploration, and in conjunction with its inspiring exhibitions made for a very satisfying visit.

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