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Design Spotlight: Creative Thinking

By Anh-Minh Le

The new Eames Institute advances the philosophy of two design legends — and steadfast problem solvers.

Llisa Demetrios, the Eames Institute’s chief curator. | Photo courtesy of Courtesy Eames Institute.

For decades, the Eames name has been associated with designs that combine utility and beauty. In the 1940s, husband and wife Charles and Ray Eames took part in the Case Study House Program that centered on affordable modern residences. And to this day, the midcentury furniture they conceived still populates homes, offices and even airports.

Lesser known: On a rural patch in Petaluma, the Eames legacy also includes 30 sheep, a llama and a garden.

At Eames Ranch, in a 12,000-square-foot building designed by Sea Ranch architect William Turnbull, tens of thousands of the couple’s artifacts are on display, chronicling their deeply intertwined professional and personal lives. Handmade prototypes, furniture components and exhibition elements mingle with objects collected during their travels and a trove of family ephemera. The property is home for not only an Eames descendant, but also the newly launched Eames Institute of Infinite Curiosity, whose stated mission is “to bring the lessons of Ray and Charles Eames to those looking to solve today’s most challenging issues.”

“The overarching goal of the organization is to unpack the way that the Eameses worked, the way they infused their designs and lives with curiosity and discovery at every turn,” Eames Institute President and CEO John Cary tells the Gazette.

The Eames Ranch’s main house was designed by William Turnbull. | Photo courtesy of Courtesy Eames Institute.

In the 1972 short film Design Q&A, Charles is asked, “What are the boundaries of design?” To which he responds, “What are the boundaries of problems?” With the Eames Shell Chair, created in 1948, he and Ray sought to produce low-cost seating with fewer steps and materials. Their Case Study House was built with off-the-shelf components (concrete, steel, glass, plywood) and meant to be easily duplicated.

The Eames Institute experience is primarily virtual right now, as the ranch undergoes a multiyear renovation to make it more accessible to the public. Its interactive website (eamesinstitute.org) kicked off with three exhibitions — Before They Were the Eameses, Plywood During the War and Form Follows Formulation — as well as a magazine, called Kazam!. Moving forward, along with more online exhibitions, Cary notes that “we will be participating in popup exhibitions, talks and other physical programming to give people that ability to participate more personally.” Last month, a popup exhibition happened at New York’s Design Week.

The institute is the steward of both the Eames Ranch — which aims to be net zero carbon and net zero water — and the Eames Collection. As vast as the assemblage at the ranch’s main house is, it is only about 5 percent of the Eames Collection; the rest is stored off-site.

At a recent dinner to fete the Eames Institute, Airbnb cofounder Joe Gebbia, who provided seed funding for the nascent nonprofit, humorously recalled first learning about the Eameses while a student at Rhode Island School of Design, when a book appeared on his dorm room desk: “I flip it open and the page it opens to is the LCW chair by these two brothers, Charles and Ray Eames. I had never heard of them before. And I go, ‘What is that? I have to know who made that.’ And thus began my entry into the life of husband and wife Charles and Ray Eames.”

Its Petaluma HQ contains items that Charles and Ray Eames created and collected. | Photo courtesy of Courtesy Eames Institute.

Charles trained as an architect and Ray a painter. They married in 1941 and formed their namesake firm in Venice, California, engaging in myriad pursuits — furniture, films, exhibitions and textiles, to name a few. That LCW chair? The plywood-molding technique used to fabricate it can be traced to a leg splint they developed for the U.S. Navy during World War II. The Eameses’ collaborations continued until his death in 1978; she died 10 years later, to the day.

In the mid-1990s, Charles’ only child from his first marriage, Lucia, established Eames Ranch. A working farm, it served as her residence and artist studio. Lucia — who started the Eames Foundation to preserve the Eames House in Pacific Palisades (aka, Case Study House No. 8), which her father and stepmother designed, inhabited and treated like a living lab — passed away in 2014.

Today, Lucia’s metal works, often featuring cut steel and bronze, are sited throughout Eames Ranch. One of her five children, Llisa Demetrios, who is a metal sculptor, too, resides there and is the Eames Institute’s chief curator. “To me, this collection is not about looking in the past, it’s about looking in the future,” Demetrios shared during the launch celebration, pointing out that her grandparents’ concerns still resonate.

Cary echoes that sentiment in our interview. “The Eameses’ vision remains relevant today for what it stirs within us; their work is compelling because they found in everyday objects and materials the inspiration to shape a new perspective, new forms, new purpose,” he says. “They did this fueled by the relentless curiosity they had about the world they encountered. … With this new institute, we seek to build on that foundation to create a forum for inspiration that will similarly endure for generations.”

Clockwise: Llisa Demetrios, the Eames Institute’s chief curator. Its Petaluma HQ contains items that Charles and Ray Eames created and collected. The Eames Ranch’s main house was designed by William Turnbull.

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