Peter Mandelson, in his moment of pomp, had his portrait taken by Lord Snowdon. He is sitting on a fine modern chair. Mandy would no doubt have been aware of the ancient historic associations, through bishoprics and universities, that chairs have with power. Since it is a chair much admired by architects, Mandy also looks quite cool, although these things are relative.
The chair and its footstool are known as Eames Lounge 670 and Eames Ottoman 671, and they were first manufactured in 1956 by Herman Miller of Zeeland, Michigan. Curved plywood shells are veneered with Brazilian rosewood, upholstered with shallow black leather-studded cushions and supported, at a meaningful tilt (suggestive of relaxed authority), on a stellar metal support.
It is a conceptual and manufacturing masterpiece and has become the most famous chair ever. Its designers were Charles (1907–1978) and Ray Eames (1912–1988). In any setting, the presence of an Eames chair suggests an impressive level of designery taste. This Mandy wanted to appropriate at the dawn of his millennium. Hundreds of cheap knock-offs are available: sure evidence that the Eames mystique has leaked out of the design stratosphere.
A new exhibition at the Barbican is a comprehensive retrospective with a gorgeous range of objects and ephemera illustrating the Eames’s astonishingly rich and productive life. Its fine and spare installation by 6a Architects makes the very best of a forbidding space.
In the same way that Jackson Pollock became the Great American Painter, the Eameses became the Great American Designers, fulfilling a national appetite for home-grown heroes in the face of a wave of European imports. Charles was born in St Louis, worked in a steel mill and wore butch wash’n’wear plaid shirts. Later, with growing cosmopolitanism came more sophisticated bow ties: he was alert to self-image. Charles passed through architecture school, won a competition in ‘organic’ design in New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1940 and six years later was the first designer to have a one-man show there. MoMA was modernism’s Vatican; Charles had been blessed by the Pope and the ‘designer’ phenomenon was born.
In those days, ‘organic’ meant sensible, rational and humane rather than Zaha’s megalomaniac blobs. For example, Charles used his knowledge of bending plywood to make splints for the US Navy in the second world war. He used his knowledge of welding to make elegant frames for the glass-fibre seating tubs he pioneered: one aim was to make ‘high-performance materials available at non-military prices’.
Charles had met his wife and lifetime collaborator, Ray, at Cranbrook Academy, the outstanding Michigan art school where fine, imported European design wisdom meshed with the mighty gears of American industry.
In a brilliant career move, the Eameses built themselves a house in Santa Monica in 1949 using off-the-shelf industrial components. It became a home, a shrine and a collective. Here Charles, not at all resistant to publicity, was memorably photographed welding and sawing by Herbert Matter: the litany and iconography of the designer as can-do creator were essential to an emerging mythology.
The famous Eames chair was designed with Hollywood’s Billy Wilder in mind. They had got to know each other when Charles directed the second unit on Wilder’s Spirit of St Louis, film being another of his preoccupations. With splendid razzmatazz, the chair was presented on NBC’s Today Show. ‘We are in Noo York to introduce a noo chair,’ Charles, now in bow tie, says on the ancient scratchy videotape that survives.
Ray looks like a smiley American Gothic matron in her trademark wide skirts. ‘We have never designed for a fashion or a market,’ the male Eames explained with genial earnestness. (This when Detroit teased the car owner’s cupidity with cynical and meaningless annual design changes.) ‘Well, that is quite a departure, Charles!’ NBC’s hostess cooed. She then splendidly described Charles’s vocation: to move freely in a world of unlimited opportunity with intelligence and taste.
Established as the Great American Designers, in 1959 the Eameses were responsible for the American National Exhibition in Moscow. This was the theatre for the ‘kitchen debates’ between Khrushchev and Nixon, a Cold War set piece where the stand-off was between fridges and dishwashers, not thermonuclear weapons. This conflict the Americans won and they confirmed the USSR’s humiliation by recording the event in the new colour video.
After the famous Eames chair, in 1958 the ‘Aluminium Group’ office furniture appeared. It has never been bettered and nor will it be until someone discovers a new material or human anatomy is decisively changed, each unlikely. And never has anyone been a better exemplar of ‘the designer’. They had imagination, charm, humour and a keen practical sense. Charles had an eclectic eye and, fascinated by play, was an inspired educator. ‘I visited a good toy store this morning,’ he once said. ‘It was sick-making.’ He was distrustful of affluence. Terence Conran, never one to defer to others, told me that Charles had ‘the wit, style and ingenuity I so desperately wanted to emulate’.
They travelled widely. Charles knew London well, thought the black cab the best design ever, and charmed an adoring circle of admirers including Reyner Banham, Peter and Alison Smithson and, of all people, Tony Benn. On display is a poem about Charles written by Benn in 1961. If Benn’s Ministry of Technology had actually been inspired by the Eames’s superior practical intelligence we would all by now be better off. But, like Mandy, he was faking it.