Dwight Eisenhower was elected president in November. Richard Nixon was his vice president. America was sliding into the Cold War. Political conservatism was rampant and soon to be dominated by the rabid anti-communism of Joe McCarthy. I hid my copy of Marx’s Das Kapital in my parent’s basement hoping that it would never be exhumed.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Charles and Ray Eames had become dominant figures in the, then, miniscule world of modern furniture design. When I first read about them in a reputable design magazine, they were referred to as “brothers.” Thanks to aggressive promotion of Good Design by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and skillful marketing by the Herman Miller Furniture Company in Zeeland, Michigan, the Eameses emerged as innovative icons among a cognoscenti of architects, designers and academics. Having been strongly influenced by relatives who, as painters and sculptors, were American inheritors of the “School of Paris,” I was seeking my own identity in the world of modern art. Because Charles and Ray Eames represented the future, I much admired them from a distance.
Thanks to Betty Chamberlain, director of public relations at the Museum of Modern Art, I met Charles and Ray. As a member of the curatorial staff of the then-called San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA), I had originated a weekly television series. Television was in its infancy and cultural programming was an anomaly. It was apparent that TV made sense for cultural organizations because the audience for one of our TV shows exceeded the museum’s annual attendance. Betty Chamberlain informed me that she was bringing Charles and Ray to San Francisco to witness one of our TV broadcasts. Following that, I became an acolyte benefiting from their collective aesthetic sensitivities, design philosophy and personal style.
How did the invitation to stay with them originate? I was invited. What did I find when I got there?
As I drove up the driveway to 203 N. Chautauqua Boulevard in Pacific Palisades, two dominant images emerged: the house itself and a black 1950 Ford convertible with its roof down. Having seen a dozen heavily illustrated articles about the house, I was prepared for my tour of discovery. Here was a temple of modernism with which I could identify on every level. There was clarity and honesty of design. There were no protruding appurtenances. This was a space in which I would love to live. Until I saw Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye some forty years later, I never had the same sense of wonder experiencing a successful modernist “machine for living.”
What did we do after I arrived? We ate dinner and talked and talked. Charles loved to expound on his current projects. Ray listened. We sat side-by-side on the built in sofa that filled a niche at the far end of the living room. Charles said that Herman Miller had just commissioned him to design a sofa that would fold up into a box for shipping. He saw it as a challenge and did not yet have a solution. In 1954, the Sofa Compact came on the market. When I got mine several years later, I marveled at how Charles had created such a simple and practical design. (Fifty years later, knock down furniture is a convention at Ikea and Office Depot.)
Our discussion ranged across many topics. Communications theory was one of Charles’ latest explorations. Cybernetics was in vogue and block long computers were generating mountains of assimilated data. Then we got into some design issues. What he said that evening has resonated since. Charles said that “as soon as I finish a project, I can see all of the flaws and want to do it over.” At this point, Charles became my mentor. After a heady evening, I went to sleep in the guest bedroom on the second floor.
When I came down the spiral staircase to breakfast, only Ray was present. Charles had gone to their studio at 901 Washington Boulevard in Venice. Ray prepared an aesthetically exquisite and equally delicious breakfast. On the small kitchen table there were flowers, Mexican candlesticks, and pure white Arzberg china. We had orange juice, soft boiled eggs, bread, pastry and jam, plus coffee. I will never forget the way that she ate her soft boiled egg. After removing the top of her egg, she inserted a sliver of bread, dipped it into the soft egg, carefully lifting it out. This is a practice which I follow whenever I have soft boiled eggs. Soon after Charles died, my wife and I had breakfast with Ray at the studio in Venice. It was a repeat of the breakfast that we had at the house years ago.
In succeeding years, I stayed at the house again. We featured them in one of our San Francisco Museum of Art TV shows. When they did slide shows at UC Berkeley, I helped run projectors. We exchanged New Year’s cards. They came to New York to see my “Harlem On My Mind” exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum. I called it a “communications environment,” obviously indebted to them. When they got a Gold Medal from the AIGA, I was there.
Charles and Ray were designers and perfectionists. From the moment I went up the hill to the house, I was entering a world in which total aesthetic control was dominant. Everything within eyesight was preselected and arranged to conform to their aesthetic. They were modernists, but traditional folk art was evident everywhere. Ray excelled in orchestrating the aesthetics of varied cultures. Their interest in the art of other cultures expanded; however, they always managed to blend it with their sense of modernism. I learned that it might be possible to imitate their aesthetic, but never replicate it.
Many of my friends worked with Charles and Ray; we often discuss our varied experiences. I always come back to Ray’s soft boiled eggs as one of the most significant for me. Somehow or other, it summarizes a totality that might be difficult to comprehend. They were memorable, unique and special. I was fortunate to know them.
I recommend this website as the most complete and authoritative. It is a PDF of the National Register Application for the house.