Octopus, Picnics and Nature
Eames Demetrios is the grandson of legendary American design duo Charles and Ray Eames. Demetrios serves as the director of Eames Office in Santa Monica, as well as the author of several books on his grandparents. We met him at the Vitra Design Museum, close to the Swiss border, and talked to him about their legendary hospitality and their pet octopus.
“A good designer is like a good host.“
Antje Mayer-Salvi: Is there a favorite Eames piece you have at home?
Eames Demetrios: A piece I have at home that is very special to me is the famous chaise longue. It’s a piece they designed for their friend, [Austrian-born director] Billy Wilder, for his naps. He loved taking very short naps, what we now call a power nap. And then, after about 15 minutes, his arms would fall to the sides and wake him up. Charles also had one of these in his office.
How did you get yours?
When it was designed, they shipped one to our mother. I was very young, but I remember how exciting it was, that this big box came. We opened it, brought it in and the whole story was told. After our mother passed away, I got that piece. It always makes me happy, and it’s a great place for a nap.
It was released in 1968 and is called "Billy Wilder Chaise Longue" until today.
That's the thing with design. Design authenticity is different than fine art authenticity. Billy had this chaise longue designed for him and then they made it into a product. Charles and Ray were trying to create a way for you to have the authentic experience Billy Wilder had.
“They kept their exploration very intimate.“
It's funny how history circles back. I remember calling Billy Wilder’s home for an interview request and his wife picked up the call, just to tell me that he can’t come to the phone because he’s taking a nap right now.
There you go!
How did Charles and Ray work together?
After Ray died, I did hundreds of hours of interviews with people who worked there and knew them. My mother also told me much about them. And so, a portrait emerges. There was always a period in the design process where it was just Charles and Ray. For example, their first film, Traveling Boy, they shot on a tabletop, or Blacktop, which was basically soap bubbles on a playground. Those things were very simple topics to film. And as Ray said, they didn’t want to waste a lot of people’s time while still trying to figure things out. They kept that exploration very intimate. Of course, as it turned into a product, they needed their staff to work with them.
They had no fights or arguments?
I'm sure they had some frustrations with each other from time to time. Part of the way they worked through that, is that they did three dimensional prototypes. If you work with sketches, everybody always interprets them a little bit differently, there is ambiguity. But if you have a three dimensional prototype of a chair, but one part is bent wrong, everyone looking at it or sitting on it will notice that. The room for interpretation becomes smaller, you create common ground.
“A very modern couple!“
Did they always do that? Do you have an example of that approach at work?
That was their method. When they designed the lobbies for the Time-Life building, kickstarting the modern office style of the 1960s, they actually built an entire lobby in their office.
They were a very modern couple, weren’t they? Was there a division of labour between the two of them?
Absolutely. I have heard many people spend a lot of energy trying to separate their contributions. Some people say that Ray was the painter – and she was trained as a painter, no question, she was amazing at it – but Charles had painted also, and both of them had a good eye for color. They used color to communicate to the observer. The colors on the outside of the Eames house (built 1949 in Pacific Palisades, LA, editor's note) aren't simply there to be pretty. What they were trying to do, more than that, is to tell you something about the interior of the house. It reminds the observer of the organization of the house and subtly communicates a sense of how the house works.
When you visited them there, how did you feel? What was it like?
It was exciting! Sometimes all five of the kids would go to see their grandparents, and sometimes it was just me. We'd have a lot of ice cream and played with their toys, which they loved. the other thing is, that they were always really curios. If you had met them, you’d probably find yourself answering a lot of questions about the current cultural offerings, the newest films and exhibitions in Vienna. They were incredibly nice to us kids, and always very welcoming. They would also invite us to into the studio, to see what they were working on. They would explain their work to us and trust us to pay attention and ask questions, if we didn't understand something. They didn't talk down to kids at all, not just to us, but in general, they were never condescending.
“They never talked down to kids.“
Charles and Ray Eames must have been very good hosts!
The first thing people associate with design is the concept of form follows function. And they really valued that kind of philosophy, but something closer to their heart was the idea that the role of the designer is basically that of a good host, anticipating the needs of the guest.
They kept an octopus as a pet. Is it true that the octopus recognized Charles like a dog?
Charles and Ray were invited to design a national aquarium for the United States, in Washington, D.C. But then the money was cut from the federal budget, so it never got built. They decided to still build an aquarium at their office, and then they got the octopus. These animals are very smart. Charles started feeding it, and it got to the point that the octopus would recognize Charles as soon as he came into the studio through the back door. I remember seeing it.
“What is the common ground?“
They were both very empathetic people who thought for other people...
Exactly, and that's what they were trying to do with their work. Their crucial question always was: where is the common ground? They were trying to find the universal part of everyone.
How did their house look like on the inside? Was it very tidy or was it a bit more chaotic and creative?
It was both. It was organized in a way.
In a way!?
It was filled with stuff, it wasn't like a minimal modernist apartment. They collected a lot of examples of what they called “good stuff“. As a young man it was great on a couple of levels. First of all, their house was not in the wilderness, but it was surrounded by nature, especially considering that it was in Los Angeles. It's a little oasis in many ways, even now! We did photography there, another thing that was always fun to do with them.
Is it true that Charles and Ray would picnic every day?
More or less, when they weren’t at the office. When they said picnic, it was spread out on the table, but it would be outside as much as possible. At the office they had their own chef, which sounds very glamorous, but it would be more efficient than them going out for lunch.
“Ray said: always be gracious!“
That brings me to another question. The sixties and seventies were a time of blossoming environmental awareness. Was that an important topic for Charles and Ray?
Absolutely. In America they say, people have achieved the dream of having two cars in every garage, but it cost us Lake Michigan. They felt that lots of changes were coming, and that people had to learn how to be secure in change. Ray was the one who insisted that we had to stop using the Rio-Palisander rosewood, which is harvested from virgin Rainforests.
Did they pass on to you something like a motto or a phrase, that was important to you for your future?
Ray said always be gracious, that was her advice. In terms of what they wanted us to do with their work, they said “take care of the designs and take care of the house“, that's what they expected from us.
“Don't waste time.“
Were they afraid of the future?
Charles’ father died when Charles was 14. He was a detective for the railroad, he stopped a robbery and the guy shot him in the railroad yard. Charles knew how it was to not have very much money. His mother only had a pension that she got from the from the army, with which she provided for the family.
Their image is always very positive and optimistic. But I wonder if that's the whole truth. Were there things they were critical of or afraid of?
Charles and Ray knew that some people weren't good at adapting to change. They used fish as an analogy: some fish live in the open ocean, and they need the currents, they need to swim with it, they need change. Other fish that are closer to the shore and living in tide pools don't need the current. Charles said that he had a feeling that we as a we as a culture are growing more pelagic (living in the open sea, editor's note) in our feelings. And to be really secure in these circumstances, you need to be secure in change, learn to understand and engage with it.
What life lessons can we learn from Charles and Ray Eames?
When Charles was giving a lecture at a school in Canada, this was the advice he gave to his students: everybody has a margin in their lives, a little bit of extra time and resources, some people more than others. His point was that you have to jealously guard that margin. If you have something to communicate to the world, something that could help the world, you can't waste time.
On that note: thank you for the conversation!