The creative and captivating world of Charles and Ray Eames at the Oakland Museum of California

When the names of husband and wife, Charles Eames (1907-78), and (Bernice) Ray Eames (1912-88) are mentioned, most think of the unique mid-century plywood and fiberglass chairs they designed that are still sold commercially today. But, as the captivating, comprehensive and stylish exhibit at The Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) demonstrates, their talents extended far beyond chairs. Not only did they transform furniture, but also they excelled in filmmaking, multi-media, multi-screen video installations, architecture, graphics, textiles, exhibitions, toys, games, medical aids, corporate images and more. They believed in making good design available to all for the common good.

The World of Charles and Ray Eames — originally curated and organized by the Barbican Art Gallery in London, now with additional items installed by OMCA and encompassing more than 380 works — is a wide-ranging, all-inclusive must-see exhibit highlighting the talent of two California artists of incredible depth and variety. Simply put, Charles, who trained as an architect, and abstract painter Ray Eames are rightly considered the most talented and influential creative designers of the mid-20th century.

The OMCA exhibit comprises four thematic sections. The first section tells the story of the couple and the founding of their business, the Eames Office. Charles and Ray Eames launched their studio in 1942 in Los Angeles with a utopian working philosophy: “The best for the most for the least.” Near the exhibit entrance, don’t miss the charming penciled letter with a marriage proposal from Charles to Ray, and the bubble diagram showing the intersection among the Eames Office, their clients and society. The early experiments in sculpture, sketches, photographs, and objects from the Eames Office are illustrative of their myriad ways of thinking.

In the second section are some ideas and experiments of early designs, including models and re-creations of objects displayed at public exhibitions and world fairs. Important are the Eameses’ commissioned installations for corporate and government clients. Also see their early work with IBM, done before personal computers were a part of mainstream culture.

Multimedia projects and work developed throughout their careers comprise the third section of the exhibition, including furniture, branding, and design. The Eameses’ multimedia projects are outstandingly creative, especially considering the state of the art at that time, and they hold up extremely well when viewed by today’s artistic and technical standards.

With then-modern methods of color reproduction, they created Think, a 22-screen IBM-sponsored installation for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. It was the continually sold-out hit at the Fair in a specifically designed egg-shaped auditorium. For it, the Eames created displays of computerized problem solving that ordinary people could understand: railroad traffic, dinner party seating, financial transactions, and football plays.

Found in the final section of the show are multimedia videos, including the fascinating Powers of Ten, one of the Eameses’ best-known films, which, starting with a couple on a picnic in Chicago, expands to the universe and finally homes in on the nucleus of a carbon atom beneath the skin of the hand on the picnicking man.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is the 1959 Glimpses of the USA, a gorgeous seven-screen film commissioned by the U.S. Information Agency to present at the National Exhibition in Moscow. Narrated by Charles Eames, it’s about a day in the life of the United States, filled with happy and productive scenes in brilliant color, to a musical accompaniment.

The Eameses’ grandson Eames Demetrios, who spoke at the press preview I attended, put it best: Charles and Ray Eames had beautiful ideas and beautiful executions of them. The World of Charles and Ray Eames is on view at the Great Hall of The Oakland Museum of California until Feb. 27, 2019. For further information, visit OMCA online.

Featured photo credit: Charles and Ray Eames posing with chair bases. ©Eames Office LLC.