Dwell on Design’s Design Innovation Stage started off strong with an interview between Editor-in-Chief Sam Grawe and Eames Demetrios, Director of the Eames Office and grandchild of Charles and Ray Eames. In just half an hour, the two covered a wide range of topics including what life is like with a name like Eames, designing for the specific and the challenges of improving a classic. Here are a few snapshots of the conversation between Sam and Eames.
How do you feel the fame of the Eames name has fared over the years?
I think Charles and Ray are more famous now than they were when I was growing up. I mean, when your first name was Eames, your life is an informal poll on the notoriety of your grandparents. When I was a kid, people would say, “What a strange name!” Then, a couple of people would say, “Oh, we really love the chairs.” Then one or two would really know the work in a very deep way. Now, I’d say a lot more people are like the last. In our perspective, it’s been a constant ascent. It has a lot to do with the fact that publications like Dwell have communicated some of the deeper ideas to a wider audience, but furniture has always done really well.
How do you think designing the J. Irwin Miller house helped Charles and Ray Eames?
The opportunity that the Miller house gave Charles and Ray is that it was a very specific challenge. Charles and Ray, in particular, did best when they universalized from the specific. Charles would say, “How do you design a chair for another person? You have to design it for yourself. But the trick is to design for the universal part of yourself.” They had this need for design to be specific in that it narrows the focus, but still had to work well for other people.
From our research, it seemed that Charles was a little afraid of working with aluminum—what he called plastic—because it gave him boundless possibility in terms of form. Could you tell us a little more about that?
Well, Charles would say that getting to the supportive parts of the Aluminum Group, you start getting close to sculpture. It would scare the hell out of him. He also used to say that he felt about plastic the way the Aztecs did about hard liquor: you should not allow use for anyone under 40. It’s just too easy. When you’re making a chair out of the stone, you’re stuck with the stone, but when you make it out of plastic, you can do anything, which isn’t always a good thing.
How do you manage the line between maintaining an iconic design and innovating?
The furniture designs that we work on now are the original designs, but we are interested in materials. In the case of the Aluminum Group, we’re also interested in the fact that it was originally an outdoor chair, so how can we reconnect with that. A few years ago, we brought out the Eames Aluminum Group out in mesh. I got many indignant emails saying, “How can you sell out your grandparents’ legacy?” Ironically, the first Aluminum Group chairs were in mesh. Some of the early ones looked like a room.
What has the Eames Office done to re-introduce the Aluminum Group chairs as an outdoor chair?
In a way, it hasn’t changed that much. Michaelangelo used to say that he was just finding the sculpture in the stone. That’s sometimes what we do with these classics is that we’re finding what’s there all along.