The Henry Ford highlights work of Charles & Ray Eames

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the closing date of "The World of Charles and Ray Eames” exhibit.

You may or may not know their names, but you’d recognize any number of their pioneering furniture designs.

“The World of Charles and Ray Eames,” at The Henry Ford through Sept. 3, spotlights the lively artistic duo who pioneered radical new materials and processes to produce undulating modernist furniture from once-scorned plywood and fiberglass — and had a blast doing it.

Charles and Ray Eames met at Cranbrook in 1940, before moving to Los Angeles.

The Eameses met at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1940, where Charles, an architect, was teaching and his future wife was a painting student. They moved to Los Angeles one year later and became key players in what would eventually become known as the California-modern look.

Their work would go far beyond home and office furnishings, though they were brilliant at those.

“If they’d just created the furniture,” said Gregory Wittkopp, director of the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, “they’d be known worldwide. But then they created films, and designed one of the most iconic houses of the 20th century.”

Indeed, said Marc Greuther, chief curator at The Henry Ford, what’s really revolutionary about the couple was the kaleidoscopic nature of their design practice.

“Once they were adept at exploring problems in furniture,” Greuther said, “they were well-armed with tools to examine all sorts of other endeavors,” whether books, films, museum exhibitions or doll houses.

Some of the world’s first elegant plywood furniture, such as the Eames lounge or the “potato-chip” chair, both still in production today at the Herman Miller Co., emerged from their Santa Monica design studio.

When Arts & Architecture magazine launched its experiment in Southern California design with the “Case Study” houses, made of prefabricated materials often developed during the war, the Eameses jumped right in to design a home and studio.

Their 1949 Case Study House #8 in Pacific Palisades, with its colorful, gridwork exterior, was one of the most-famous of the entire project.

According to Apollo, the British art journal, the Eames’ house “frames its glorious setting via a combination of innovative materials and abstract forms.”

The Eameses also created cutting-edge exhibition design, like The Henry Ford’s “Mathematica,” as well as films both documentary and arty.

“The World of Charles and Ray Eames,” originally developed for the Barbican Centre in London, includes several of their most famous films, including the “Think” project for IBM, “Powers of 10” and an elegant, still-photo collage of their home.

Hard to believe, perhaps, but it all started with splints and broken bones.

In 1942, the U.S. Navy commissioned the Eameses to design a cheap, plywood leg splint that could easily be applied on the battlefield.

It was a design challenge that would radiate through the rest of their careers.

“They were the first to develop ways in which wood could be molded in three dimensions,” Wittkopp said.

“What was so revolutionary about their work, starting with the splint, is that it could conform to a shape,” he added. “It basically introduced ergonomics into the design world. That was pretty radical.”

Theirs was a famously close, productive partnership until Charles’ death in 1978. Ray would die exactly 10 years later, to the day.

“Staff members talked about how — with unfinished sentences, or ideas that seemed to go nowhere, but the other would pick up on — there was almost a private language they shared,” Greuther said.

And through it all, apparently, having fun was key.

“We worked very hard at that — enjoying ourselves,” Charles once said. “We didn’t let anything interfere with what we were doing — our hard work. That in itself was a great pleasure.”

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Eameses’ output, notes Greuther, is that none of it looks dated, even 75 years after the fact.

“The real question is why their work still looks so fresh,” he said. “How is it that it’s still so relevant?”

(313) 222-6021

The Eames house was one of the famous California “Case Study” homes from the late 1940s.

‘The World of Charles and Ray Eames’

Through Sept. 3

Henry Ford Museum, 20900 Oakwood, Dearborn

9:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. Mondays-Sundays

$23, adult; $21, seniors; $17.25 children (5-11); free for members

(313) 982-6001