Treasure: Henry Ford explores Eames designs

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated with the correct closing date of "T​he World of Charles and Ray Eames” exhibit.

Some of my favorite designs in “The World of Charles and Ray Eames,” which recently opened at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation ( in Dearborn, are also some of the smallest. One was a charming child’s plywood elephant that dated to 1945; the other was a deck of cards from 1952.

While small, both exhibit an important philosophy of the creative couple, who met at the Cranbrook School of Art in 1940 and went on to change the world of design. “Works in the exhibition show that there is a never-ending connectiveness to everything they did,” explains museum president Patricia Mooradian. “The exhibition is a comprehensive overview of the couple’s entire career reinforcing their creativity beyond furniture.” Mooradian introduced the exhibit at a recent preview and welcomed members of the Eames family as well as enthusiasts of mid-century modern design, adding that the Eames were the first to show “the beauty of an object that understands its purpose and intent.”

While they met in Bloomfield Hills and have long ties to Michigan, it took the Barbican Museum in London to stage this exhibition, which goes inside the minds of two of the 20th century’s most influential designers. The Henry Ford is the show’s U.S. premiere; it will be on view in Dearborn through Sept. 3. Included are more than 400 artifacts in all sizes that showcase their influential work in architecture, furniture, graphic and product design, painting, drawing, film, sculpture, even photography.

Trained in architecture and painting, the couple later moved to California to set up a home and a new studio — the Eames Office. “The work of the Eames Office is characterized for most people by designs for furniture and products, yet their avid interest in addressing the needs of any given problem led them to design and communicate using a wide variety of tools and media,” according to museum information.

Anyone interested in mid-century modern design — and these days, who isn’t? — will find their own favorites, as I did. It’s fascinating to see it all within context, and how the couple was intricately linked with the great minds and movements of their era. Wandering through the space, you’ll be surprised to see how many ubiquitous items — the lounge chair, the dining chair, office items — have become part of our everyday design vernacular.

Other highlights include the Revell Toy House, the film “Think,” the Wills chair from the Henry Ford’s collection (a prototype perched on a garbage can that inspired their classic fiberglass chairs), and a wealth of documentation and contextual material from the professional archive of the Eames Office, and artifacts from the couple’s personal collections, including charming and lavishly illustrated letters. Furniture designs occupy a large ring at the center of the exhibition; I especially liked the Eames chair with a profile of a cat drawn on it by Saul Steinberg.

While most of the designs date back more than a half-century, the philosophy behind them is still relevant. It’s no surprise that mid-century modern design has seen a resurgence in museums and personal collections around the world. Ray’s 1959 quote seems especially fresh today. “What finally matters is that your house work the way you want it to and that it is pleasant to be in,” she advised. Much like that of fellow designer William Morris, known for “Have Nothing In Your House That You Do Not Know to Be Useful or Believe to Be Beautiful,” these are good words to live by.

Have an object you would like to know more about? Send a photo and description that includes how you acquired the object to: The Detroit News, Trash or Treasure?, 160 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226. Include your name and daytime telephone number. You may also send your photo and description to If chosen you’ll need to bring the items to an appraisal session. Letters are edited for style and clarity. Photos cannot be returned.

‘The World of Charles and Ray Eames’

The Henry Ford

Through Sept. 3