Opening this week, the Barbican presents a new exhibition celebrating the life and work of American designers Charles and Ray Eames. Aptly titled ‘The World of Charles and Ray Eames’, the exhibition touches upon every aspect of the duo’s vast oeuvre, from their first plywood experiments to less well-known films and graphic design. A plethora of letters, photographs, found objects and creative experiments punctuate the show, offering a precious – and often poetic – insight into their universe. The exhibition serves as a panorama of the pair’s careers, and a testimony to their office’s work, spanning architecture, furniture and product design to abstract painting, film, sculpture, multi-media installations and educational models. 

‘The Eames office was an intensely interesting and busy practice that used any tool to communicate ideas and subjects of interest to them,’ explains Catherine Ince, who curated the exhibition, working in close collaboration with the Eames’ grandchildren, as well as several international art and design institutions and with the support of Vitra. ‘We have tried to really explore and highlight the types of projects that they undertook in their 45 years of operation.’ It’s not an exhaustive summary of their work, she points out, but rather an exploration of concepts that continue to resonate in the design world today. It offers visitors a ‘consciously rough sketch’ of their production, ideas and life, she notes.

Designed by 6a architects and graphic designer John Morgan (who also worked on an accompanying book, published by Thames & Hudson), the exhibition is arranged like a labyrinth of curiosities – a rapid succession of iconic furniture, architectural models and sketches, sculptures, prototypes, notes and photographs that document the projects and afford an intimate view of the pair as people.

Two elements central to the Eames office and the exhibition are their exploration of material processes – often, and famously, centered around plywood – and their focus on visual communication, from photography and painting through a selection of thought-provoking films still relevant today. ‘They used the different media at their disposal to communicate poetic, non-narrative ideas,’ says Ince, referencing their interest in technology, science and economics, all fields which the duo explored in various ways through their work.

The exhibition opens with a large-scale plywood sculpture (on loan from MoMa), part of an experimental plywood glider plane from 1943, and a video presenting their office, which Charles Eames produced for a lecture at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London. ‘My grandfather Charles came to speak at the RIBA and they asked him to bring some footage of the 901 office,’ explains the Eames' grandson Eames Demetrios. ‘But he had this expression that he learned in the movie business (Eames was a close friend and collaborator of director Billy Wilder), which was ‘the blood will never show’ – so he didn’t really want to show behind the scenes. But he said yes. So he did bring a film of the Eames office, but he shot it through a kaleidoscope, maintaining the privacy and at the same time effectively delivering a tour of their office.’

Other important artifacts on display include a replica of a 1950s 'Musical Tower', a 15 ft vertical xylophone played with a marble ball running through it and reproducing a specially composed 1965 Elmer Bernstein score. (‘There were two of those towers, and us grandchildren could usually get about 40 marbles going at once, which you can imagine did not lead to much productivity at the Eames office,’ recalls Demetrios.)

A central section of the exhibition is dedicated to a reproduction of Think, one of the Eames’ most important projects, made for the IBM Pavilion at the New York’s World Fair in 1964–65. ‘It’s a fine example of what the Eameses did best,’ says Ince, ‘using every day scenarios to communicate complex ideas about the potential of technology.’ The original presentation was shown on 15 screens (here reduced to seven), and featured a combination of moving images, slides, lights and colours, narrated by Charles Eames himself with music by Bernstein. The content of the presentation was dedicated to problem-solving, focusing on the different approaches taken by the human brain and the computer.

The entire exhibition gives a sense of discovery, enhanced by the mix of whimsical and professional elements, forming a lucid analysis of the visual phenomena that shaped post-war visual culture. The rich and complex history displayed here is a brilliant design lesson, one that gives a wider meaning to the term.

On unveiling the exhibition, Ince quoted the late Labour politician Tony Benn, a great friend of the Eameses; in a speech delivered at the London American Embassy shortly after Charles passed away, he noted how the architect’s analysis and use of technology was an important instrument for history. ‘He introduced us,' he said, 'to the tools of our generation.’