PST, A to Z: ‘Indoor Ecologies’ at Eames House and ‘California Design’ at LACMA
Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.
If you’d like to see the living room at the Eames House as designers Charles and Ray Eames did when they first moved in, now is the time to see it. The room is the centerpiece of the 1,500 square-foot Case Study home, one of a series of modern houses commissioned by Arts and Architecture magazine from the 1940s through the 1960s. Lovingly preserved by the Eames Foundation, the living room is usually fully furnished—maintained as it was when Ray died in 1988. For Pacific Standard Time, all of the furnishings have been removed—they are on display in a re-creation of the room in “California Design, 1935-1960: Living in a Modern Way” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. What’s left at the Eames house is a little bit of time travel.
If you haven’t seen the room before, its emptiness may not mean much to you. But Eames Demetrios, grandson of Charles and Ray and chairman of the Eames Foundation, which administers the house, says it is pretty much how the living room must’ve looked in 1949 when the Eameses first moved in. Lined with large windows, it perches near the top of a sloping, three-acre site overlooking “the meadow,” a wide, grassy expanse with views of the ocean. The house is a two-story rectangular box, but the second floor only covers about half of the footprint, leaving the living room open to the building’s full height.
The empty room allows for some much-needed repairs—the floor tiles, which contained toxic materials, have been taken up—but it also opens up the space for conjecture. Photos of the room’s evolution from a sleek, somewhat austere modern interior in the ‘50s to a richly layered space, textured with the numerous books, textiles, toys, and art that the Eameses collected, are mounted on four outdoor panels that stand away from the house. At the bottom of the meadow, in the shade of numerous eucalyptus trees, you can imagine how each of the arrangements must’ve looked in the empty room at the top of the slope. There are even shots of the space carpeted with Japanese goza mats in preparation for a tea ceremony with Isamu Noguchi and Charlie Chaplin in 1951.
The Eames Foundation has planned several events during the run of the exhibition, including a re-creation of the tea ceremony and a holiday celebration (Charles and Ray moved into the house on Christmas Eve, 1949). These events are fundraisers, however, and quite pricey.
Visiting the house on your own is by appointment only (calling is more effective than emailing), but it’s ultimately more in keeping with the casual, playful spirit of the place. Visitors aren’t allowed inside the house, but nearly all of the downstairs space is visible through the large windows, and the grounds are quite lovely and wild and open for exploration. In addition to a swing and an elephant-shaped playground toy, there’s a cache of rusty toy trucks on a wooden platform hidden away in a tree.
True to the Eames’ dedication to the beauty of everyday things, the place is maintained as if they were still living there. There are flowers on the kitchen table, and while I was peering through the doorway, a staff person came in and casually washed a dish at the sink. Neighbors dropped by to chat with Demetrios. Later, he graciously invited me into the living room, which is much larger than it looks from the grounds, or perhaps only appears so because it lets so much of the outside in. I concluded my visit by borrowing an iPad from the visitor kiosk, loaded with videos about the Eameses, which I watched while sitting in the meadow, on their swing.
I then headed over to LACMA to see the reconstruction of the living room in “California Design.” (Read Christopher Hawthorne’s astute review.) Even extracted from its context, it manages to convey the Eames’ brand of hospitable, comfortable modernity. Sleek modern couches and chairs are softened by numerous colorful pillows, and the space is filled with plants, folk art, and textured area rugs. The walls, built-in furniture, and exterior details of the house appear to be faithful reproductions, but one thing is missing: the outdoors. As is so often the case with museum period rooms, it's a bit sterile. Having just come from the house, which invited so much speculation, it was hard to imagine anyone living in this version of the room.
However, as a major part of “California Design,” the re-creation anchors an argument for the triumph of California modernism. It was impossible, while winding one’s way through the exhibition’s helix-like layout, not to be reminded of the showrooms of Design Within Reach, or Crate and Barrel, or any number of stores. It was here, in California, that the abstract principles of modern design were made not only livable, but desirable (and marketable). Back at the Eames House is a quote from Charles: “You often hear the modern rooms are too functional, too cold. What would you be doing if you changed the color of the walls, added textures, added other relationships? If you did this would you be making it less functional? Not at all. It was not functional enough before.”
Eames House Foundation, 203 Chautauqua Blvd., Pacific Palisades, (310) 459-9663, through April 30. By appointment only. Closed Sundays through Tuesdays. www.eamesfoundation.org
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-6000, through March 25. Closed Wednesdays. www.lacma.org
Upper photo: Eames House living room. Credit: Timothy Street-Porter, © 2011 Eames Office LLC (eamesoffice.com)
Middle photo: Eames House. Credit: Timothy Street-Porter, © 2011 Eames Office LLC (eamesoffice.com)
Lower photo: Installation view, "California Design, 1935-1960: Living in a Modern Way." Credit: © 2011 Eames Office LLC (eamesoffice.com) © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA