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Wabi-Sabi Wednesday: Charles and Ray Eames’s California Wabi

4/20/2011 12:00:00 AM

Tags: wabi-sabi, Wabi-Sabi Wednesday, Simply Imperfect, Charles Eames, Ray Eames

Robyn Griggs Lawrence thumbnailOn Wabi-Sabi Wednesdays, I feature excerpts from my upcoming book, Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House, which will be released next month. This week's post discusses how Charles and Ray Eames brought a wabi-sabi spirit to midcentury America.  

Charles and Ray Eames’s enduring furniture designs were fresh air for many Americans in the mid 20th century (and beyond), who wanted a contemporary look but found extreme modernism cold and sterile. The husband-and-wife team used newly emerging industrial materials such as molded plywood and plastic to produce items for everyday use that were both beautiful and affordable. Sir Terence Conran calls their furniture “intensely human, charming, and kind.” In a 1996 tribute, designer Tibor Kalman said the Eames’s ubiquitous, unpretentious molded plywood “potato chip” chair was like a lover. “It can be lived with, seen every day, change and evolve, and slowly reveal its beauty,” he wrote. Craig Hodgetts, who designed a Los Angeles exhibition on Charles and Ray Eames, points out that what the designers left out of their designs—“the pomposity, hierarchy, and stodginess associated with ‘important’ stuff’”—is just as crucial as what they put into them.

The Eames’s Pacific Palisades home, one of the Art & Architecture magazine-sponsored Case Study houses built in the late 1940s, demonstrated the freedom that can be found in straightforward, unpretentious design. Built with the same simple, clean lines as their furniture, the Eames’s open-plan home was modern yet human, with a Japanese influence that included vertical-louvered blinds, tatami mats and Isamu Noguchi paper lanterns. It had a humble, fleeting quality, with a large, unbroken area where items they collected—driftwood, sculptures, mobiles, plants—could be brought in or taken away. Their living room was home to a continually changing collage of Indian embroideries, Mexican clay dolls, ceramic bowls, antique toys (which they collected as fine examples of design principles) and dried desert weeds—all treated with equal regard.

The Eames’s often-stated goal was to help people see beauty in everyday objects. Charles Eames’s grandson, Eames Demetrios, recalls spending hours following his grandfather around as he took pictures of cobwebs because Charles preferred spiders and picnics to museums or galleries for his grandson’s art appreciation lessons. Rolf Fehlbaum, a longtime friend of the Eameses, said the couple had so much fun in their daily lives that they never took holidays. “They didn’t need them,” he said, “they enjoyed themselves so much.”

Eames house 1 

Charles and Ray Eames's home was open yet cozy, with room for continually changing seasonal displays. 

eames house 2 

The couple was heavily influenced by spare Japanese design. 

eames exterior 

The Eames's home was spare and perfectly imperfect. 

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