Eames 100: This Is the Trick
Even though Shannon Corrigan has been at the helm of the Emmanuel Gallery on the Auraria campus for a couple of years now, there's still something of a breath of fresh air to the place — and she's apparently the one who's brought it.
Why Emmanuel needed air in the first place has to do with its checkered history. A decade or so ago, it was one of the city's preeminent exhibition venues, because then-director Carol Keller was an expert at putting interesting shows into the idiosyncratic space. Then Keller left to start her own gallery, and her successor, Mark Masuoka, bolted over to Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art. After that, Emmanuel was essentially defunded by the campus. (As was Auraria's other art institution, the Center for Visual Art, but that's another story.)
The effect of those funding cuts was devastating, as could be expected. By the late '90s and into the early '00s, Emmanuel's place in the art community fell precipitously, and it all but disappeared from off-campus view. However, Corrigan has begun to re-establish the gallery as a premium brand by mounting exhibits such as last fall's Hungarian show and the current offering, Eames 100: This Is the Trick.
Speaking of premium brands, how about Eames himself? Charles Eames, who came of age during the mid-twentieth century and died in 1978, may not be the king of modernist chair design — that title surely belongs to Mies van der Rohe — but he is definitely the crown prince. He's responsible for several chairs that have become design classics and have widely influenced the work of other designers. Plus, fifty years later, they still look new and are mostly still being made.
Designing things with enduring appeal is an accomplishment that only a handful of designers other than Eames have achieved. But let me give it to you straight: There is no living designer who is as important as Eames was. He brought the highest level of vanguard thought to design, including being a pioneer in the field of ergonomics. He translated his ideas into mass-produced furniture that is still part of everyone's everyday experience in libraries, schools, office buildings, homes and airports.
Eames 100 (Eames's would turn 100 this year) does not include his most commercially successful designs — such as the DCM (the schoolhouse staple in which a floating plywood seat and back are mounted on a chrome frame) or the conceptually similar but very different DAX, or "bucket chair" (a plastic arm chair executed as a singular form) — but instead offers a bounty of unusual pieces. Carla Hartman, Eames's granddaughter, curated the Emmanuel show and filled it with pieces from her own living room and from the Eames Office in Los Angeles, where she is the master teacher. She lives here in Denver, however, which is why the show is being presented at Emmanuel.
Hartman took an educational approach to the exhibit, with wall text, extensive label copy and the results of workshops with students on campus ranging from a video projection in the main space to student-made "House of Cards" sets on view upstairs. The "House of Cards" was designed by Eames and his second wife, Ray. It's made up of slotted squares of card stock printed with modernist images that may be assembled into three-dimensional sculptures. Hartman displays one of the originals and several blank sets that were decorated by the students.
Emmanuel director Corrigan installed the show on a series of low platforms with organic outlines, mirroring the curving shapes that Eames used. Viewers are meant to begin on the left and work their way around the back, eventually landing up front on the right. Eames 100 looks great, and it's obvious from the exhibit that Corrigan has been influenced by her longtime mentor, Craig Miller, the soon-to-depart curator of architecture, design and graphics at the Denver Art Museum.
The show begins with what looks like a suspension sculpture but is actually a bunch of leg splints. Charles and Ray had experimented with bent plywood as an economical solution to the great need for splints during World War II. The endeavor made sense, as they were already looking at bent plywood as a material for furniture production, doubtless inspired by the earlier experiments of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.
In 1946, the Evans Products Company began producing the first plywood furniture designs by Eames, but soon after, Herman Miller, one of the most respected names in furniture production, took over, and still produces his designs. Some of the first pieces of furniture — a folding screen of plywood and a pair of plywood chairs — originally made by Evans are seen in recent Miller examples.
As a result of her educational slant, Hartman's use of newer works instead of period examples is appropriate. After all, from the context of design, pieces that have been in continuous production since being launched and reissues that fell out of production only to be brought back out later are exactly the same. So from an educational perspective, they serve the same purpose as the vintage pieces would.
However, from a historic standpoint, recent continuations and reissues are completely different from the old pieces. That's because when new, the chairs, tables and sofas were the domestic design equivalents of pioneers, while today they're established enough to be considered classics. I also think that the polymer finishes on the newer versions and the improved plastics employed in some pieces make them look different from — and not as good as — the originals. Nonetheless, this show has a lot to offer fans of modern design.
As we work our way around the space, we can see Eames's progression in design philosophy. His first pieces, like those plywood chairs originally made by Evans, are the result of a single idea carried out in a single material. But as time went on, he began to differentiate the base of the chair or table from the seating element. This is clearly seen in "La Chaise," in which an organic chaise form in plastic sits atop spindly metal legs mounted to a cruciform base. Originally a one-off piece created for a show at the Museum of Modern Art, "La Chaise" was only recently put into production by Vitra International, which makes Eames's designs in Europe.
One interesting aspect of Hartman's Eames show is the inclusion of prototypes and experimental models in which bent plywood or twisted and welded steel rods are explored for their potential to serve as bases for seating. The chance to see things of this sort is very rare and shouldn't be missed. Also not to be missed are two pieces rarely on view: the "Soft Pad" sofa with walnut used on the back, and the "Gold Leaf" table displayed in front of it. They're gorgeous reminders that Eames did more than a handful of famous chairs and was capable of expressing luxuriousness.
By bringing together so many different pieces by Eames, Hartman reveals a variety of influences that the designer absorbed and synthesized in his work. A key element is the way he successfully reconciled seemingly opposite aesthetic strategies, pairing organic abstraction with the machine aesthetic of industrial design. His philosophy is well summed up by his observation that he and Ray wanted to make "the best for the most for the least," a political sentiment that reflects the heady optimism of the post-war period. Their idea was that fine design contributed to the common good if it was affordable and thus accessible to everyone. His work was all that — and despite some steep inflation in the cost of furniture in the intervening years, it still is.
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